Matthew Arnold

“Function of Criticism at the Present Time” (1864)

The introductory piece to his collection Essays. In it he develops the term disinterestedness as the crucial attitude that the critic takes up in relation to objects in order to see “how they really are.” Elsewhere, he talks about seeing things really and whole. He describes the difference between epochs of concentration and epochs of expansion. Criticism functions within epochs of concentration (like the one after the French Revolution) in order to see beyond them. Criticism, therefore, is a type of avant-garde that strives to know the best that is thought and known–or what he will later call “culture.” The critic must cultivate disinterestedness by staying aloof from the practical view of things. It is this “a slow and obscure work,” very much akin to waiting, reamining poised and flexible. The critic must be cosmopolitan, but within the confines of Europe, which Arnold sees as a coherent cultural whole. In epic in which true criticism is not possible, criticism is the highest form of creation. Indeed, we will never reach the promised land where criticism is no longer necessary: we can only “salute that promised land from afar.”


Culture and Anarchy (1869)

Culture has three different meanings: 1. Different cultures, etc, i.e. the terms set by cultural studies. 2. Name for representations by which culture makes sense of itself, i.e. anthropology. 3. Relationship to cultivation, the possibility within society for it to perfect itself. This can be related to Raymond Williams Culture and Society, where society is the Bethamite “collection of parts,” and culture is the Coleridgean organic narrative. Or, this is seen in Burke, between the landed interest (the earth, continuity soil, etc.) and the moneyed interest (exchange development, etc.), or in terms of Disareli, who proposed the concept of “Two Englands,” and upper and a lower, who’s disparity could be solved by a sort of symbolic feudalism that would sustain technological development but maintain the paternalism of feudal England. One can think of Middlemarch, when the machine breaks and progress stops, as the ludic counterpoint. Tennyson and the Apostles proposed myth as an organizational method for ordering social units. Barret Browning presented the presented in an archaic mode, vital mode, a system so capacious that observation would not be a form of dissection: All this leads to Arnold’s poetics: trying to understand poetry as an opposition that is not one: epics of expansion and epics of concentration. This relates to other modes of historical explanation:

Reflection/Sensation (Hallam)
Objective/Subjective (Browning)
Natural/Transitional (JS Mill)

“Sweetness and Light” is an argument for the political necessity of men of culture. After the iron force of adhesion (religion) has begun to yield, we need to begin to think about what order will take its place. importantly, then, culture is not only about seeing or watching, but also about desiring culture to prevail and integrate into everyday life of the masses. Culture is not an individual project: it is necessarily collective, drawing others along. People often confuse culture (the true end of a nation) with “mere machinery” such as health, money, industry, etc. No, even religion is a form of machinery which culture must supersede if it is going to play its true role. Like the critic, men of culture are not saliently active, but they “prepare currents of feeling.” Culture, in short, is the pursuit of perfection FOR ALL, and by “humanizing knowledge” the rather elitist trappings of Arnold’s argument make a bid on equality.

The Study of Poetry (1880)

Arnold wants to avoid both historical estimation of poetry and personal estimation of poetry–the former over-rates the poem by seeing it as a manifestation of a nation’s historical development; the latter over-rates by coloring the poem with our own interests, likings, etc. Poetry, “which is thought and art in one,” should be assessed according to their poetical quality, a ridiculous but very  common tautology (169). Poetry differs from history in its possession of “truth and seriousness” (169). The rest of the piece thus excerpts from Chaucer, Wordsworth, Pope and Dryden, using short, unexamined citations to stand in for a theory that has very little substance. Claims that we start our affiliation with personal, which is then checked by the historical. He then ends, in classic Arnoldian fashion, with a panicked portrayal of the present time:

Even if good literature entirely lost currency with the world, it would still be abundantly worth while to continue to enjoy it by oneself. But it never will lose currency with the world, in spite of momentary appearances; it never will lose supremacy. Currency and supremacy are insured to it, not indeed by the world’s deliberate and conscious choice, but by something far deeper,–by the instinct of self-preservation in humanity. (184)

Very curious placement of poetry as somehow written deeply into the instinctual processes of species development. One wonders then how poetry distinguishes itself from mere natural development–perhaps the claim is that nature and history produce and excess that stands in tension with it–and then we’re close to Nietzsche and Marx. Interesting contrast with Mill, who believes in an oscillating history, between organic and critical. Is it that nature and history are always pregnant with a poetry that comes too late…? The Arnoldian penultimate? Anyway, just one moe instance of self-preservation being aligned with rather than opposed to art.


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