Essays in Criticism by Matthew Arnold

Matthew Arnold, son of Dr. Arnold of Rugby (see Vol. X, p. 260), was born on December 24, 1822, and died on April 15, 1888. He was by everyday calling an inspector of schools and an educational expert, but by nature and grace a poet, a philosopher, a man of piety and of letters. Arnold almost ceased to write verse when he was forty-five, though not without having already produced some of the choicest poetry in the English language. Before that he had developed his theories of literary criticism in his "Essays in Criticism"; and about the time of his withdrawal from Oxford he published "Culture and Anarchy," in which his system of philosophy is broadly outlined. Later, in "St. Paul and Protestantism," "Literature and Dogma" and "God and the Bible," he tried to adjust Christianity according to the light of modern knowledge. In his "Lectures on Translating Homer," he had expressed views on criticism and its importance that were new to, and so were somewhat adversely discussed by the Press. Whereupon, in 1865, with a militant joy, he re-entered the fray and defined the province of criticism in the first of a series of "Essays in Criticism," showing the narrowness of the British conception. "The Literary Influence of Academies" was a subject that enabled him to make a further comparison between the literary genius of the French and of the English people, and a number of individual critiques that followed only enhanced his great and now undisputed position both as a poet and as a critic. The argument of the two general essays is given here.

I.—Creative Power and Critical Power

Many objections have been made to a proposition of mine about criticism: "Of the literature of France and Germany, as of the intellect of Europe in general, the main effort, for now many years, has been a critical effort—the endeavour, in all branches of knowledge, to see the object as in itself it really is." I added that "almost the last thing for which one would come to English literature was just that very thing which now Europe most desired—criticism," and that the power and value of English literature were thereby impaired. More than one rejoinder declared that the importance here again assigned to criticism was excessive, and asserted the inherent superiority of the creative effort of the human spirit over its critical effort. A reporter of Wordsworth's conversation quotes a judgment to the same effect: "Wordsworth holds the critical power very low; indeed, infinitely lower than the inventive."

The critical power is of lower rank than the inventive—true; but, in assenting to this proposition, we must keep in mind that men may have the sense of exercising a free creative activity in other ways than in producing great works of literature or art; and that the exercise of the creative power in the production of great works of literature or art is not at all epochs and under all conditions possible. This creative power works with elements, with materials—what if it has not those materials ready for its use? Now, in literature, the elements with which creative power works are ideas—the best ideas on every matter which literature touches, current at the time. The grand work of literary genius is a work of synthesis and exposition; its gift lies in the faculty of being happily inspired by a certain intellectual and spiritual atmosphere, by a certain order of ideas, when it finds itself in them; of dealing divinely with these ideas, presenting them in most effective and attractive combinations, making beautiful works with them, in short. But it must have the atmosphere, it must find itself amidst the order of the ideas, in order to work freely; and these it is not so easy to command. This is really why great creative epochs in literature are so rare—because, for the creation of a master-work of literature two powers must concur, the power of the man and the power of the moment; and the man is not enough without the moment.

The creative power has for its happy exercise appointed elements, and those elements are not in its control. Nay, they are more within the control of the critical power. It is the business of the critical power in all branches of knowledge to see the object as in itself it really is. Thus it tends at last to make an intellectual situation of which the creative power can avail itself. It tends to establish an order of ideas, if not absolutely true, yet true by comparison with that which it displaces—to make the best ideas prevail. Presently these new ideas reach society; the touch of truth is the touch of life; and there is a stir and growth everywhere. Out of this stir and growth come the creative epochs of literature.

II.—The Literary "Atmosphere"

It has long seemed to me that the burst of creative activity in our literature through the first quarter of the nineteenth century had about it something premature, and for this cause its productions are doomed to prove hardly more lasting than the productions of far less splendid epochs. And this prematureness comes from its having proceeded without having its proper data, without sufficient materials to work with. In other words, the English poetry of the first quarter of the nineteenth century, with plenty of energy, plenty of creative force, did not know enough. This makes Byron so empty of matter, Shelley so incoherent, Wordsworth, profound as he is, so wanting in completeness and variety.

It was not really books and reading that lacked to our poetry at this epoch. Shelley had plenty of reading, Coleridge had immense reading; Pindar and Sophocles had not many books; Shakespeare was no deep reader. True; but in the Greece of Pindar and Sophocles and the England of Shakespeare the poet lived in a current of ideas in the highest degree animating and nourishing to creative power.

Such an atmosphere the many-sided learning and the long and widely combined critical effort of Germany formed for Goethe when he lived and worked. In the England of the first quarter of the nineteenth century there was neither a national glow of life and thought, such as we had in the age of Elizabeth, nor yet a force of learning and criticism, such as was to be found in Germany. The creative power of poetry wanted, for success in the highest sense, materials and a basis—a thorough interpretation of the world was necessarily denied to it.

