English essayist, critic and poet Matthew Arnold got a hard ride from my classmates this week for his wordy and winding Victorian prose. I struggled with his 1864 essay "The Function of Criticism at the Present Time" too, but finally realized that underneath the convoluted verbiage is actually a fine slice of dry humour and sympathy. Plus, he uses some real-life drama to help illustrate why the world needs criticism.
First up, Arnold quotes two ruling-class Brits whose words of “exuberant self-satisfaction” (his description) would have worked well in a Monty Python skit. Sir Charles Adderley calls the Anglo-Saxon race “the best breed in the whole world,” thanks at least partly to a bracing climate that has rendered "us so superior to all the world." And government member John Roebuck extolls England’s safety and freedom: “I ask you whether, the world over or in past history, there is anything like it?” he asks rhetorically. “Nothing. I pray that our unrivalled happiness may last.”
Then, in a jarring shift from the hyperbole, comes a tiny item Arnold plucked from the day’s newspaper:
A shocking child murder has just been committed at Nottingham. A girl named Wragg left the workhouse there on Saturday morning with her young illegitimate child. The child was soon afterwards found dead on Mapperly Hills, having been strangled. Wragg is in custody.
What a chasm between two worlds these snippets reveal! Arnold notes the young woman’s first name is lopped off and her last one is hideous. He says there's a "touch of grossness" in the so-called best breed in the whole world that has somehow led to the proliferation of similarly ugly names --“Higginbottom, Stiggins, Bugg!” As for the country’s “unrivalled” happiness, “what an element of grimness, bareness, and hideousness mixes with it and blurs it; the workhouse, the dismal Mapperly Hills, -- how dismal those who have seen them will remember – the gloom, the smoke, the cold, the strangled illegitimate child!”
The value of criticism is that it points out contrasts like this and opens up the potential for change, says Arnold. Politicians won’t welcome anyone responding to their hyperbole by murmuring “Wragg is in custody,” he says, but “in no other way will these songs of triumph be induced gradually to moderate themselves….” A century and a half later, I’d argue that Arnold’s point is as true as ever, no matter how he words it.
Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) is remarkable for a number of things, including his facial hair -- fuzzy cheeks but a clean-shaven chin and no moustache -- which in a Vanity Fair caricature gives him a decidedly lop-sided aspect. But like many men of his class and era, he worked like a demon, combining his roles as a serious literary figure and cultural critic with a full-time job as an inspector of schools. He also wrote the poem Dover Beach, which crops up from time to time in contemporary literature, including Ian McEwan's novel Saturday.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Agean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.