Literary Criticism

Matthew Arnold and Walter Pater

The distinction between the differing philosophies of literary study that was becoming apparent in both general critical discourse and the early English degrees has been described by Wallace Martin in terms of the opposition between ‘scholarship’, a concern with the accumulation and analysis of knowledge along scientific lines; and ‘criticism’, a more evalu- ative approach that drew on an older, humanist conception of literature. For Martin, exponents of these methods were, effectively, ‘representatives of different conceptions of knowledge’: while scholars aligned themselves with ‘canons of truth current in the natural sciences’, critics inclined towards ‘alternative models of understanding’ that privileged moral and aesthetic conceptions of ‘truth’ and an imaginative engagement with the text.26 The status given to literature by this latter group owed much to the work of Matthew Arnold and Walter Pater, whose critical philoso- phies can be traced in the debates about academic English that were advanced by a number of its early professors. Arnold and Pater differed in a number of important respects – Arnold advocated a belief in the power of criticism to act as a disinterested force able to restore social harmony, while Pater emphasised the essential autonomy of the aesthetic experience – yet crucially, what they shared was the belief that criticism depended on skills that could neither be taught, nor reduced to the narrowness of an academic specialism. The fact that both Arnold and Pater occupied academic posts makes this belief in the ‘unteachability’ of criticism particularly significant. Both held Fellowships at Oxford colleges (Arnold at Oriel and Pater at Brasenose), although, as Stefan Collini points out, ‘such Fellowships were in those days prizes, not the first steps in an academic career’.27 Arnold was appointed Inspector of Schools in 1851 and was also Professor of Poetry at Oxford from 1857 to 1867, a post he used as a forum for his lectures on literary and social criticism. Yet in neither of these posts was he actually required to teach literary criticism: moreover, his lectures on literary criticism emphasised criticism’s general functions rather than making a plea for increased academic specialisation. Such specialisation was also rejected by Pater, whose work presents what Ian Small has described as a deliberate challenge to the norms of scholarship that were becoming established at Oxford and elsewhere: ‘the authority for the type of criticism he was practising resided in the sensibility of the critic, and not in any body of specialist fact or theory’.28 Arnold’s version of criticism stemmed directly from his sense of its social urgency. His defence of the critical spirit – a force that in his work is metaphorised, variously, as ‘sweetness and light’, a ‘fresh and free play’ of the mind and the Hellenic spirit of ‘see[ing] things as they really are’29 – was fuelled by his anxiety over years of self-interest in industry, economics and politics, and by increasing tensions between the estab- lished Church and representatives of dissenting factions. The unrest that followed the second Reform Bill of 1866 heightened his sense of the need to counteract the philosophy of ‘doing as one likes’ and put in its place a sense of the overarching value of social harmony and the kinds of activity that could bring it into being. This meant that criti- cism, for Arnold, could never be a narrowly academic exercise. It is true that he saw it as needing to be underpinned by a ‘scientific passion’ for ‘pure knowledge’ – only thus could it maintain its rigour and avoid the relativism that had, in Arnold’s eyes, caused so much damage throughout public life – but this drive for knowledge should not be allowed to take precedence over what Arnold saw as criticism’s most important function, the promotion of ‘the moral and social passion for doing good’.30 In short, criticism was too important to be confined to the universities: it would only be able to carry out its duties if it belonged to the general sphere of public life. Arnold’s defence of criticism was also an attempt to address some of the objections voiced by its detractors. Many of these objections circu- lated around the belief that criticism was a self-indulgent symptom of a decadent society, a parasite that was inherently inferior to the acts of creation on which it relied.31 Arnold’s belief that culture could not be reduced to a mere ‘smattering of Greek and Latin’ and that both criticism and culture needed to be held up as a vision to remind people that ‘the perfection of human nature is sweetness and light’ formed an important part of this defence. He was also keen to refute Frederic Harrison’s asso- ciation of criticism with pettiness, indolence and a philosophy of ‘small fault-finding, love of selfish ease, and indecision in action’, relevant only to ‘a critic of new books or a professor of belles-lettres’.32 Nevertheless, Arnold was reluctant to describe the act of criticism in specific terms, and this reluctance means that in his writing criticism remains a vague concept, comprehensible only to a closed circle of individuals. While Arnold states, repeatedly, that criticism consists of ‘the free play of the mind’, he never gives a detailed account of what this process might involve, and therefore fails to set out a precise methodology for the accomplishment of his vision. Instead, the strategy he adopts is one of assuming that the skilled critic will simply recognise what he is referring to without needing it to be defined, almost as if he is protecting what Baldick has described as an ‘intellectual trade secret’.33 When Arnold states, evasively, that ‘the grand style is the last matter in the world for verbal definition to deal with adequately […] One must feel it in order to know what it is’, he effectively creates a closed community of potential critics who share his sense of appreciation and his capacity to single out ‘the best which has been thought and said’.34 And crucially, such a community is defined not in terms of its professional skills and quali- fications, but by its possession of a particular sensibility. The qualities that enable the individual to be a critic appear to be gained as if by birth, rather than being developed through the organised and systematic structures that were being put in place to regulate other disciplines of knowledge. Pater’s vision of the ideal critic took a different form, but ultimately he shared both Arnold’s sense of urgency and his belief that criticism was an activity that could not be taught. For Pater, this urgency stemmed from his awareness of the increasing commodification of culture and the threat this posed to the ‘cloistral refuge’ represented by fine art.35 In The Renaissance, Pater presents aesthetic objects as offering a form of

