Tuesday, April 15, 2014

they may have it even in criticizing - Matthew Arnold flatters me

Matthew Arnold is among the greatest literary critic of the 19th century, and among the greatest in English.  A long series of subsequent critics – Pater, Wilde, T. S. Eliot, to pick the ones I am sure about – defined themselves against him in some important way.  Arnold did not particularly care about fiction, which has perhaps caused a bit of a devaluation compared to Henry James now that we live in, or recently lived in, the Age of the Novel.  But since a good part of Arnold’s importance comes from his arguments about criticism and the role of the critic his importance is to a large degree independent of the fact that he mostly wrote about poetry, a form that almost no one reads any more, just as John Dryden’s immense value as a critic remains even though he wrote almost exclusively about Restoration plays.

I recently read the book now usually called Essays in Criticism: First Series (1865).  The curious thing about the book is the randomness and even inconsequentiality of the subjects of Arnold’s essays, typical for a collection of magazine reviews, but not really commensurate with my idea of Arnold.  Spinoza, Marcus Aurelius, Joubert, Heine (random); the French poet Maurice de Guérin along with a separate essay on the journals of his sister Eugénie de Guérin (inconsequential, however good they sound).  This is the greatest critic of his time?  What is going on here?

Well, one thing is that Culture and Anarchy  comes later (1869), as does the “second series” of Essays in Criticism which is mostly about English poets, along with Tolstoy and (who?) Amiel, so I should not put too much wright on this early book, however good it might be.  And it does have “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” which by itself is almost enough to make a critic’s reputation.

The critic’s job, says Arnold is “simply to know the best that is known and thought in the world, and by in its turn making this known, to create a current of true and fresh ideas” (“simply,” very amusing), and “to keep man from a self-satisfaction which is retarding and vulgarizing, to lead him towards perfection, by making his mind dwell upon what is excellent in itself, and the absolute beauty and fitness of things.”  Preposterous, but there is a satirical strain in Arnold that I have not yet learned to read.  “Perfection” and “absolute” may be squishier words than they first appear.  But maybe not.

More appealing to me are a couple of other instructions to the critic.  One is his emphasis  on “the world” – thus the Heine, Spinoza, and French poetry – and the effort to read widely.  He argues that English critics and literary magazines are narrow and parochial.  So it will ever be.

The other is his insistence that criticism is a creative act, not ranked as high as the making of original work, but nevertheless a source of “true happiness”: “They [we; I] may have it [happiness] in well doing [original art], they may have it in learning, they may have it even in criticizing.”  Learning includes reading, so reading is also a creative act, “the free play of the mind upon all subjects” which is “a pleasure in itself.”

Arnold is in many ways very flattering to book bloggers.  Our sense of what is “best” and “true” necessarily varies a lot, but amateur criticism is an Arnoldian enterprise, aside from one enormously important aspect of it that he would loathe.  Tomorrow: “disinterestedness.”


  1. I am regularly tempted to buy (and do buy) books of criticism but it is years since I actually read one. I have some Arnold and much besides. It is one of the many areas in my reading that I must do better in. Especially having the temerity to 'publish' my own 'criticism' and expecting other people to read it. Perhaps it might inculcate some discipline into my own writing..

  2. You raise an interesting point, Dryden remains a great critic despite the subject of his criticism. A similar point could be made about Chikamatsu who was arguably the equal of Shakespeare despite writing his plays for the puppet theater!

  3. How I would love to attend a real Chikamatsu performance. The kabuki theater in Tokyo had headphones with English explanations. That would be helpful.

    I'll mention here, for the benefit of wandering strangers, not humblehappiness, who knows this, that I was simplifying when I said Dryden only wrote about Restoration plays. He also wrote about earlier plays, poetry, epics. He wrote with a clarity of prose and thought that makes me gnash my teeth with envy, or would, if I were sure what it meant to gnash one's teeth. He is one of the finest critics in English.

    Séamus, I cannot over-emphasize how valuable reading criticism of all sorts has been to me. If nothing else, there are some critics - as Arnold suggests, maybe not a lot, but plenty - who are superb writers, whatever they might be writing about or however cracked their ideas. Now I am thinking of Ruskin.

    I believe that many scholars and critics could tell you about the point where they discovered to their surprise that they did not just love literature, but loved reading about literature, and thus their fates were sealed.

  4. Samuel Johnson remains my reading life hero. I recently read parts of Erich Auerbach's Memesis. Not easy for me to read but very illuminating. The introduction to the 50th anniversary by Edward Said places it in the tradition of German romanticism. I also a while ago read Ford Madox Ford's March of Literature. I look forward to learning what Arnold would loath about book bloggers.

  5. Auerbach is quite difficult, full of real insights, but hard. I, too, have only read parts of Memesis.

    Johnson is magnificent. We have discussed the Ford book before - eccentric, but also kind of thrilling. Great critics are not necessarily great because they are right. They are often wildly wrong.

  6. I think Lionel Trilling may have been influenced by Arnold too. It is fascinating how far Arnold's criticism has reached through time. I do appreciate his assertion that criticism and reading are creative acts in their own right. His idea of disinterestedness would definitely make it hard going for book bloggers. Looking forward to your thoughts on that!

  7. Yes! I say with confidence! As if I knew Trilling so well. But he did assemble The Portable Matthew Arnold and wrote about Arnold frequently.

    I barely got to the book bloggers today, but I finally did. It is all very flattering, of course. Book bloggers are wonderful, we all know that.