Tag Archives: Matthew Arnold

George Gissing – New Grub Street (1891)

Jasper Milvain, great Darwinian survivor in the evolving literary market, has two sisters, Dora and Maud (whom he convinces to start writing children’s stories), to whom he constantly spouts out his cynical and frank views on what it takes to get ahead as a writer in the 1880s: ingenuity without integrity. In the country he meets the Yules: John Yule (a somewhat rich  businessman); Alred Yule (a struggling writer); Marian Yule (Alfred’s daughter and assistant, and later Jasper’s almost-wife). Eventually, the patriarch of this family will leave an inheritance to his family. Meanwhile, Edwin Reardon, married to Amy Yule (sister to John Yule), is struggling to keep up his repute as a promising author, but is failing to do because he is impractical, unable write down to the commercial demands of the marketplace. His friend, Harold Biffen, who calls his style “ignoble realism” (similar to Zola’s naturalism), is also a commercial failure. Reardon and Amy sink into poverty and eventually separate. Jasper keeps climbing the rungs, and becomes engaged to Marian after she inherits some money. Her father disapproves of the match because of Jasper’s relation to Fadge, an editor of a journal that consistently excoriates Alfred’s works. Amy also inherits money, but her and Reardon don’t get back together until Reardon is on his deathbed. Biffen almost loses his manuscript in a fire, but saves it in a dramatic scene reminiscent of the Gaskell scene in North and South. Jasper breaks off his engagement with Marian after her inheritance fails to come through. His sisters marry folks in the marketplace, and he marries Amy Yule, and soon after becomes editor of The Current, and thus achieving his dream. Biffen commits suicide after losing hope in both his literary future and his romantic future with Amy.

An important novel because of its depiction of the professional author’s position in a social world increasingly controlled by the forces of market capitalism. Indeed, one can think of this as a response to Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy: author’s may be the guardians of sweetness in light, but this guardianship is premised on a certain amount of material wealth–and more broadly on a system that has inherent class, race and gender disparities. Carlyle had already foreseen this problem in 1840 when  in Hero as Man of Letters he parsed out the double-nature of professional authorship.

The struggling idealists in the novel (Reardon and Biffen) have a complicated relationship to the Arnoldian ideal. Yes, they sight-translate from Homer, but they also aspire to be realistic in a way that is anything but a return to a golden age of Hellenic representation. Biffen calls it “an absolute realism in the sphere of the ignobly decent” (144). This is frequently contrasted to both Dickens and Zola: this first turns low class people into absurd tragic-comedic heros, the latter into tragic heroes. This is an emergence of a realism that will be peculiarly modern–and it is reflected by the form of the novel that contains it. Gissing constantly draws attention to the forces of production that allow or disallow the author “to produce,” as Benjamin would later say. This connects New Grub Street with Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and with Jacob’s Room.

In borader ideological terms, the book can be read as intervention into the debate over culture’s relationship to society–a late intervention into the utilitarian debate that spans the century. Crucially, this novel (and the novels of Reardon and Biffen) are not mechanical mimetic organs, but rather aesthetic ideals that are worked for and persistently defended. Can relate this to Lukacs’ Theory of the Novel.

The Museum Reading, “the valley of the shadow of books,” is a crucial image that connects this book to both Jacob’s Room and A Room of One’s Own.  It represents a literature that is dead–fit for copying and recopying….

Key Passages:

Art must be practices as a trade, at all events in our time. This is the age of trade. Of course, if one refuses to be of one’s time, and yet hasn’t the means to live independently, what can result but breakdown and wretchedness? (51)

Connect this idea of untimeliness to Arnold’s idea of the untimely, penultimate critic. Gissing, again, giving material flesh to Arnold’s thoughts.

For months he had been living in this way; endless circling, perpetual beginning, followed by frustration. A sign of exhaustion, it of course made exhaustion more complete. At times he was on the border-land of imbecility; his mind looked into a cloudy chaos, a shapeless whirl of nothings.  (123)

Connect this to the opening of Daniel Deronda, where Eliot talks about the arbitrariness of making a beginning. Gissing gives on more turn to the problem of beginnings (use Copperfield as an example, and before that, Pride and Prejudice), by showing the physicality the process of writing. Reardon’s investment in his story backfires onto his psyche. New Grub Street, however, starts with ease–but with Jasper Milvain, cracking an egg as a man gets hung and bell tolls–the convergence of the political, personal, etc.–the fiction of freedom, the tightness of the ISA–is the condition of all beginnings. Also, the idea of “the abyss” is picked up by Forster in Howard’s End, when talking about Leonard Bast. That narrative similarly describes the precariousness of the petty-bourgeois existence.

