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’?

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.

Works Cited

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.

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