Matthew Arnold Questions for English 256 Intro to Theory, Chapman University Fall 2012



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Assigned: "The Function of Criticism at the Present Time." (695-714).

"The Function of Criticism at the Present Time"


1. On 695-96, what is the nature of the "critical effort" (695), and what, according to Arnold, is the "highest function of man" (696)? How do we know this to be the case? Can criticism fulfill this highest function, or is it the case that only art can do so? Explain how Arnold defends criticism from the harsh charge that it is merely reactive and derivative stuff.

2. On 696-98, how does Arnold characterize the "creative power" (which he also calls "literary genius") and the "critical power"? What relationship does Arnold posit between these two powers? Why can't there be a truly great period of literary creation without criticism? To what extent is literary genius or the creative power dependent upon the age in which it works?

3. On 697-98, while Arnold is setting forth his ideas about the creative and critical powers and the relationship between them, how does he use the English romantic poets as an example of what can go wrong with the exercise of the creative power or genius? That is, what criticism is the Victorian Matthew Arnold making of the much-loved romantics who preceded him by a generation?

4. On 698-700, how does Arnold analyze the French Revolution? What was the Revolution's greatest strength, and what was its "grand error" (700)? How does this analysis of the Revolution relate to Arnold's claims about the role that intellectual criticism should be playing in Great Britain of his own Victorian Era (1837-1901)?

5. On 701, how is Edmund Burke's career, in Arnold's view, an example of "living by ideas" and therefore a counterbalance to the errors of the French Revolutionaries? How does Arnold explain his phrase "living by ideas"?

6. What notion "hardly enters into an Englishman's thoughts" (702)? How, according to Arnold on 702-04, is this missing notion essential to criticism? How does Arnold define criticism and its goals on these pages, and what role does the key term "disinterestedness" (713) play in his argument?

7. On 704-06, what forces in Victorian life does Arnold identify as getting in the way of Great Britain's intellectual progress? How does he use the remarks of Sir Charles Adderley and John Arthur Roebuck as examples of such hindrance? Furthermore, what is the basis of Arnold's complaint on 705-06 about the newspaper headline "Wragg is in custody" (705)?

8. On 706-07, what key objection does Arnold anticipate against his view of British society's need for disinterested (i.e. unbiased) critical activity? How does he counter this objection, which, as he acknowledges, holds great sway in mid-Victorian England – what's to be said to well-intentioned "Philistines" who insist that everyday life and its hurly-burly way with ideas is the proper way to progress towards "truth and culture" (707)?

9. On 707-10, how does Arnold use his tussle over interpretation of Bishop John Colenso's biblical commentaries as an example of what happens when a cultural critic gets involved in the daily back-and-forth of intellectual affairs? Who became upset with Arnold, and why? What is his response to such critics?

10. On 711-14, what closing thoughts does Arnold set forth regarding the kind and scope of critical thought that will best help Great Britain going forward? How does Continental Europe's intellectual production enter into the picture – why is it so important for the English to broaden their critical web to embrace that production? Does Arnold seem hopeful that his program of disinterested attempts to know the world's best thoughts will, in fact, make a difference in the real lives of ordinary English people?

11. If you have read some of John Stuart Mill's work (such as his Autobiography, or On Liberty), how does Matthew Arnold compare to that author in the objects of his social criticism and his way of dealing with them? In what regard might Arnold differ from Mill? (general question)

12. Towards the end of his essay, on 713-14, Matthew Arnold describes his notions of the modern nation's intellectual life and the educated individual's place within it. For those who have read T. S. Eliot's claims about poetry and criticism in "Tradition and the Individual Talent," how might Arnold's notions be a source for Eliot's ideas about judging the merits of past literary productions and advocating what's needed in contemporary art and criticism? (824-25)

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B., ed. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 2010. ISBN 978-0-393-93292-8.