experience that was both rich and varied, standing in marked contrast to the vulgarity of the world at large: such objects included ‘the picture, the landscape, the engaging personality in life or in a book, La Gioconda, the hills of Carrara, Pico of Mirandola […] a herb, a wine, a gem’. The critical process was important in enabling the individual to determine the precise nature of the impressions presented by these objects, and to discriminate ever more closely between the different kinds of experience that life offered them: in Pater’s philosophy, ‘our education becomes complete in proportion, as our susceptibility to these impressions increases in depth and variety’.36 One important strand of Pater’s critical thought is the intellectual rigour involved in this discriminatory process, with the critic needing to possess a certain alertness to the demands of the aesthetic object. When reading, the critic needed to be aware of the ‘challenge for minute consideration’ presented by the author’s command of language, recog- nising that ‘it is worth the reader’s while to be attentive […] the writer is dealing scrupulously with his instrument, and therefore, indirectly, with the reader himself also’.37 Such activity could be enjoyable, as it offered a ‘pleasurable stimulus’ to ‘really strenuous minds’, but this pleasure clearly differed from the more immediate satisfaction offered by popular culture, involving an appreciation of
self-restraint, a skilful economy of means, ascêsis […] that frugal economy of style which makes the most of a word in the exaction from every sentence of a precise relief, in the just spacing out of a word to thought in the logically filled space connected always with the delightful sense of a difficulty overcome.38
‘High’ culture demanded that the critic must make a certain effort in order to do justice to the artist: indeed, part of its value stemmed from this very difficulty. Given his opposition to the norms of academic practice, it is signifi- cant that Pater often borrowed the language of academic discourse to articulate his sense of the rigour involved in aesthetic perception, refer- ring to the ‘science’ involved in the writer’s control of language and the ‘scholarly attentiveness of mind’ required by the critic.39 Nevertheless, this appreciation ultimately belonged to a personal world that lay beyond the bounds of academic analysis. Aesthetic judgements were related not to the verifiable facts prioritised by the ‘scientific rule’ of the new academic disciplines, but to a kind of truth that Pater characterised as ‘fact […] connected with soul’,40 requiring for their appreciation ‘a

