Printer Friendly

Matthew Arnold.

Before describing important articles and book chapters devoted to Arnold, I want to call attention to the fact that many publications dealing with various aspects of English literary, cultural, and even political history contain references to Arnold and his position as the preeminent Victorian critic, even if the focus is on other writers and issues. An especially interesting example is found in John Jowett's "Disintegration, 1924" (Shakespeare 10, no. 2 [2014]: 171-187). Jowett discusses the complex issue of "disintegration" as a label for attribution scholarship in Shakespeare studies. Referring to E. K. Chambers's British Academy lecture of 1924, in which he offers a critique of John Dover Wilson's "continuous copy" textual hypotheses and offers his own "continuous personality" approach, Jowett concludes that neither Wilson nor Chambers provided an adequate model. Along the way, he makes references to Arnold's views on the humanizing influence of education in English literature that both Wilson and Chambers embraced, in the context of the "inter-war decades" with apprehensions of danger from revolutionary Russians and fascist Germans. Wilson published an edition of Arnold's Culture and Anarchy and Chambers lectured on Arnold. Both men were "committed Arnoldians" who believed that "education, and the study of English in particular, provided not only Christian-humanist spiritual nurture of the individual, but also society's best defense against social political barbarism." Jowett generalizes that "[t]his national-universalist version of Arnold's teachings was the spirit of the age" (198).

A 2013 article by Kate Campbell not covered in last year's essay deals with Arnold's views of culture, education, and politics in important ways: "Culture, Politics and Arnold Revisited: The Government Inspector, Disinterestedness and 'The Function of Criticism'" (Journal of Victorian Culture 18, no. 2 [2013]: 230-245). She begins by questioning the prevailing view that Arnold and his concept of disinterestedness as expressed in "The Function of Criticism" essay are detached from politics, and she argues "that Arnold's politically charged work as a Schools' Inspector is a key context of his essay and its critical desiderata" (231). In particular, she relates Arnold's ideas to the conflict in the Education Department that led to the 1862 Revised Code in elementary education. Arnold's "discrete opposition" to Robert Lowe has been largely ignored by critics who see a "lofty disdain for politics on his part" (240). In Campbell's view, Arnold's famous essay "stages an unobtrusive counter-offensive" to the subordination of the school inspectors. Its "very dismissal of the practical world of politics and requirement of disinterestedness signal a political intervention: an attempt to make things happen and alter social arrangements" (p. 245). Readers familiar with the history of Arnold criticism through the years will be interested in Campbell's awareness that in narrowing the perceived gap between Arnoldian culture and politics she is in a sense extending the insights of Stefan Collini expressed in his "lengthy exchange" with Francis Mulhern during the period 2001-2004.

Moving from the connection between culture and politics to that between poetry and philosophy, one of the most substantial recent treatments of Arnold's poetry and criticism is found in a book featuring the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and the critical theory of Walter Benjamin. In Poetic Force: Poetry After Kant (Stanford Univ. Press, 2014), Kevin McLaughlin argues that the "theory of force" laid out in Kant's aesthetics, especially his theorization of the "dynamic sublime," is central to our understanding of nineteenth-century poetry. After his opening chapter on "Ur-ability: Force and Image from Kant to Benjamin," McLaughlin devotes chapters to "Hoderlin's Peace" and "Poetic Reason of State: Baudelaire and the Multitudes," before concluding with his chapter on "Arnold's Resignation." Readers interested in Arnold will no doubt find the organization of this book provocative. "Resignation" does indeed refer to Arnold's poem by that name. Much of Arnold's early poetry originates in an attempt to "revisit the Wordsworthian scene," as critics have generalized in the past. Arnold's original poem "Resignation. To Fausta" was included in his first volume of verse, The Strayed Reveller, and Other Poems, published in 1849, when he was 26. Like Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey," Arnold's "Resignation is a poem addressed to a favorite sister ("Fausta" is Arnold's older sister Jane) about revisiting a place and the reflections which follow the two occasions. But unlike Wordsworth, who finds that Nature leads "From joy to joy," Arnold reflects that natural objects "Seem to bear rather than rejoice" and ends his poem with an enigmatic but chilling reference to "The something that infects the world" (p. 102). Arnold never rejected all of Wordsworth--he continued to believe in the primacy of authentic experience and feeling, for example--but this melancholy lyric reinforces the impression that at least one of Arnold's projects in his early poetry was to revise Wordsworth's vision of nature. Arnold could not be another Wordsworth, but he recognized the central, enduring power of Wordsworth's influence.

