Saturday, 31 October 2015

The Function of Criticism at the present time (essays of criticism) by Matthew Arnold

Matthew Arnold

 The Function of Criticism at the Present Time


Matthew Arnold was born on Christmas eve in 1822 in England. He is an eminent Victorian who holds a high place in the long line of poet-critics of England. As a critic Arnold was the most influential force among the Victorians.  He believed that literature is a criticism of life. The function of Arnold’s critic  is to promote literary culture. The Function of Criticism at the Present Time is the finest of Arnold’s essays.  It is a classic statement of the liberal principles, which ideally should guide the performance of criticism. When Matthew Arnold uses the term ‘criticism’ it has a wider application.  It is directed upon society, religion, politics and life in general. It is the free play of the mind on all subjects and its function is to promote culture by helping the lively circulation of the best ideas yet available to humanity. Arnold sees the critic as doing the spadework for a new creative age.  At one and the same time the critic is a kind of midwife to artistic genius and the mediator between the artist and the general public.

Arnold has stated his opinions about poetry in his “Study of Poetry”.  Poetry, according to Arnold, is capable of higher uses than it appears to be.  It can interpret life for us, it can console us and sustain us.  Without poetry science will be incomplete.  Matthew Arnold says that religion and philosophy are but shadows and dreams.  They are actually false shows of knowledge. Soon we will come to know of their emptiness and we will turn again to poetry.  Arnold says that poetry is the criticism of life. The consolation and power that we seek in poetry will depend on its power of the criticism of life. By criticism of life, Arnold means the profound application of ideas of life.

 Poetic truth means the truth and seriousness of the substance and matter. Poetic beauty means felicity and perfection of the diction and manner. The poet does not present life as it is, but he adds something to it from his own noble nature and this is his criticism of life. Poetry makes men better and nobler by appealing to the soul of men. Science, on the other hand, appeals to reason.  When the poet speaks from the depth of his soul, he creates a “thing of beauty, which is for ever”.  It is this kind of poetry that lives for-ever delighting us and ennobling our soul.


Matthew Arnold defines criticism as a disinterested hard work to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world.  A critic should avoid narrow-minded provincialism and falsification of ideas so that he can discover the best and the noblest.  Arnold suggests his well-known touchstone method to guide the critic.  According to this method, poetry of very high quality are compared to the work under consideration. Arnold suggested this method to overcome the drawbacks of the personal and historical estimates of a poem.  In Arnold’s view the most useful method to discover the real excellence is to have in mind lines and expression of the great masters such as Dante, Shakespeare Milton etc. which may be applied as touchstone to other works. 

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