The University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts & Sciences Department of English

Matthew Arnold
"The Function of Criticism at the Present Time"

(page numbers are from the Riverside edition, Poetry and Criticism by Matthew Arnold, ed. A. Dwight Culler)

According to Arnold, what has been the main intellectual effort of recent times? With what part of the world does he seem to be most concerned?

What does he mean by criticism? (to see the object in itself as it really is, 239) What service should it provide to the world? (238)

Can critical works betray imaginative power? Are they inherently inferior to literary genres such as poetry or drama? (238) How original or controversial do you think this point may have been?

What examples does Arnold use to make his point that some criticism may be valuable and some imaginative literature tedious? Could other examples have been used to make an opposite point?

What in his view are the conditions necessary for great literature to come into being? (needs frutiful ideas current at the time, "the man is not enough without the moment," 239)

What does Arnold seem to mean by criticism's duty "to make the best ideas prevail"? (239) Is this consistent with the ideal of "seeing the object itself as it really is"? Is Arnold here talking about literature, or something else? (criticism seems to precede imaginative literature)

Which of Arnold's ideas seem Kantian? Which of his ideas resemble those of other Victorian essayists you have read?

What seems his view of the Romantic poets? Do you think his is a fully informed or accurate judgment? (240) What are some reasons he seems to be critical? (they are too subjective, too political) What grounds does he give for his preference for the cutures of the Greek and Renaissance periods?

How might Arnold's views have been influenced by the fact that his father was a distinguished educator, noted for his love of the classics?

What seems Arnold's attitude toward sectarian religious controversy? (242) Would anything in his daily occupation have caused him to deplore the ill feeling between different English religious groups?

What are some features of Arnold's style? Is it effective? How does he choose his examples? Is his tone sarcastic? Ironic? Calm? Understated? (generalizes, especially about his opponents)

By what means will right prevail, in his view? Can it be imposed by force? (243)

What does he view as having been the flaws of the French revolution? (a political rather than cultural force, 242)

On what grounds does he celebrate Edmund Burke as a great thinker? (able to consider another point of view, 244) Would the choice of Burke as an example of a cultured man have been controversial?

What is Arnold's view of the English character? Of French character? Are these stereotypes reasonable? What trait in his fellow-countrymen especially frustrates him? (they lack a sense for the "free play of ideas," 245)

How does Arnold define "disinterestedness"? (freedom from immediate political or practical considerations, 246)

By contrast, in the England of his time, what is the source of ideas? (party organs, 246) What specific sector of culture does he seem to have in mind? (cites partisan newspapers) Is the lack of independent and shared public discourse still an issue today?

In citing examples of committed rhetoric, what types of examples does he choose? (248) Would you say that his selection is biased? (chooses self-satisfied remarks of politicians seeking votes, political and hyper-patriotic bombast, 248)

What does he find obnoxious in the newspaper article about a child murderer? (249) Are his objections aesthetic, or moral, or both? (ugly name! ugly life)

Will a life of ideas ever be popular, in his view? (these appeal to a small circle, 250) Do you think he may be right?

For what does he criticize Cobbett, Ruskin and Carlyle? (they were polemicists on social matters) How is his own criticism distinguished from theirs? (i. e., does he not take positions on social issues of his day?)

What flaws does he see in the political parties of his time? (251)

What does Arnold belive is the appropriate relationship between religion and science? ("two wholly different things," 252) How would this view have distinguished him from many other writers of his time?

Why does he defend his earlier attacks on Bishop Colenso's book, even though he says he's not going to attack it again? (252ff) What good features does he applaud by contrast in M. Renan's work? (a creative not literal approach to the issue of biblical authenticity, 253-54)

What does it mean to say that criticism must be independent of practical aims? (255; we should betake ourselves "more to the serene life of mind and spirit," 256) Is this a view Kant would have shared?

Why does Arnold suggest that criticism should reflect on foreign literatures and ideas? (256; should not be too partisan to assumptions of our own culture, 257; comparisons undercut our faith in a central standard, 257; every critic should possess one great literature besides his own, 257)

To what extent does Arnold himself seem to believe that the validity of ideas may be relative?

Will our own age achieve greatness in literature? ("that promised land it will not be ours to enter," 258) If not, what should be our goal? (we must strive toward it, a biblical metaphor) How would you characterize his final tone? Sad? Utopian? Resolute?

Has literary criticism generally concurred with Arnold's view that the early Victorian period was one devoid of great imaginative literature?

May Arnold's past as a critic who had written melancholy, subjective poetry have affected his view of the relative importance of poetry and criticism?

Which aspects of this essay seem to you valuable? Which seem open to question? Why do you think Arnold's views might have seemed liberatory to mid-twentieth-century academics and critics?

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