In his first three chapters McLaughlin follows the lead of Benjamin in his analysis of nineteenth-century poetry. In the last chapter he extends observations made by Paul De Man regarding poetry and "force" in the work of Arnold: "Wordsworth's poetry exposes the divisiveness and finitude internal to the lyrical force, and more precisely unforce, affecting Arnold's own work as a poet during the first two decades of his career" (xviii), before he turns to criticism and culture and comes to equate consciousness with disinterestedness. According to Me Laughlin, "In Kantian terms this equation makes the maintenance of the self-conscious subject, rather than truly disinterested respect for the moral law, the ground of the theory and practice of criticism" (p. 91). In his rejected poem "Empedocles on Etna" (1852), "consciousness is challenged as a manifestation of worldly order that is explicitly self-interested" (p. 92), but Arnold reprinted and revised "Resignation," moving toward the principle of self-renunciation and the theory of disinterestedness expressed in Culture and Anarchy and then the "interpretation of messianic vocation of culture in Saint Paul and Protestantism" (p. 97). Nevertheless, the poet in "Resignation" is different from the disinterested critic, in that he is linked to a kind of pastoral detachment associated with both Milton and Wordsworth, with a vision of collective development and community. In his reading of "Resignation," McLaughlin stresses Arnold's "inaction in action," which relates to the "world" of Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey." As a critic, "Arnold resigned himself to a concept of disinterestedness that excludes the inactivity in action that his poetry shares with Wordsworth" (p. 104).

Another important book chapter focusing on Arnold is found in James Ley's The Critic in the Modern World: Public Criticism from Samuel Johnson to James Wood (Bloomsbury, 2014). In tracing the role of the critic, Ley (who himself has a background as a freelance literary critic) devotes chapters to Johnson (1709-1784), William Hazlitt (1778-1830), Arnold (1822-1888), T.S. Eliot (1888-1965), Lionel Trilling (1905-1975), and the contemporary Wood (1965-). He approaches each man both as an individual and a representative of key ideas. Of course each of them developed a distinctive public persona in the context of historical circumstances, and there are numerous philosophical and political differences among this group. In a sense each is representative of his time. As for Arnold, much of what Ley says about him will he familiar to readers, and in fact that is one of his major points: "He has become, one could say, symbolically rather than intellectually compelling" and "Such assumed familiarity is an ambiguous achievement" (p. 68). Needless to say, Ley refers to key phrases and concepts such as "the best that has been thought and said in the world," "sweetness and light," "to see the object as in itself it really is," etc., and he is correct in pointing out that Arnold himself made them catchphrases in his work. He goes on to discuss Arnold's "slippery political identity" (p. 69), his style of remaining "playfully aloof," and his ideal of maintaining "a sense of level-headed objectivity" (p. 71). He was cautious and moderate, but Ley claims that "[h]is true claim to originality lies in the precise nature of his conviction that questions of culture and cultural authority had come to straddle one of the fault lines of modernity itself' (p. 73). Arnold accepted "the inexorability of democratization" (74). Ley's chapter is marked by various colloquial expressions used in creative ways, and at one point he notes that Arnold "is not preaching to the choir" (p. 76). That is, in advocating detachment, objectivity, and rational reflection, and promoting equality, Arnold is deliberately criticizing his own society and his own social class. Recognizing that Arnold, with his teasing ironic persona, "can sometimes seem to be smug and smart-alecky" (p. 77), Ley appreciates his egalitarian values. The title of the Arnold chapter, "A Thyestean Banquet of Clap-Trap," refers to Arnold's Friendship's Garland, which originally appeared in 1871, a work that is relatively obscure compared to Culture and Anarchy, published two years earlier. In Greek mythology, Thyestes is tricked by his brother into eating his own sons, and for Arnold the phrase "Thyestean banquet of clap-trap" incorporates references to a terrible internecine conflict, and a diet of "flattering nonsense that appeals to self-interest and confirms existing prejudices" (p. 79). Arnold's primary audience and his primary satirical target was the middle class "Philistines," his own social class. Arnold narrates various fictional "conversations" he has supposedly had with foreigners who are critical about the current state of England, especially the self-interested conservatism and anti-intellectualism of the aristocratic Barbarians and the narrow-minded conservatism of the Philistines. As an "affronted patriot" who admires England Arnold pretends to argue with these misguided foreigners, but in fact their views are often close to his own. Ley remarks that "[t]he satire in Friendship's Garland is crude and the humour is laboured, but Arnold is raising several substantial issues" (p. 82). Some of them are related to the English educational system, and I am reminded of Campbell's article discussed earlier.

