Classical CriticismMathew Arnold

Analysis of Essay “The Function of Criticism at Present Time” by Matthew Arnold

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Matthew Arnold’s other essay, “The Function of Criticism at Present Time,” written thirteen years after the preface, is an essay in which Arnold dwells on a critic’s responsibility to the reading public. His work goes beyond a narrow interpretation of the judgment of works of art and embraces a more extensive range.

The first argument he makes is about objectivity,

“The endeavor in all branches of knowledge, theology, philosophy, history art, and science, to see the object as in itself it is.”

One controversial idea he introduces here is that “the critical power is of a lower rank than the creative.” Here he agrees with Wordsworth that the critical faculty is lower than the inventive.

Developing this idea, he states that for incredible creation, “the power of the man and the power of the moment, and the man is not enough the without moment; the creative power has, for its happy exercise, appointed elements, and those elements are not in its control.” The fountains head of creative activity will open up only when there is the encouraging, nourishing, and maturing social, cultural milieu.

Read About: Analysis of “The Study of Poetry” by Matthew Arnold

Arnold seems to argue that when such an ethos is absent, it is the function of criticism to come out with a particular set of ideas, ideals, and values and make it available to the creative artist. Based on this thesis, he argues that though Byron is not inferior to Goethe, the absence of the Ethos and the body of ideas in England made Byron empty of matter, where Goethe became a genius because, in Germany, the man and the moment co-existed. He also argues that this weakness can be made by criticism,

“It is the business of criticism to know the best that is known and thought in the world, and in its turn by making this is known and thought in the world, and its turn by making this known to create a current of new and fresh ideas.”

Highlighting this, he says, “In the Greece of Pindar and Sophocles, in the England of Shakespeare, the poet lived in the current of ideas in the highest degree animating and nourishing, permeated by fresh thought, intelligent and alive. He makes a plea for curiosity in its best sense as a quality of good criticism.”

The essay highlights another key phrase for Arnold’s Disinterestedness. He feels that this virtue helps critics keep away from the practical view of things, ulterior motives, and too much of practically. He thinks that without disinterestedness, criticism tends to become controversial and too practical. He laments the vulgarizing tendency of criticism aimed at self-satisfaction. For him, criticism is a path to perfection, and it is said that in England, criticism was not fulfilling these demands. He attacks the English society where practice seems to be everything, and there is no place for the free play of ideas. This Arnold feels produces Philistinism that cannot allow society to come up with estimates of genuine worth. In several ways, Arnold tries to exhort British society to realize that criticism should be a careful exercise of curiosity directed by disinterestedness and a search for “the best that is known and thought in the world.”

Arnold concludes his essay repeating what he says at the beginning, “to have the sense of creative activity is the happiness and the great proof of being alive, and it is not denied to criticism to have it: but then criticism must be sincere, simple, flexible, ardent, ever-widening its knowledge.” In this summing up of ideas, you might have noticed some repetitions, which again is the kind of impact that a critic like Arnold makes on his readers. Ideas are perfectly hammered into the reader through a clever repetition (sometimes irritating) and series of examples as cases in point to justify his claims. However, one cannot miss his zeal and missionary attempts to break new ground in society to create a new social, spiritual and critical awareness.

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