The Evolution of Criticism in the 19th Century

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Matthew Arnold, John Ruskin, Walter Pater, and Oscar Wilde were 19th century writers who all had one belief in common: that the criticism of works of art is at least as important as the works of art themselves. In 1865, Matthew Arnold stated that the function of criticism is “to see the object as in itself it really is.” In 1891, Oscar Wilde expressed that his view of the role of criticism was “to see the object as in itself it really is not.” This essay seeks to determine how and why one definition of criticism could evolve to a definition in complete opposition to it in such a relatively short period of time. It examines the viewpoints of four closely related literary minds and what each of them felt was the definition, and purpose, of true art. Through this examination, the essay also seeks to determine what theory of criticism and relationship to the art object results in the most meaningful connection to works of art. Matthew Arnold was first a poet and later became a critic of English society and literature. Much of Arnold’s poetry is characterized by a sadness and disappointment in the quickly changing societies of the modern world. In his poem “Dover Beach,” Arnold describes a world in which “the Sea of Faith” is quickly retreating, symbolizing the loss of faith and spirituality due to the evolution of the world into an industrial society (1368). This unhappiness and disappointment is evident in most of Arnold’s poetry. Thus Arnold was dissatisfied with the melancholy tone of his poetry, as by his own definition good poetry must bring joy to the reader. T.S. Eliot once wrote “in one’s prose reflections one may be legitimately occupied with ideals, whereas in the writing of verse, one can deal only with reality” (1352). As Arnold’s ‘reality’ was largely characterized by a melancholy morbidity, he abandoned poetry in order to express his ideals of what art and society should be through prose, thereby enabling himself to adopt a more purposeful character in his writings. In his essay “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time,” Arnold defines what he believes to be the role of a critic, which is namely “a disinterested endeavour to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world, and thus to establish a current of fresh and true ideas” (1396). Arnold emphasizes the idea that the power of the critic is at least equal to the power of the creator of the art object, because without the critic the artist cannot achieve greatness. He says, “for the creation of a masterwork of literature two powers must concur, the power of the man and the power of the moment” (1386). The greatness of the idea generated in a work of literature is nothing without the moment, or atmosphere, which must promote that idea, and this is precisely where Arnold’s critic plays a role. The ideal atmosphere, which Arnold describes as “a current of ideas in the highest degree animating and nourishing to the creative power; society…permeated by fresh thought, intelligent and alive” (1387) is necessary in order for the greatest ideas to reach the masses, and consequently enhance society’s intellectual culture. The critic is the instrument by which the greatest ideas are dispersed to all of society, but this cannot occur if the society is not open to new ideas. Arnold believes that English society is not a society open to “free play of the mind upon all subjects,” but a very narrow-minded one (1391). Arnold’s disdain for English society is reflected throughout his poetry as well as in his prose, and is the reason why Arnold comes to view criticism as so important. Arnold emphasizes the importance of disinterestedness in order for criticism to successfully function. He famously declares that the goal of criticism is to “see the object as in itself it really is,” which cannot occur unless the critic takes an unbiased stance when determining the greatness of the idea (1384). Arnold states “ideas cannot be too much prized in and for...
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