Ley of course refers to other works and ideas put forward by Arnold, but many readers will be especially struck by his treatment of the "touchstones" in the late essay "The Study of Poetry." I think is worthwhile to look at a famous passage from Arnold emphasized by Ley:
   Critics give themselves great labour to draw out what in the
   abstract constitutes the characters of a high quality of poetry. It
   is much better to have recourse to concrete examples;--to take
   specimens of poetry of the high, the very highest quality, and to
   say: The characters of a high quality of poetry are what is
   expressed there. They are far better recognized by being felt in
   the verse of the master, than by being perused in the prose of the

Thus, "[a]t its ultimate point, Arnold's criticism refines itself out of existence. This is the great paradox of Arnold as a literary critic." That is, Arnold doesn't concern himself with the historical context of "timeless" classic quotations from Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton. He assumes the reader will recognize the "'highest poetical quality' that Arnold refuses to define in specific terms" (p. 88). Ley recognizes that the caricature of Arnold as a "snobbish Victorian" has a grain of truth, but ends his chapter by observing that he "got a number of things right. He was largely right about the democratization of society and the social benefits of universal education; he was right about the public sphere and the tendency of unfettered public debate to generate clap-trap" (p. 92). And although readers might disagree with some of Ley's ideas about Arnold, surely the great majority will agree with his observation that today we still live in a society full of clap-trap.

Richard Menke engages with Arnold's controversial poetic touchstones in an interesting way in "Touchstones and Tit-Bits: Extracting Culture in the 1880s" (Victorian Periodicals Review 47, no. 4 [2014]: 559-576). Tit-Bits was a weekly magazine founded by George Newnes in 1881. It published extracts from books, periodicals, and newspapers and was very successful, reaching a circulation of approximately 700,000 by the end of the century and paving the way for popular journalism. Its purpose was to provide extracts of "the best things that have ever been said or written, and to place them before the public for a penny" (p. 559) and of course this can he compared to Arnold's famous phrase "the best that has been thought and said in the world" (and its variations). According to Menke, Tit-Bits updates and re-contextualizes Arnold, and "having brought out the latent relationship between the Arnoldian quest for 'perfection' and Victorian cultures of print and reprinting, Tit-Bits converts this pursuit of the best into an assurance not of intellectual or spiritual worth so much as a promise of efficiency and consumer value for the busy 'man' of today" (pp. 559-560). In developing this comparison, Menke notes that in her 2008 book on Arnold, Campbell has urged us to see him as a journalist and controversialist rather than an elitist. Of course Menke acknowledges that "Arnold's lofty aspirations for culture would seem to place distance between him and a periodical like Tit-Bits" and that he condemned what he saw as a simpleminded "New Journalism" (p. 562), but for Arnold "culture demands comparisons between the best words or ideas and those that fall short" (p. 564). Various examples of touchstones are cited to illustrate "the logic of excerptability, displaying not a personal bias so much as the self-confirming logic of the touchstone itself' (p. 565). Arnold's celebration of distance and detachment is familiar to his readers and critics, who will understand Menke's point that Arnold's "snippets" do not necessarily represent the main themes or ideas of the works from which they are taken. In other words, the context is not summarized. But some readers may be surprised by the generalization that "[t]ouchstones and tit-bits respond to the same sense of the exigencies of late nineteenth-century print culture, a sense that cuts across excerpting and anthologizing, popular education and mass journalism, high culture and low" (p. 570).

Last year I discussed an article by David Russell entitled "Teaching Tact: Matthew Arnold on Education: (Raritan 32, no. 2 [2013]: 122-139) that not only emphasizes Arnold's role as school inspector but also relates "tact" to his work as a poet and critic (in fact, making the point that Arnold's touchstones are effective when they are used with tact). Now there is an article concerned with Arnoldian tact in a different context: Frederik Van Dam's "'Wholesome Lessons': Love as Tact between Matthew Arnold and Anthony Trollope" (Partial Answers: Journal of Literature and the History of Ideas 12, no. 2 [2014]: 287-310). He begins with the observation that the representation of love in Trollope's novels "rests on the assumption that full knowledge of other people is impossible" (287). For Arnold, the critic of poetry must have tact, and for Van Dam, there is a proximity between this Arnoldian, critical tact and Trollope's novelistic portrayal of love. In one of his examples, Arnold's reference to the elusive and evanescent critical perception of poetic truth as the "thing itself' in his essay "On Translating Homer" is compared to a passage from Trollope's novel Marion Fay depicting a "tactile" encounter between the characters Hampstead and Marion. At one point Van Dam observes, "Whereas the theory of love as sublime is affiliated with inequality, the theory of love as tact serves the interests of equality" (p. 298). By the end of the novel, Marion has made Hampstead "realize that looking at others as social constructs does nothing to reveal who they really are in themselves," and this realization is seen as "a response to Arnold's call for tact" (p. 303). This is ironic, given the fact that Arnold largely ignored the novel in his criticism, but Van Dam shows how Arnold shared with Trollope an appreciation for comedy, relating this idea to his studies of classical French and Greek literature. This treatment of Arnoldian "tact" is unusual but draws from Arnold's work in interesting ways. It appears that "tact" has become a keyword in Arnold studies.