You have to become famous before you can secure the attention that would give you fame. (385)

A motto coined by Jasper Milvain, which spell out clearly the Catch-22 structuring the lives of just about every author. Marks out the (now-legible) relationship between fiction and the critics as overdetermined.

It was an excellent piece of writing (see the Wayside, June 1884), and in places touched with true emotion. (462)

A bid on realism by way of extra-diagetic empirical verification.

 I would have the paper address itself to the quarter-educated; that is to day, the great new generation that is being turned out by the Board schools, the young men and women who can just read, but are incapable of sustained attention…bits of stories, bits of description, bits of scandal, bits of jokes, bit sof statistics, bits of foolery. Am I not right? Everything must be short, two inches at utmost; their attention can’t sustain itself beyond two inches. Even chat is too solid for them: they want chit-chat. (460)

This vision of bite-size prose comes toward the end of the novel, and has an obvious historical referent in Tit-Bits. An interesting commentary on the size of writing (contrast to the sheer bigness of the Victorian long poem), the time of reading (cf. I.A. Richards and Quiller-Couch), the fragment now reified as that best suited to the demands of industrialized consciousness: the quarter-educated.




Thomas Carlyle – Signs of the Times (1829)

Can be read as prototypical critique of the acceptance of utilitarian values (anticipating both Ruskin’s Unto this Last and Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy). Focuses on the fact of transition: “All men are aware that the present is a crisis of this sort; and why it has become so…Those things that seemed fixed (like the church) and immovable; deep as the foundations of the world and lo, in a moment they have vanished, and their place knows them no more” (62)! Carlyle is intent, however, on giving a program for action, which entails a robust Understanding of the Present as the convergence of Past and Future:

The poorest Day that passes over us is te conflux of two Eternities; it is made up of currents that issue from the remotest Past, and flow onwards into the remotest Future. We were wise indeed, could we discern truly the signs of our time; and by knowledge of its wants and advantages, wisely adjust our own position in it. Let us, instead of gazing idly into the obscure distance, look calmly around us,  for a little, on the perplexed scene where we stand. Perhaps, on a more serious inspection, something of its perplexity will disappear, some of its distinctive characters and deeper tendencies more clearly reveal themselves; whereby our own relations to it, our own true aims and endeavors in it, may also becomes clear. (64)

He makes the argument that the “Soul-Politic” is being ignored while the “Body-Politic” is “more than ever worshipped” (71). This is the result of a focus on the mechanical rather than dynamical aspects of life. The dynamical refers to those spontaneous, unsolicited gifts of nature: art and science. the point here is that the logic of “Profit and Loss” has no place in the realm of art, since it is completely unable to either produce or regulate its movements. Via art and science, so does “man, in every age, vindicate, consciously or unconsciously, his celestial birthright” (75). Carlyle argues for a proper balance of the dynamic and the mechanic, and locates the process of this balancing act in the individual perfection of the self. That’s the conclusion: but he gets there by way astronomical predictions. (85)

Key Passages – Daniel Deronda

Men can do nothing without the make believe of a beginning. Even Science, the strict measurer, is obliged to start with a make-believe unit, and must fix on a point in the stars’ unceasing journey when his sidereal clock shall pretend that time is Nought. His less accurate grandmother Poetry has always been understood to start in the middle; but on reflection it appears that her proceeding is not very different from his; since Science, too, reckons backwards as well as forwards, divides his unit into billions, and with his clock-finger at Nought really sets off in media res. No retrospect will take us to the true beginning; and whether our prologue be in heaven or on earth it is but a fraction of that all-presupposing fact which our story sets out.

This, the opening to the novel, proceeds the famous opening line: “Was she beautiful or not beautiful?” We do not know who asks this question and we do not know of whom it is asked. Thus the starting point is already displaced, the object coming before the subject that would produce it. Throughout the novel, the toggling between cause and effect is crucial (is Daniel determining his future according to liberal civic codes à la Mill or is he being determined by biological histories?) and here Eliot is making that ambiguity immanent to the very production of narrative. There is also a critique of Copperfield “Retrospects,” which make a bid on narrating origins. The passage also forcefully naturalizes traditional images of fate (stars) through the use of “sidereal,” which refers to the measurement of time by comparing the earth’s rotation with fixed stars. Also relatable to the mathematical sublime (the smallness of the unit becomes an object of wonder). And such problematic beginnings will look forward to the problematic ending, in which Eliot will unsatisfactorily attempt to suture her double-plot.