At first it seems strange that out of the immense stir of the French Revolution and its age should not have come a crop of works of genius equal to that which came out of the stir of the great productive time of Greece, or out of that of the Renaissance, with its powerful episode of the Reformation. But the truth is that the stir of the French Revolution took a character which essentially distinguished it from such movements as these. The French Revolution found, undoubtedly, its motive power in the intelligence of men, and not in their practical sense. It appeals to an order of ideas which are universal, certain, permanent. The year 1789 asked of a thing: Is it rational? That a whole nation should have been penetrated with an enthusiasm for pure reason is a very remarkable thing when we consider how little of mind, or anything so worthy or quickening as mind, comes into the motives which in general impel great masses of men. In spite of the crimes and follies in which it lost itself, the French Revolution derives, from the force, truth and universality of the ideas which it took for its law, a unique and still living power; and it is, and will probably long remain, the greatest, the most animating event in history.

But the mania for giving an immediate political and practical application to all these fine ideas of the reason was fatal. Here an Englishman is in his element: on this theme we can all go on for hours. Ideas cannot be too much prized in and for themselves, cannot be too much lived with; but to transport them abruptly into the world of politics and practice, violently to revolutionise this world to their bidding—that is quite another thing. "Force and right are the governors of the world; force till right is ready" Joubert has said. The grand error of the French Revolution was that it set at naught the second great half of that maxim—force till right is ready—and, rushing furiously into the political sphere, created in opposition to itself what I may call an epoch of concentration.

The great force of that epoch of concentration was England, and the great voice of that epoch of concentration was Burke. I will not deny that his writings are often disfigured by the violence and passion of the moment, and that in some directions Burke's view was bounded and his observations therefore at fault; but for those who can make the needful corrections what distinguishes these writings is their profound, permanent, fruitful, philosophical truth—they contain the true philosophy of an epoch of concentration. Now, an epoch of expansion seems to be opening in this country. In spite of the absorbing and brutalising influence of our passionate material progress, this progress is likely to lead in the end to an apparition of intellectual life. It is of the last importance that English criticism should discern what rule it ought to take, to avail itself of the field now opening to it. That rule may be summed up in one word—disinterestedness.

III.—The Virtue of Detachment

How is criticism to show disinterestedness? By keeping aloof from practice; by resolutely following the law of its own nature, which is to be a free play of the mind on all subjects which it touches. Its business is simply to know the best that is known and thought in the world, and by making this known to create a current of fresh and true ideas. What is at present the bane of criticism in this country? It is that our organs of criticism are organs of men and parties having practical ends to serve, and with them those practical ends are the first thing, and the play of the mind the second—so much play of mind as is compatible with the prosecution of these practical ends is all that is wanted.

An organ like the Revue des Deux Mondes, existing as just an organ for a free play of mind, we have not; but we have the "Edinburgh Review," existing as an organ of the old Whigs, and for as much play of mind as may suit its being that; we have the "Quarterly Review," existing as an organ of the Tories, and for as much play of mind as may suit its being that; we have the "British Quarterly Review," existing as an organ of the political Dissenters, and for as much play of mind as may suit its being that; we have "The Times," existing as an organ of the common, satisfied, well-to-do Englishman, and for as much play of mind as may suit its being that. And so on through all the various fractions, political and religious, of our society—every fraction has, as such, its organ of criticism, but the notion of combining all fractions in the common pleasure of a free, disinterested play of mind meets with no favour. Yet no other criticism will ever attain any real authority, or make any real way towards its end—the creating of a current of true and fresh ideas.

It will be said that, by embracing in this manner the Indian virtue of detachment, criticism condemns itself to a slow and obscure work; but it is the only proper work of criticism. Whoever sets himself to see things as they are will find himself one of a very small circle; but it is only by this small circle resolutely doing its work that adequate ideas will ever get current at all. For the practical man is not apt for fine distinctions, and yet in these distinctions truth and the highest culture greatly find their account. To act is so easy, as Goethe says, and to think is so hard. Criticism must maintain its independence of the practical spirit and its aims. Even with well meant efforts of the practical spirit it must express dissatisfaction if, in the sphere of the ideal, they seem impoverishing and limiting. It must be apt to study and praise elements that for the fulness of spiritual perfection are wanted, even though they belong to a power which, in the practical sphere, may be maleficent. It must be apt to discern the spiritual shortcomings of powers that in the practical sphere may be beneficent.

