The Literary Criticism of Matthew Arnold

Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), English poet, literary critic, and essayist, perceived reformative tendencies accompanying the burgeoning development of industrial society in nineteenth-century England that threatened the wavering hegemonic apparatus of secular and ecclesiastical order, and hindered the appreciation and expression of cultural ideals that would access a smoother course for personal and social advancement in troubled times. As an antidote to the rapid transmission, and easy acceptance, of values advocating industrial progress, individual liberty, Protestant ethic and Puritan bias, Arnold sought civilised unity through a shared cultural identity. Looking to the past to illuminate an age lost in disillusionment, division and menacing anarchy, he advocates the reclamation of ideas capable of nourishing a common need for harmony and growth. From his critical vantage-point he surveys the barren ground of contemporary thought, with its blinkered deference to progress, action and duty, and sees a land incapable of propogating true culture. Arnold’s clarion call for the reassessment of commonly accepted values, and the routing of intellectual complacency, is delivered in Culture and Anarchy: An Essay in Political and Social Criticism (1867—1869). Here culture is defined as ‘the best which has been thought and said in the world’, and presented as an ameliorative, subtilising and instructive force with the potential to transform society’s attritional habits. In an age where the routes of liberty and progress are waymarked by the pandering desires of the ‘ordinary self, Arnold looks forward to the release, through the catalytic medium of ‘best’ literature, poetry and Christian eisegesis from the past, of ‘a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions’.

Lack of faith in church and state’s capacity to carry the momentum of transitional development is seen to result in halted progress and cul-de-sac confusion. Arnold sees his countrymen distrusting existing political and religious apparatus, while refusing to let go of their belief in the efficacy of the ‘machinery’ of external systems as a ladder out of crisis. For Arnold future hopes revolve around a change in perspective, where the individual develops an intrinsic response to culture’s untramelling truths. Regeneration at a personal level must prefigure any attempts to rearrange the weak, though workable, organs of state. ‘The culture we recommend is above all an inward operation.’ As well as being encouraged to question the value of political remonstrance, one is also alerted against placing too much hope in an immediate social recovery. Culture posits ‘immortality’ and endurance against the evanescent political platform and the unrealistic promises of salvation of new religious leaders. Arnold’s belief in the slow maturation of the human spirit through culture carries a resignation to stasis. Culture, we are told, may save the future ‘from being vulgarised’ even if it cannot ‘save the present’.

Wary of the ascendancy of Puritan values, the remote ceremony of Catholicism and the crowd-inciting rhetoric of the ‘fanatical Protestant’, Arnold sets the task of reclaiming the self-empowering language of Christian religion. Whereas organised religion presents a model of ‘incomplete perfection’, an intrinsic response to Christian teaching reveals a language of ‘Sweetness and Light’, attuned to the personal quest for integration and perfect harmony. The writings of St Paul are held up as proof of religion’s self-regulating, interiorised potential, declaring to the individual that ‘The Kingdom of God is within you’. Poetry, with its capacity to ‘resolutely test’ imperfect values, and aspirations towards beauty and harmony, becomes religion’s ally within culture. Unlike religion, however, poetry has not been wrested from the individual, although its function has been weakened as its cultural bed of source and inspiration runs dry. The classical writings of Greece and Rome, and the literature of sixteenth-century England are championed as exemplary junctures, where poetry and religion meet and flourish. In nineteenth-century England poetry has a special place in culture’s agenda; as a force capable of unleashing a generative religious sensibility. Popular literature is denigrated as an imperfect partisan shadow of the classical ideal.

Arnold establishes the ‘disinterested’ role of the critic as an objective cultural commentator, giving him the power to discern, represent and rank neglected works. From his vantage point, above society’s nascent redeemers, he can categorise the opponents of true internal culture. The aristocracy, exhibitors of an ornamental ‘exterior’ culture, can no longer be looked to as exemplars of aestheticism and inspirational values. As a type he refers to them as ‘Barbarians’. The middle classes, towards whom Arnold’s attention is almost wholly drawn as a possible spawning ground for the perception and dissemination of true culture, misguidedly revere principles of action and utility, earning them their classification as ‘Philistines’. Society’s base rests uneasily on the inchoate working classes, the ‘Populace’, given to moments of foment and anarchy, in the absence of any guiding cultural light.

As an undertow to society’s transient dissatisfactions runs a perennial pattern of ascendance, dominance, and usurpation between the vying dualistic forces of ‘Hebraism’ and ‘Hellenism’. Their alternative rise and fall determines the status of culture at any given time in history. Hellenism is humanity’s primary expression of ‘spontaneity of consciousness’, evincing the reflective traits that aspire to the truest representations in literature, poetry and religion. Hebraism advocates ‘strictness of consciousness’ and manifests laws of conduct, control, duty and action, providing a necessary corollary to the premature excesses of Hellenism. Arnold perceived a series of’checks’ and countercurrent  within nineteenth-century society that hindered the reemergence of a refined Hellenic perspective, gone to ground for the duration of Hebraisms prolonged rule. Culture reclaimed, recognised and acted upon is the key to betterment. A Hellenised future will be characterised by democratic harmony and the pursuit of perfection within a traditional social hegemony. The tutors in this evolutionary venture, the civilising voice of culture, so to speak, will come from a culturally empowered middle class.

Categories: Cultural Studies, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory

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