certain kind of temperament […] the power of being deeply moved by the presence of beautiful objects’, rather than ‘a certain abstract defin- ition of beauty for the intellect’.41 This emphasis on ‘soul-fact’ is appar- ent in the vagueness of Pater’s critical vocabulary, a lexicon that Adam Phillips has described as being ‘evocative by being unspecific’: ‘His indefinite words, “sweet,” “peculiar,” “strange,” “delicate,” are resonant as blanks that can evoke powerful personal associations in the reader.’42 This evocative sense is perhaps most apparent in the Conclusion to The Renaissance, in which the fleeting, idiosyncratic nature of aesthetic experience is described in a manner that recreates the sense of trying to pin down an impression that is ultimately elusive:
Experience, already reduced to a group of impressions, is ringed round for each one of us by that thick wall of personality through which no real voice has ever pierced on its way to us, or from us to that which we can only conjecture to be without. Every one of those impressions is the impression of the individual in his isolation, each mind keeping as a solitary prisoner its own dream of a world […] Analysis goes a step further still, and tells us that those impressions of the individual mind to which, for each one of us, experience dwindles down, are in perpetual flight; that each of them is limited by time, and that as time is infinitely divisible, each of them is infin- itely divisible also; all that is actual in it being a single moment, gone while we try to apprehend it, of which it may ever be more truly said that it has ceased to be than that it is. To such a tremulous wisp constantly reforming itself on the stream, to a single sharp impression, with a sense in it, a relic more or less fleeting, of such moments gone by, what is real in our life fines itself down. It is with the movement, the passage and dissolution of impressions, images, sensations, that analysis leaves off – that continual vanishing away, that strange perpetual weaving and unweaving of ourselves.43
By using such techniques, Pater not only emphasises the value of the aesthetic in terms that can be related to the reader’s own experience, but also foregrounds an ‘inwardness of response’ that separates the aesthetic from the structured objectivity of academic analysis. And Pater’s description of this experience shares the same suggestive vagueness as Arnold’s account of the ‘Grand Style’: he invites his readers to identify with the experience he presents to them while also refusing to define this experience in concrete terms. While Pater demands a great deal of rigour from the critic himself, he also places criticism in a private world beyond theorisation and analysis, described in terms that would make it recognisable only to those who were already aware of its value. Arnold and Pater’s denial that criticism could (or should) be taught and examined in conventional academic ways lent support to a number of critics who were trying to resist institutional attempts to define literary knowledge in objective, factual terms. The fact that these critics worked both inside and outside the universities means that any attempt to see the institutionalisation of English in terms of a Heyckian paradigm of professionalisation and specialisation must be treated with caution. Rather than undergoing a straightforward assimilation into academic structures, criticism was the subject of ongoing debates as to what it involved, who was to carry it out and what kind of knowledge it was to produce: it continued to be practised outside the universities, and was underpinned by differing concepts of intellectual authority. These ques- tions were complicated further by the notion of audience. Academics in other disciplines (such as law, medicine or the sciences) produced know- ledge that was used on behalf of the general public, but not by members of the public themselves: instead, it was used by other academics and professionals, who acted as a medium through which knowledge was diffused and put to work. Academics in these fields were therefore writing for their professional peer group, rather than the public at large. Yet the audience for literary criticism was unclear. The critics of the mid- nineteenth century had written for the general public, to promote and explicate texts to a wider audience. The decline of the generalist periodicals and the changes in periodical criticism discussed earlier in this chapter indicate that this audience was diminishing. Nevertheless, the continuing adherence to sources of personal authority suggests that this broader audience was still an important presence in critics’ minds. If criticism was justified in Arnoldian terms, with reference to its social, moral and spiritual role, then its utility would depend on its readership – and to reach a general audience, criticism would, of course, need to be non-specialist. This heterogeneity of audiences and approaches serves to problematise the clear outlines of Heyck’s paradigm of professionalisation. The new techniques developed in history and the social sciences were sometimes drawn upon by critics working outside the universities, while the evalu- ative methods of the men of letters were also used by some of the new professors and lecturers. As a result, any notional gap between the ‘professionals’ working within university departments and the ‘amateurs’ who continued to operate outside academia is difficult to detect in prac- tice. An alternative set of terms – based on the abstract concept of authority, rather than the concrete fact of institutional employment – is supplied by Ian Small’s distinction between ‘personal’ and ‘professional’ forms of authority. Small argues that as intellectual authority was progressively removed from the hands of the individual and relocated in the institutional structures of the new academic disciplines, critics operating both inside and outside these institutions tried to sustain a belief in the existence of a more personal form of authority, making use of rhetorical techniques (such as the use of paradox and dialogue, an ambiva- lence in the handling of sources and a foregrounding of the authorial persona) which reasserted the individual’s claim to prominence. We have already seen, for instance, how Pater (an Oxford don) emphasised the importance of ‘fact […] connected with soul’ over the objective facts prioritised by the sciences, and how his insistence on accurate distinctions and fine discriminations was balanced by a reliance on impressionism and vagueness: while Phillips sees this in terms of a lack of rigour and ‘an absurd and characteristic disregard for [his] subjects’,44 Small is careful to define it as a conscious rejection of the ‘paraphernalia and devices’ of contemporary scholarly practices, and ‘an attempt to relocate the authority for the assessment and appreciation of a work of art within the individual’.45 The concept of personal authority, which continued to influence critics well into the twentieth century, produced literary criticism of a markedly different kind to that which was underwritten by the developing profes- sional norms of the universities, distinguished by the type of knowledge that it privileged, the judgements it made and even the nature of its rhetoric. Significantly, this type of criticism was produced by a wide range of critics, both inside and outside the universities. The impression produced by this movement towards personal authority is of an attempt to remove criticism from the increasingly objective, scholarly direction in which it was being taken by activities such as text-editing and literary history, and to restore the importance of the personal relationship between text and reader, meaning that criticism was still available to the general audiences discussed above. In turn, of course, this movement problematised attempts to locate criticism exclusively within the universities: many of criticism’s advocates – and even, ironically, many of the new professors of English – produced accounts of criticism that rendered it practically unteachable. The remainder of this chapter will take the form of an exploration of how personal and professional sources of authority were drawn on by a range of critics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It will consider, first of all, the philosophies of criticism advanced by some of English’s earliest professors, before moving on to the fields of

literary history and the criticism of Shakespeare – two areas in which the authority that underpinned literary judgements was particularly heavily contested. What this exploration will reveal is that criticism was often used to comment on and undermine the methods and procedures that literary scholarship was putting into place: what this ultimately indicates is that the professionalisation of criticism and the institution- alisation of English were two very different processes.

9 thoughts on “Matthew Arnold and Walter Pater

  1. Thank you!! A very happy birthday to – long may your literary skills ride the crest of the wave 🙂

  2. one of the most celebrated pieces of american literature of all time. There’s been a few movies before but they’ve sucked

  3. Cyril Connolly~ Literature is the art of writing something that will be read twice journalism what will be grasped at once.

  4. I am so not prepared for my English Literature exam: especially the Frankenstein half. #1WeekToGo

  5. I was exhausted writing about literature&how terrible the world is & I decided to write about playtime with ferrets!

  6. “The total absence of humor in the Bible is one of the most singular things in all literature.” ~Alfred North… …

  7. I am going to do that literature and reading later right now i might as well do some micro plating or run another gel

  8. “Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it… it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become.” -C.S Lewis

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.