The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 7. His prose; Essays in Criticism
Matthew Arnold’s prose writings, mainly, were the work of his middle and later years. They deal with, practically, the entire fabric of English civilisation and culture in his day; and they are all directed by one clear and consistent critical purpose. That purpose was to “cure the great vice of our intellect, manifesting itself in our incredible vagaries in literature, in art, in religion, in morals; namely, that it is fantastic, and wants sanity.”
The main body of his purely literary criticism, with the exception of a few scattered essays, is to be found in the lectures On Translating Homer (1861), and The Study of Celtic Literature (1867), and in the two volumes entitled Essays in Criticism (1865, 1889). The most notable of these books, as illustrating Arnold’s literary ideals and preferences—his critical method may be equally well studied in the others —is, undoubtedly, the first series of Essays in Criticism. Its appearance, in 1865, was something of a literary sensation, by reason of its style, the novelty and confidence of its opinions and the wide and curious range of its subjects. No volumes of critical essays had before appeared, in England at least, on a collection of subjects and authors so diverse as the literary influence of academies, pagan and medieval religious sentiment, a Persian passion-play, the Du Guerins, Joubert, Heine, Spinoza, Marcus Aurelius. And the first two essays, in particular, struck a note of challenge to all the popular critics of the day. They proclaimed the appearance of a paladin bent, above everything, upon piercing the armour of self-sufficiency and “provinciality,” in which the average English “authority in matters of taste” had been accustomed to strut with much confidence. Here, for the first time, we come across verbal weapons to be repeatedly used with devastating effect in a lifelong campaign against the hosts of Philistia. The famous nickname “Philistine,” borrowed from Heine, makes its first appearance in this book—to denote the “strong, dogged, unenlightened opponent of the chosen people, of the children of light.” We now first hear, also, of “the provincial spirit,” “the best that is known and thought in the world,” “the free play of the mind,” “flexibility of intelligence”—afterwards to be identified with Plato’s [char] ”prose of the centre,” “the modern spirit,” “criticism of life” and other phrases destined, by reiterated use, to become familiar. Although the author’s weapons were mainly of his own making, his way of using them, his adroit and dexterous methods of attack, had been learnt from France. French prose, for Matthew Arnold, was the “prose of the centre,” the nearest modern equivalent to “Attic prose,” and the two contemporary critics he admired most were Sainte-Beuve and Renan. In purely literary criticism, Sainte-Beuve is his chief model; but his methods in other critical fields were largely the results of his reading of Renan. As early as 1859, he speaks of Renan as one “between whose line of endeavour and my own I imagine there is considerable resemblance.” The two resembled each other not least in the adoption of a style, lenis, minimeque pertinax—“sinuous, easy, unpolemical”—very unlike the “highly-charged, heavy-shotted articles” of English newspaper critics.
Arnold’s knowledge and appreciation of French prose were wide and peculiarly sensitive, and stand in curious contrast to his lack of enthusiasm for, if not indifference to, French poetry. France, “famed in all great arts, in none supreme,” appeared to him to have achieved her most signal triumphs in prose, but his partiality to French prose led him to some strange vagaries of judgment in his estimates of individual writers. Sainte-Beuve and Renan, no doubt, deserved the flattery he paid both by limitating them, but he has given an exaggerated importance to such writers as the Du Gueacute;rins, Joubert and Amiel.
When we turn from these eccentric preferences to the main principles of his literary criticism, we find, in his definitions of them, at any rate, much that is incontrovertible and a little that is open to question. “Disinterestedness,” detachment, he tells us, is the first requisite in a literary critic—“a disinterested endeavour to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world.” With this goes “knowledge”; and no English critic is adequately equipped who does not “possess one great literature, at least, besides his own.” Criticism in England was altogether too provicial. Nothing quite like this had been stated in English before, and no critic, in his practice, made so sedulous an effort as Arnold to convince his countrymen of their insularity, and to persuade them to acquire an European outlook in literature and art. When he becomes a little more particular in his definitions and says that “the end and aim of all literature” is “a criticism of life,” and, again, that “poetry is, at bottom, a criticism of life,” he provokes a debate which, at one time, was pursued with considerable spirit and some acerbity—especially, as Sir Leslie Stephen has put it, by critics who were “unable to distinguish between an epigram and a philosophical dogma.”