The essay The Function of Criticism at the Present Time was published by Matthew Arnold in his first collection of critical writing ‘Essays in Criticism’ in 1865. The essay deals with Arnold’s interpretation of criticism and his critique of writers who write politically or religiously biased literature thus narrowing its scope.
Idea vs. Reality
Arnold starts his essay by saying, “Of the literature of France and Germany, as of the intellect of Europe in general, the main effort, for now, many years, has been a critical effort; the endeavour, in all branches of knowledge, theology, philosophy, history, art, science, to see the object as in itself it really is.” and adds, “false and malicious criticism had better never been made.”
Here Arnold explains the basic task of any critic. According to him, a critic must perceive any object (work) as it is, without thinking about the other conditions. Thus for him, the text should be the whole and a critic should never take the help of any other text for its explanation.
In the next line, he condemns the false criticism (which is not original and is biased). Arnold believes that the creator of a text is greater than its critic because “creative activity is the true function of man”, however, it is the critic who draws the true meaning of that particular work of literature.
According to Arnold, for a production of a great literary work, “the power of man” and “the power of moment” i.e. climate of great ideas must concur. If anyone of them is absent then a great work of literature will never be produced.
To explain this, Arnold takes the example of two poets- Goethe and Byron. Both Goethe and Byron had great productive power yet the work of Goethe is more productive than that of Byron because the former had a rich cultural background which the latter lacked. Similarly, Shakespeare was not a deep reader. His fame and glory were only because his age had a climate of great ideas.
Next, he says that the French Revolution, with its writers like Rousseau and Voltaire, was more powerful than the English Revolution of Charles (of great ideas of Renaissance).
However the English Revolution is though practically less successful than the French Revolution yet it is better than the letter as it “appeals to an order of ideas which are universal, certain permanent”.
French Revolution quitted the intellectual sphere and rushed into the political sphere, thus losing its universal application. French Revolution was followed by “Epoch of Concentration” (period of single-mindedness) which could not live long and was followed by “Epoch of Expansion” (period of creative ideas).
The works written on the French Revolution (like that of Burke) are though great and well appreciated yet they are biased as they combine politics with thought.
Use of Disinterestedness
Having explained this Arnold moves towards the nature of critic, his thinking, and his work. According to him, a critic must maintain a position of “disinterestedness,” i.e. keeping aloof from “the practical view of things“ in order to “know the best that is known and thought in the world, and in its turn making this known, to create a current of true and fresh ideas.” Here in these lines, he explains the task of a critic in a 3-fold way:
- First, a critic must know about life and the world before writing anything and see the things as they are.
- Second, he should promote his ideas to others and make the best ideas prevail in society.
- Third, he must create an atmosphere for the creation of the genius of the future by promoting these noble. honest and true ideas.
Arnold criticises the literature produced during the Victorian age. According to him, there is a failure of criticism due to the division of society and intellectuals into small political and religious groups that makes them incapable of seeing things in their true states.
He cites the example of various works of literature which were written to promote the writers’ own political agendas. e.g. the Edinburgh Review represents views of the Whigs; the Quarterly Review represents views of Tories; the British Quarterly Review represents the views of political Dissenters, and the Times represents the views of the “rich Englishman.”
On the other hand, he also criticises the “constructive” suggestions for living presented by Bishop Colenso and Miss Cobbe.
For him, they have religious influence in their writings which is again against the spirit of true criticism. He also tells that the common man lacks creativity.
Duty of Criticism
Arnold says that criticism must maintain its independence from the practical spirit and its aims. It must express dissatisfaction even with well-meant efforts of the practical spirit if in the sphere of the ideal they seem lacking.
It must be patient and not hurry on to the goal because of its practical importance, know how to wait, and know how to attach itself as well as withdraw from things.
Arnold talks about a person who regrets the loss of zeal which once existed but is no longer present in contemporary society due to the influence of politics and religion on ideas.
Thus he gives voice to commoners views to enhance the glory of the past. He advises the critics to adopt disinterested behaviour towards criticism. They should take into consideration foreign thought as well.
Their judgments should be from their own mind without any biases and should communicate fresh knowledge to their readers. The criticism is capable of making progress in Europe taking it towards perfection.
In the end, he defends his views on criticism and says that he won’t change his opinion for any person who deviates from his theory of criticism