In "Stylistic Virtue in Nineteenth-Century Criticism" (Victorian Studies 56, no. 2 [2014]: 225-249) Matthew Sussman analyzes the work of John Ruskin, Arnold, and Walter Pater in terms of their methods of combining aesthetic appreciation of literature with its "ethical force": "In overlapping ways, Ruskin, Arnold, and Pater all use the language of excellence, perfection, virtue, and contemplation to account for the ways that aesthetic experience, and particularly the critical spirit with which we must approach it, fit within a normative conception of 'the good life'" (p. 245). In the section of his essay focusing on Arnold, he begins by pointing out the pervasive influence of Aristotle on Arnold's criticism. I agree with him that this influence is obvious and yet not often discussed in depth in studies of Arnold. As he points out, even Arnold's references to classic Christian sources are related to his Hellenic studies: for example, his frequent references to Thomas a Kempis's Imitation of Christ parallels Aristotle's method of modelling his virtue on that of great men. Of course Sussman discusses Arnold's concept of a synthetic relationship between Hellenism and Hebraism and his attribution of Hellenic virtues to both "criticism" and "culture," but his observations about a shift in Arnold's critical views between his 1853 Preface to Poems and "The Study of Poetry" essay (1880), due to the "gradual acceptance of a virtue-based aesthetics" (p. 236), are especially interesting. In the earlier work, Arnold "disdained 'detached expression,'" but later he used "the idea of virtue to unite related if still distinct forms of poetic pleasure, endowing style with greater significance without unmooring it from the ground of 'poetic truth'" (p. 237). Arnold may seem ambiguous (as he was to T. S. Eliot), but Sussman argues that he can be understood in terms of the "eudaimonistic" tradition that he drew from. Eudaimonism is a moral philosophy that defines right action as that which leads to the well-being of the individual. In Arnold's view, literary criticism, associated with aesthetic culture, is ethical: "Once Arnold no longer views expression as a subordinate to action but rather as constitutive of poetic truth, he provides, in more secularized terms than Ruskin, a moral ground for the appreciation of style within a broader framework of ethico-aesthetic excellence" (p. 238).

I will conclude by looking at an article that associates Arnold with American literature and culture. Michael J. Collins begins "Manacled to Identity: Cosmopolitanism, Class, and 'The Culture Concept' in Stephan Crane' (Comparative American Studies 11, no. 4 [2013]: 404-417) with a close reading of Crane's short story "Manacled" (1900) and goes on to discuss contemporary debates about literary realism, situating Crane's work within the "transatlantic cosmopolitanism" connected with the ideas of Franz Boas and Arnold. Collins generalizes that "[i]n late-nineteenth-century cosmopolitan cities like Crane's New York, the ideas of the British poet and sage Matthew Arnold had considerable purchase in American literature" (p. 410), and he makes references to Culture and Anarchy and Arnold's 1884 lecturing tour of the US. My main reason for referring to Collins's article, however, is his defense of Arnold against critics who reject his ideas today: "From our contemporary perspective, Arnold's vision of cultural perfectionism and use of the terms 'civilization' and 'Philistinism' appears at best snobbish and at worst a possible vehicle for a certain Anglo-Saxon supremacist discourse" but Arnold "offered the late nineteenth century a useful language for critiquing one's own national or local scene by liberating thought systems from their immediate context and situating them in a new order of meaning" (p. 410). Many see Arnold's culture as conflicting with the pluralistic, relativistic culture concept of the "American-German-Jewish emigre anthropologist Boas" and "lauding Boas for his relativism and denigrating Arnold for a racist particularism and chauvinism which he vehemently rejected have become marks of faith among the liberal-left in American literary studies" (p. 411). I hope that Collins's version of the Arnold stereotype is a bit exaggerated, but in any case I appreciate his defense of Arnold. A continuing interest in the (controversial) transatlantic influence of Arnold on American authors and British attitudes toward American culture is also illustrated by the two chapters from The American Experiment and the Idea of Democracy in British Culture, 1776-1914, edited by Ella Dzelzainis and Ruth Livesey (Ashgate, 2013) discussed in last year's essay.
COPYRIGHT 2015 West Virginia University Press, University of West Virginia
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2015 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Guide to the Year's Work
Author:Machann, Clinton
Publication:Victorian Poetry
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Sep 22, 2015
Previous Article:General materials.
Next Article:Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters