Arnold argues in his essay that criticism is as (if not more) important an aspect of literature as the creative effort. He took this stance at a time when criticism was being looked at as an academic pursuit. Some even considered it a sign of cynicism. Arnold clarifies the conventional definition of criticism thus: “the endeavor, in all branches of knowledge, theology, philosophy, history, art, science, to see the object as in itself it really is”. (Arnold) Hence, criticism is much more than comment and analysis – it is indeed a process of seeking the truth. That Arnold does not restrict his observation to merely literary art but includes all disciplines of inquiry speaks of his conviction. There is a great deal of convergence between Arnold’s views in his classic essay and his own poetry. Foremost,
“The active response Arnold always seeks in his prose criticism, as in his poetry, is the participation of his audience in the process of exercising the very powers, possibilities, and virtues that he is advocating. Arnold’s projection of himself as a self-deprecating figure who is too unsystematic to maintain rigorous systems, is a strategy for making his discourse reader-friendly.” (Farrell 78)
Arnold suggests in his essay that criticism is not an after-the-fact event. Instead, criticism feeds into the creative process. After all, a writer who is ill-informed about the traditions he has inherited and the fashions that are emergent is bound to be disregarded. Criticism also identifies new trends that sometimes the authors themselves are not aware of. In Arnold’s poems such as The Forsaken Merman or Empedocles on Etna, we see shades of Tennyson or Browning. This display of modern temperament and outlook is consistent with his imploration in the essay that the artist must be conscious of those traditions he has inherited and those that he is creating. (Timko 45). Arnold’s connection to the modern sensibility is found especially in his most famous poem, Dover Beach. Written in 1851,
“this elegiac poem conveys Arnold’s various concerns regarding his own time, especially what seems to be, as one commentator has put it, ‘the universal sorrow of his time’. He expresses his anguish over the loss of faith, a loss particularly due to the scientific thought of the day.” (Timko 46)
Arnold talks about the rise of the Romantics after the French Revolution. He marks the poetry of that movement as creative but lacking in intellectual rigor. Consequently, in his view, they do not qualify as significant works that should be included in the literary canon. The revolution, with all its emotion and volatility, produced a politically saturated genre of poetry. The obvious deficiency is that it lacked great ideas. Arnold qualifies this by recognizing the works of Burke as an exception. In his assessment, poets who succeeded Burke had let down the vein of concentration that was present erstwhile. That Arnold preferred and promoted rigorous contemplation in poetry is akin to his ideal conception of a critic. His works referred to numerous reclusive and lonesome thinkers, ranging from ancient Greek philosopher Empedocles, to more recent ones like Etienne Pivert de Senancour and Heinrich Heine. Their philosophical ideas are embedded in several of the poems, chief among them being ‘Stanzas in Memory of the Author of ‘Obermann’. Arnold’s preoccupation with the ‘idea of a reclusive existence’ is also linked to the effeminacy of his early poems. But more ostensibly, it is endorsed in The Function of Criticism at the Present Time when Arnold praises the virtue of the profession.
One can see parallels between the obscurity of the critic’s work and the intensely personal subjects that Arnold handled. In poems such as ‘The Church of Brou,’ the Obermann poems, ‘Tristram and Iseult’ and ‘Balder Dead’, Arnold aimed at “disinterested objectivity and deplored personal revelation; other subjects were remote from general interest or he could not make them seem interesting.” (Baum x)
Arnold further argues in his essay that those who sneer at the academic nature of criticism are overlooking a key feature. It is only in an atmosphere of detachment and abstract analysis that one gains insights into the literary work. In his own words, it is through the critic’s disinterested introspective attitude that he can “know the best that is known and thought in the world, and in its turn making this known, to create a current of true and fresh ideas.” (Arnold) The exacting standard that Arnold sets for critics is reflected in how he applied the same standards to his own work. So many of his poems have “an air of deliberateness; he aimed at the grand manner, with its “simplicity” and “severity” — two most difficult qualities to achieve — and as a corollary it seems to want warmth, glow, passion.” (Baum xi)
Finally Arnold admits to the challenges of being a critic. He acknowledges that criticism is not an aesthetically attractive form for the reader. So it is natural for readers to overlook criticism and focus solely on the practical side of literary art. Moreover, the esoteric language and perspective of the critic makes him vulnerable to be misunderstood. Yet, Arnold urges fellow critics to overcome these challenges and continue their work. They hold a responsibility to the youth of the country, in terms of providing them with fresh novel ideas for enhancing their lives. In the essay, Arnold mentions how the youth of his generation are experiencing a form of disillusionment: “He was inclined to regret, as a spiritual flagging, the lull which he saw. I am disposed rather to regard it as a pause in which the turn to a new mode of spiritual progress is being accomplished.” (Arnold) One could see how Arnold makes such allusions in his own poetry. For instance, the theme of masculinity of the young men of Victorian Britain is seen in his poems. Arnold’s early works are thought to be effeminate and linked to John Henry Newman and the Oxford Movement, “whose notions about the peculiar spiritual value of poetry and of contemplative seclusion exercised a pervasive influence upon Arnold as an Oxford undergraduate in the early 1840s and indeed throughout his life.” (Ellis 22) As Arnold’s poetry evolved, it took on more masculine hues. His linking of the utility of criticism to ‘the lull’ of the youth is an appeal to young men. While Newman’s works were bold and promoted a new form of manliness, Arnold’s lacked the certainty which Newman’s Christian faith gave him, and, in addition, suffered from his own failings to live up to his father (Thomas Arnold’s) idea of manliness.
Arnold, Matthew. The Function of Criticism at the Present Time, retrieved from < http://fortnightlyreview.co.uk/the-function-of-criticism-at-the-present-time/> Republished from The National Review, November, 1864
Baum, Paull F. Ten Studies in the Poetry of Matthew Arnold. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1958.
Ellis, Heather. “‘This Starting, Feverish Heart’: Matthew Arnold and the Problem of Manliness.”Critical Survey 20.3 (2008): 97+.
Farrell, John P. “A Sages Science: Matthew Arnold and the Uses of Imprecision.” Nineteenth-Century Prose 22.1 (1995): 1+.
Timko, Michael. “Matthew Arnold: Modern Victorian.” World and I Sept. 2011.