By the very nature of things much of the best that is known and thought in the world cannot be of English growth—must be foreign; by the nature of things, again, it is just this that we are least likely to know, while English thought is streaming in upon us from all sides, and takes excellent care that we shall not be ignorant of its existence. The English critic must dwell much on foreign thought, and with particular heed on any part of it, which, while significant and fruitful in itself, is for any reason specially likely to escape him.

Again, judging is often spoken of as the critic's business; and so in some sense it is. But the judgment which almost insensibly forms itself in a fair and clear mind, along with fresh knowledge, is the valuable one; and, therefore, knowledge, and ever fresh knowledge, must be the critic's great concern for himself. And it is by communicating fresh knowledge, and letting his own judgment pass along with it—as a sort of companion and clue—that he will generally do most good to his readers.

To get near the standard of the best that is known and thought in the world, every critic should possess one great literature at least beside his own; and the more unlike his own the better. For the criticism I am concerned with regards Europe as being for intellectual and spiritual purposes one great confederation, bound to a joint action and working to a common result.

 I conclude with what I said at the beginning. To have the sense of creative activity is not denied to criticism; but then criticism must be sincere, simple, flexible, ardent, ever widening its knowledge. Then it may have, in no contemptible measure, a joyful sense of creative activity, a sense which a man of insight and conscience will prefer to that he might derive from a poor, starved, fragmentary, inadequate creation. And at some epochs no other creation is possible. Still, in full measure, the sense of creative activity belongs only to genuine creation; in literature we must never forget that. But what true man of letters ever can forget it? It is no such common matter for a gifted nature to come into possession of a current of true and living ideas, and to produce amidst the inspiration of them, that we are likely to underrate it. The glorious epochs of Æschylus and Shakespeare make us feel their pre-eminence. In an epoch like those is the true life of literature; there is the promised land towards which criticism can only beckon.

IV.—Should We Have an Academy?

It is impossible to put down a book like the history of the French Academy by Pellisson and D'Olivet without being led to reflect upon the absence in our own country of any institution like the French Academy, upon the probable causes of this absence, and upon its results. Improvement of the language was the declared grand aim for the operations of that academy. Its statutes of foundation say expressly that "the Academy's principal function shall be to work with all the care and all the diligence possible at giving sure rules to our language, and rendering it pure, eloquent and capable of treating the arts and sciences." It is said that Richelieu had it in his mind that French should succeed Latin in its general ascendancy, as Latin had succeeded Greek. If it were so, even this wish has to some extent been fulfilled. This was not all Richelieu had in his mind, however. The new academy was meant to be a literary tribunal, a high court of letters, and this is what it has really been.

Such an effort, to set up a recognised authority, imposing on us a high standard in matters of intellect and taste, has many enemies in human nature. We all of us like to go our own way, and not to be forced out of the atmosphere of commonplace habitual to most of us. We like to be suffered to lie comfortably on the old straw of our habits, especially of our intellectual habits, even though this straw may not be very fine and clean. But if this effort to limit the freedom of our lower nature finds enemies in human nature, it also finds auxiliaries in it. Man alone of living creatures, says Cicero, goes feeling after the discovery of an order, a law of good taste; other creatures submissively fulfil the law of their nature.

Now in France, says M. Sainte-Beuve, "the first consideration for us is not whether we are amused and pleased by a work of art or of mind, or is it whether we are touched by it. What we seek above all to learn is whether we were right in being amused with it, and in applauding it, and in being moved by it." A Frenchman has, to a considerable degree, what one may call a conscience in intellectual matters. Seeing this, we are on the road to see why the French have their Academy and we have nothing of the kind.

What are the essential characteristics of the spirit of our nation? Our greatest admirers would not claim for us an open and clear mind, a quick and flexible intelligence. Rather would they allege as our chief spiritual characteristics energy and honesty—most important and fruitful qualities in the intellectual and spiritual, as in the moral sphere, for, of what we call genius, energy is the most essential part. Now, what that energy, which is the life of genius, above everything demands and insists upon, is freedom—entire independence of authority, prescription and routine, the fullest power to extend as it will. Therefore, a nation whose chief spiritual characteristic is energy will not be very apt to set up in intellectual matters a fixed standard, an authority like an academy. By this it certainly escapes real inconveniences and dangers, and it can, at the same time, reach undeniably splendid heights in poetry and science. We have Shakespeare, and we have Newton. In the intellectual sphere there can be no higher names.

On the other hand, some of the requisites of intellectual work are specially the affair of quickness of mind and flexibility of intelligence. In prose literature they are of first-rate importance. These are elements that can, to a certain degree, be appropriated, while the free activity of genius cannot. Academies consecrate and maintain them, and therefore a nation with an eminent turn for them naturally establishes academies.

