Overview & Summary Victorian Criticism & Matthew Arnold

 Overview & Summary Victorian Criticism & Matthew Arnold 

Victorian Criticism: Matthew Arnold

Complied by Mohamed Zayed 

The Victorian Age was an age of skepticism and the loss of religion as a result of scientific and industrial revolution. Matthew Arnold is considered the father of modern English criticism. 

Arnold and “The Function of Criticism”:

He is famous for his essay “The Function of Criticism”. That essay seeks to redefine the main responsibilities of criticism. In it, Arnold believes that creative power—the power to criticize—is the highest function of man. Arnold believes that a literary work doesn’t revolve around analysis and discovery but around creativity and proper explanation of such creativity “synthesis and exposition”. A literary work must be inspired by certain conditions and spiritual atmosphere. The aim or the function of a literary work is to express these ideas in an effective and attractive combination in a beautiful form. Hence, the function of criticism is to establish an order of ideas and to make the best ideas get control. It is through literary criticism that we can see the object or the work as it really is. Arnold wishes to apply scientific methods and reason to literary criticism.


Arnold and the Nature and Function of Criticism

Disinterestedness and Promoting Taste: Criticism must be entirely independent of all interests, detached and leads man towards perfection by making his mind explore what is excellent. It is the purpose of criticism to make people see things as they are. The Seriousness of Poetry as a Substitute for Religion. According to Arnold, the status of religion has been threatened by science and “facts”. The era itself marks the death of religion. Hence, Arnold believes that people must turn to poetry not only to find spiritual and emotional support but also to interpret life.

Arnold, then, defines poetry as a criticism of life. He also believes that poetry’s high function is to replace religion and philosophy.The Touchstone Theory of Criticism: Arnold’s Touchstone Theory of Criticism or the Touchstone Theory

 A touchstone (a standard) is an established standard or principle by which something is guided. Arnold believes that we cannot decide what makes great poetry but we know great poetry when we experience and feel its power. That’s to say, Arnold’s Theory of the Touchstone aims at putting a standard for what is great poetry. Arnold believes that great poetry exhibits and shows seriousness morally and culturally while dropping historical and personal context. (compare with Eliot). That’s to say, Arnold does not care about origins, influences, circumstances and motivations of the work. He only cares about “truth” and “seriousness” which are his standard or touchstone of great poetry. Arnold’s The Study of Poetry: Poetry According to Arnold

What is the best poetry according to Arnold?

We should conceive poetry as capable of higher senses, and calling for higher destinies. Poetry is a tool to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us. Without poetry, our science will appear incomplete. Religion and philosophy will be replaced by poetry. The best poetry is what we want. The best poetry will provide us with delight, pleasure and tranquility. The true—one and only—estimate or measure of great poetry is the sense of joy, strength and excellence the readers gain from it. There are other two estimates which are not true or valid: the historic estimate and the personal estimate.

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