The Function of Criticism
In the mid-19th century, the poet and critic Matthew Arnold (1822—88) was one of a host of writers who questioned popular Victorian narratives praising progress and industrialism.
Arnold’s essay, “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” (1864), was particularly important in its attempt to specify a social role for criticism. He suggested that the creative output of the Romantics (including Wordsworth and Shelley) was “premature”, having proceeded without “proper data”. By contrast, in Shakespeare’s England or Pindar’s Greece:
The poet lived in a current of ideas in the highest degree animating and nourishing to the creative power; society was, in the fullest measure, permeated by fresh thought, intelligent and alive. And this state of things is the true basis for the creative power’s exercise, in this it finds its data, its materials, truly ready for its hand.
This led Arnold to assert the importance of the critic’s function in clearing the way for great creative epochs by trying to find the best ideas through “free disinterested play of mind”. Arnold argued that the critical faculty “is of a lower rank than the creative”, but nonetheless asserted the importance of criticism.
[Criticism tries] to know the best that is known and thought in the world, irrespective of practice, politics and everything of that kind.
For Arnold, it was particularly important that the critic should rise above the “rush and roar” of practical life, maintaining a cultivated detachment from the narrow prejudices of religious sect and political party. The ideal critical stance, for Arnold, is that of disinterestedness — meaning impartiality, rather than a lack of interest.
Arnold is often held up as an example of liberal humanism, but some 20th-century critics accused him of naivety, pointing out that the ideal of disinterestedness could instead convey a false impression that the class interests of the mid-Victorian bourgeoisie were universal. Arnold’s ideal of criticism was certainly not without a political agenda.
Through culture seems to lie our way, not only to perfection, but even to safety.
Arnold viewed culture as a means of staving off social anarchy in a society in which religious values were subjected to the pressures of new scientific narratives of evolution. (Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species had been published in 1859.) It is the critic’s role to disseminate this culture of the best that is thought and known as widely as possible.
Arnold’s defence of Hellenism (the intellectual culture of ancient Greece) in his influential book Culture and Anarchy (1869) casts him very much in the mould of a classicist. His attempt to “Hellenize” English culture was aimed specifically at the philistine middle class, who had risen to a position of social and economic dominance in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, but who he felt lacked the cultural sophistication, once identified with the aristocracy, necessary to ensure social cohesion.
The pursuit of culture was one response to the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of religious faith. It also acted as a kind of social glue, binding together opposing classes.