Views expressed by Matthew Arnold’s in “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time"
What are the views expressed by Matthew Arnold’s in his critical essay “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time?”
The essay “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” is one of the most important critical essays of Matthew Arnold. It lays down the creed for Arnold’s critical approach and practical criticism. It is a sort of preamble to Arnold’s canons and concept of an ideal critic of life and literature.
Arnold says that critical faculty is as important as the creative faculty. Behind every act of creative faculty there is a good deal of critical faculty. In fact, no great work of any rank is possible with but the good deal of critical effort behind it. So there is a great need for and importance of criticism in English literature. It is true that the critical effort is lower in rank than the creative power. But a man may use his critical power to produce great critical works as usually as in producing great works of art and literature.
Arnold says that a creative writer needs to have currents of fresh and new ideas. The function of a critic is to provide these currents of fresh and new ideas. Arnold defines criticism as a disinterested endeavour to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world. In an age in which currents of fresh and new ideas are wanting no great work can ever be produced. A creative genius does not discover new things for that is the business of a critic. Arnold says that “synthesis and exposition, not of analysis and discovery.” He is inspired by a certain intellectual and spiritual atmosphere, by a certain order of ideas. Two factors are needed for the production of a great work – the power of man and the power of moment. The man is enough without the moment.
A poet must know all about the human life and the world around him. This knowledge of the world involves a great deal of critical effort. There was a great burst of ideological activity in the England of Shakespeare and in Greece of Pindar. Those ages were saturated with fresh and new ideas and this made the society intellectually alive.
In Arnold’s opinion criticism can actually prepare the ground for the existence of great creative power. A poet must know all about the life and world before dealing with them in poetry. Knowing about life and world implies a great critical effort. Then the poet, with all his creative gift needs to make a great critical effort before being able to create anything worthwhile. Both Byron and Goethe had a great productive power. But Goethe’s poetry was nourished by a great critical effort which the Byron’s poetry was not. So Byron’s poetry does not have the enduring qualifies of the Goethe’s poetry.
The English poetry of the first quarter of the 19th century, with plenty of energy and plenty of creative power, did not have enough knowledge. It did not have an adequate critical effort behind it. So Byron’s poetry is so empty of matter and Shelley’s poetry is so incoherent. Wordsworth, though profound lacked completeness and variety. Wordsworth would have been a greater poet if he had read more books. This does not mean that reading of books is the only means to that knowledge of life and world. Pindar and Sophocles are no great readers and Shakespeare was no deep reader. But these men lived during periods of history characterized by new and fresh ideas which produced a stir and growth in society. But during the first quarter of the 19th century there was no national glow of light and thought as there was during the times of Pindar and Sophocles or during the time of Shakespeare. So a thorough interpretation of life and world is lacking in the poetry of first quarters of the 19th century.
Qualifications of a Good Critic: Arnold prescribes a very high qualifications and acquisitions for a critic. He should be a devoted scholar and an observer of life. He should know the best that is known and thought in the world. He must have knowledge of all subjects and in all branches of knowledge. He should be a man of wide knowledge and learning. He must have no practical biases or prejudices. He should not belong to any political party or faction. He must be absolutely detached and impartial. He must have no practical considerations and ends in view. Sincerity, impartiality and fearlessness are very essential for a critic. He may accept many pitfalls, he may be misunderstood, abused and condemned. But he should not be disturbed or dismayed by such condemnation. He should go on the path of truth and impartiality.
Duties and Obligations of a Critic: In Arnold’s opinion a critic has a very high duties and obligations to society. He felt that during his period criticism was at a very lowest ebb. Many false estimations prevailed in his age. Inferior works and paltry writers were praised and many good books were run down. It is the duty of a critic to refine the tastes of the public. A critic should train the public mind to distinguish between what is really beautiful and what is not. This task was not so easy. But he must pursue his goal with patience, courage and impartiality. He must know and propagate the best that has been known and thought in the world. He must know and propagate the requisitions of true culture. He should not write in a hurry. He should allow time to his ideas to nurture. He must perform his duties with a high sense of social service and spiritual perfection.