V.—Our Loss Through Provinciality

How much greater is our nation in poetry than prose! How much better do the productions of its spirit show in the qualities of genius than in the qualities of intelligence! But the question as to the utility of academies to the intellectual life of a nation is not settled when we say that we have never had an academy, yet we have, confessedly, a very great literature. It is by no means sure that either our literature or the general intellectual life of our nation has got already without academies all that academies can give. Our literature, in spite of the genius manifested in it, may fall short in form, method, precision, proportions, arrangement—all things where intelligence proper comes in. It may be weak in prose, full of haphazard, crudeness, provincialism, eccentricity, violence, blundering; and instead of always fixing our thoughts upon the points in which our literature is strong, we should, from time to time, fix them upon those in which it is weak. In France, the Academy serves as a sort of centre and rallying-point to educated opinion, and gives it a force which it has not got here. In the bulk of the intellectual work of a nation which has no centre, no intellectual metropolis like an academy, there is observable a note of provinciality. Great powers of mind will make a man think profoundly, but not even great powers of mind will keep his taste and style perfectly sound and sure if he is left too much to himself with no sovereign organ of opinion near him.

Even men like Jeremy Taylor and Burke suffer here. Theirs is too often extravagant prose; prose too much suffered to indulge its caprices; prose at too great a distance from the centre of good taste; prose with the note of provinciality; Asiatic prose, somewhat barbarously rich and overloaded. The note of provinciality in Addison is to be found in the commonplace of his ideas, though his style is classical. Where there is no centre like an academy, if you have genius and powerful ideas, you are apt not to have the best style going; if you have precision of style and not genius, you are apt not to have the best ideas going.

The provincial spirit exaggerates the value of its ideas for want of a high standard at hand by which to try them; it is hurried away by fancies; it likes and dislikes too passionately, too exclusively; its admiration weeps hysterical tears, and its disapprobation foams at the mouth. So we get the eruptive and aggressive manner in literature. Not having the lucidity of a large and centrally-placed intelligence, the provincial spirit has not its graciousness; it does not persuade, it makes war; it has not urbanity, the tone of the city, of the centre, the tone that always aims at a spiritual and intellectual effect. It loves hard-hitting rather than persuading. The newspaper, with its party spirit, its resolute avoidance of shades and distinctions, is its true literature. In England there needs a miracle of genius like Shakespeare to produce balance of mind, and a miracle of intellectual delicacy like Dr. Newman's to produce urbanity of style.

The reader will ask for some practical conclusion about the establishment of an academy in this country, and perhaps I shall hardly give him the one he expects. Nations have their own modes of acting, and these modes are not easily changed; they are even consecrated when great things have been done in them. When a literature has produced a Shakespeare and a Milton, when it has even produced a Barrow and a Burke, it cannot well abandon its traditions; it can hardly begin at this late time of day with an institution like the French Academy. An academy quite like the French Academy, a sovereign organ of the highest literary opinion, a recognised authority in matters of intellectual tone and taste, we shall hardly have, and perhaps ought not to wish to have. But then every one amongst us with any turn for literature at all will do well to remember to what shortcomings and excesses, which such an academy tends to correct, we are liable, and the more liable, of course, for not having it. He will do well constantly to try himself in respect of these, steadily to widen his culture, and severely to check in himself the provincial spirit.

VI.—Some Illustrative Criticisms

To try and approach Truth on one side after another, not to strive or cry, not to persist in pressing forward on any one side with violence and self-will—it is only thus that mortals may hope to gain any vision of the mysterious goddess whom we shall never see except in outline.

The grand power of poetry is the power of dealing with things so as to awaken in us a wonderfully full, new and intimate sense of them and of our relation with them, so that we feel ourselves to be in contact with the essential nature of those objects, to have their secret, and be in harmony with them, and this feeling calms and satisfies us as no other can. Maurice de Guérin manifested this magical power of poetry in singular eminence. His passion for perfection disdained all poetical work that was not perfectly adequate and felicitous.

His sister Eugénie de Guérin has the same characteristic quality—distinction. Of this quality the world is impatient; it chafes against it, rails at it, insults it, hates it, but ends by receiving its influence and by undergoing its law. This quality at last inexorably corrects the world's blunders, and fixes the world's ideals.

Heine claimed that he was "a brave soldier in the war of the liberation of humanity." That was his significance. He was, if not pre-eminently a brave, yet a brilliant soldier in the war of liberation of humanity. He was not an adequate interpreter of the modern world, but only a brilliant soldier.

Born in 1754, and dying in 1824, Joseph Joubert chose to hide his life; but he was a man of extraordinary ardour in the search for truth and of extraordinary fineness in the perception of it. He was one of those wonderful lovers of light who, when they have an idea to put forth, brood long over it first, and wait patiently till it shines.