To what extent does the poetry of Matthew Arnold faithfully illustrate his ideas on literature as represented in his essay ‘The Function of Criticism at the Present Time’?

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.

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