[Human life] should be well-rooted in some spot of a native land, where it may get the love of tender kinship for the face of the earth…a spot where the definiteness of early memories may be inwrought with affection, a kindly acquaintance with all neighbors, even to the dogs and donkeys may spread, not by sentimental effort and reflection, but as sweet habit of the blood

A rather curious importation of pre-cosmopolitan fantasies more appropriate to Mill on the Floss. By the time one gets to Deronda, these utopian visions are realized as unattainable. As opposed to earlier novels, Deronda is not about constructing a world, but showing how various characters navigate a larger society that is not conducive to their aims.



This claim, indeed, considered in what is called a rational way, might seem justifiably dismissed as illusory and even preposterous; but it was precisely what turned Mordecai’s hold on him from an appeal to his ready sympathy into a clutch on his struggling conscience.

Throughout the novel Eliot plays with the rational-emotional binary. Think of this as a way to bring the culture debate into the psychological realm. This is also an updated form of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility binary. Here, sensibility becomes the work of careful cultivation. To much sense would lead to a state literally without culture (critique of Bentham, etc.). There is also an engagement with the discourse of sympathy.


She was the first time feeling the pressure of a vast mysterious movement, for the first time being dislodged from her supremacy in her own world, and getting a sense that her horizon was but a dipping onward of an existence with which her own was revolving…[S]he could not spontaneously think of him as rightfully belonging to others more than to her. But here had come a shock which went deeper than personal jealousy—something spiritual and vaguely tremendous that thrust her away, and yet quelled all anger in self-humiliation.

The moment when the ethical force of the novel turns over the Gwendolen. Theorized in terms of receptivity to the other’s demands. Think of this within the terms of the heroine whose historical worth/validity/legibility is constantly in question. Here, the dialectic is turned: in order to become a full character in the narrative/story, she must be radically unseated from her presumed role in history. Contrawise, Daniel’s graduation into history effectively excises him from the novel.


Daniel, where a kenn personal interest was aroused, could not, more than the rest of us, continuously escape suffering from the pressure of that hard unaccomodating Actual, which has never consulted out taste and is entirely unselect…. Here undoubtedly lies the chief poetic energy:–in the force of imagination that pierces or exalts the solid fact, instead of floating among cloud-pictures.

Just one of many moments when Eliot compresses the plot-character dynamics with her artistic practice. But even here the Jewish-English binary is brought into play. Is it that English art is the best mode of representation, but Jewishness is the best object for art? Role of the author.

Secondary – Daniel Deronda

Terry Eagleton delvers a common verdict on Daniel Deronda when he argues that the utopianism of the Jewish plot, with its accompanying ideal of organic totality, disavows the unstable conditions of modernity so vividly depicted in the Gwendolen Harleth plot, with its countervailing emphasis on exchange value, amoralism, contingency, and sheer will to power.

At the most basic level, it is clear that she sought to insert the nineteenth century European Jew fully into the modern project of nation-building…Through the figure of Deronda, a nascent Jewish nationalism is projected as exemplary, along with the future state it heralds. By this reading Judaism does not obediently subordinate itself to the dictates of modernity, but rather makes good on modernity’s most important and defensible ideals: self-reflective affirmation of cultural heritage, individual and political self-determination, democratic will-formation, and recognition of cultural differences. And as Eliot’s portrayal of Deronda persistently implies, all of these ideals are only made possible through the careful cultivation of dialogic openness—to the individual other, to one’s own cultural heritage(s), and to other cultures.

Amanda Anderson, George Eliot and the Jewish Question [Read this as dialogue between Arnold’s conception of culture (eternal pregnancy) and Schiller’s utopian ideal of the merging of perception and creation…]



In her compelling “double-reading” of Deronda Cynthia Chase argues that this tension between the explanatory power of origin and the subversion of origin’s causal potency finds a larger expression in the tension between the two plots. She argues that the “English Part” works through irony and satire to undermine the “system of assumptions about teleological and representational structure” that characterize the “Jewish Part” and realist fiction more generally (216). “On the one hand,” Chase claims, “the narrator’s account emphatically affirms its [Deronda’s origin] causal character. On the other hand, the plot and overall strategy of the novel conspicuously call attention to its status as the effect of tactical requirements” (218).

Cynthia Chase, “The Decomposition of Elephants: Double-Reading Daniel Deronda.” [my paraphrase]


From the beginning, Daniel’s response is figured as a struggle between a conventional, rational dismissal of Mordecai’s plea and a stronger impulse to suspend judgment and open himself to other possibilities.

Rachel Hollander, “Daniel Deronda and the Ethics of Alterity”



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.