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Matthew Arnold

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Niño ManaogBy Niño Manaog
 
Lionel Trilling, a 20th-century American critic, must have considered Matthew Arnold the founding father of modern criticism in the English speaking world, because of the consistently moralistic if not messianic tenets he espoused on poetry, its criticism and society.

Having lived in a time of social unrest in English society, Arnold saw a need to heighten among the English “the impulse to the development of the whole man, to connecting and harmonizing all parts of him, perfecting all, leaving none to take their chance.

Ushering in the New Humanism in his era, Arnold poses these questions: Who shall inherit England? What kinds of power could they be trusted with? What forms of education should they receive? Arnold says that answers can be found in many literary sources, some of the distant past, others close to his own era.

Treating writing and reading of literature as urgent activities in the world, Arnold says that poetry at bottom is “a criticism of life—the greatness of the poet lies in the powerful and beautiful application of ideas to life—to the question—how to live.”

He highly esteems poetry, believing it is the enlightened activity of the mind/culture. Having wide range, covering diverse subject matter, it communicates in a formative and effective way through offering what is itself a living experience, not through abstract analysis and description.

On the value of poets and their works, Arnold considers such noble and profound application of ideas to life the most essential part of poetic greatness.

Further on, to Arnold, poetry is nothing less than the most perfect speech of man. It is the use of language in the most effective, reaching and suggestively adequate way possible. Also, poetry emerges when man comes nearest to being able to utter the truth—that is by way of verbal expression.

In Preface to Wordsworth’s Poems, Arnold says the question how to live is itself a moral idea. And it is the question which is most interests every man, and with which, in some way or other, he is perpetually occupied. A large sense of course is to be given to the term moral. Whatever bears upon the question how to live comes under it.

The greatness of English poetry at its best resides in the vigorous imaginative power with which it has related moral ideas to concrete life. Here, Arnold claims that appreciative reading of the best literature achieves for us moral betterment and spiritual renewal.

When Arnold says, “Aspirants to perfection and foes to fanaticism and zealotry, critics are the best persons—poised, balanced, and reflective…” he echoes Sidney who claims that the fi nal end of learning is “to lead and draw us to as high a perfection as our degenerate souls, made worse by their clayey longings, can be capable of.”

Involved and having witnessed to the current state of the English society, Arnold’s privilege and position allowed him to critique criticism in the most incisive unyielding if not austere way.

He declared that criticism is the “disinterested endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world.”
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