03/22. Tu. John Ruskin. Modern Painters (1320-24) and The Stones of Venice (1324-34).
03/24. Th. Matthew Arnold. "The Buried Life" (1356-58); "Dover Beach" (1368-69); "Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse" (1369-74); "Preface to Poems" (1374-84).
Notes on John Ruskin
From Modern Painters
1320. “Painting . . . is nothing but a noble and expressive language….” And “It is not by the mode of representing and saying, but by what is represented and said, that the respective greatness either of the painter or the writer is to be finally determined.” Ruskin demands accuracy in a painter, but merely technical ability is not enough. Painting is an expressive art, and it’s the quality and intensity of the expression that matters above all else. Ruskin is a belated Romantic in this regard.
1321. The best art, according to Ruskin, is that which “conveys to the mind of the spectator, by any means whatsoever, the greatest number of the greatest ideas.” He continues, “I call an idea great in proportion as it is received by a higher faculty of the mind, and as it more fully occupies, and in occupying, exercises and exalts, the faculty by which it is received.” The “ideas” referenced here are not logical constructions; they are more like a species of the sublime, another Romantic affinity of Ruskin’s. With regard to Turner’s 1840 painting “The Slave Ship,” Ruskin’s description aims to give us his own impression of the painting, which involves a sense of the sublimity evoked by the scene’s eerie use of color and light and its apocalyptic overtones. This isn’t to say that Ruskin advocates mere “impressionism”—I think he believes that Turner’s painting has special qualities that positively demand the attention of a trained eye and a refined spirit. Critics must be “accurate” in this sense, just as the painter must in some fashion paint the subject truly. Turner’s painting itself isn’t merely mimetic or didactic but is instead profoundly imaginative. Turner’s painting is an instance of sublimity, and Ruskin does his best to honor it on its own terms. So what does the painting convey? Well, Ruskin doesn’t talk about the painting’s “thesis” or “argument” insofar as a painting constitutes an argument (i.e. slavery is a moral evil, etc); he describes light, color, and the relations between one part of the painting and another, and tries to catch the emotive effects generated by these things. I would suggest that “the power, majesty, and deathfulness of the open, deep, illimitable Sea” is the main “idea” to be conveyed: a power linked to the infinite horror of what the slavers have done since their actions reveal the depths of human depravity.
From The Stones of Venice
Ruskin, a mid-Victorian sage-writer, says that England’s current course in economics and empire parallels the fall of Venice when that city entered its decadent Renaissance phase during the Quattrocento: soulless perfection in architecture and art, lewdness in morals, shamelessness in pursuit of monetary wealth. At base, pride goes before a fall: we are fallen enough already, and there’s no need to keep repeating our arrogant rebelliousness and claim autonomy from God, argues Ruskin. He is a disciple of Carlyle, another conservative prophet raging in the wilderness, offering at one time threats, at another salvation. He is a moralist who interprets architectural history and technique as an embodiment of a given culture’s moral status. He treats paintings and social forms in much the same way, reading them as expressions of a society’s spiritual health or morbidity.
In Stones, Ruskin demonstrates that Gothic feudalism encouraged workers to express their individual spirit in a way that did honor to the Church. Labor is central to fallen human beings. The way back to a right appreciation of God is mediation, accommodation, humility, and striving that doesn’t try to rival God as our creator and source. So the critic and consumer must interpret the products of labor with their expressive quality in mind. Critics and consumers must grasp the need for striving worthy of redemption, labor directed heavenward. Why does Ruskin favor architecture in particular? Buildings are works of art that we experience, live in, gather in. And Gothic workers were building cathedrals, which are communal expressions of humility before God, so they resist the urge to rebuild the Tower of Babel of Genesis, for which God confounded the builders’ speech.
The “moral elements” of Gothic are as follows: savageness, changefulness, naturalism, grotesqueness, rigidity, and redundance. With regard to the builders, these categories translate to savageness, love of change, love of nature, disturbed imagination, obstinacy, and generosity. Gothic architecture expresses the workers’ mental tendencies, and the result of their work—often cathedrals—was intended to be a dwelling-place for and offering to God. A church (the visible or assembled body of the faithful) is, after all, an expression of human aspirations to connect with the divine, and a locus of spiritual community.
1324. “And when that fallen roman, in the utmost importance of his luxury, and insolence of his guilt, became the model for the imitation of civilized europe, at the close of the so-called Dark ages, the word Gothic became a term of unmitigated contempt. . . .” A consumer is an interpreter, a critic (on this point, see also Unto This Last), but the insolent, prideful, complacent Renaissance patron, insists Ruskin, wanted and saw only soulless perfection, and what had been a serious kind of grotesqueness became merely obscene because that’s what the corrupt patrons wanted. Genuine grotesque art flows from the labor of a spirit in tension, confronting the shocks and extreme contradictions in life—death and terror, the fantastic, the ludicrous. Mere obscenity is cynical and materialistic, by contrast.
1326-27. Ruskin elaborates on servile, constitutional, and revolutionary forms of art. Of the first, the principal types are “the Greek, Ninevite, and Egyptian.” Greek architectural style achieves a balance, calm, rest, and self-sufficiency, but with respect to the workers who made the buildings, says Ruskin, “The Greek gave to the lower workman no subject which he could not perfectly execute.” But with constitutional ornament, he writes, things are otherwise: in the “Christian system of ornament, this slavery is done away with altogether; christianity having recognized, in small things as well as great, the individual value of every soul” (1327). The essence of it is striving. As for revolutionary ornament, its makers and consumers are selfish, fixated on trivial things done to material perfection. An eye fixed on this kind of ornament is debased—as Blake would say, “a fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.” Priorities here are turned upside down, and buildings are not offerings to God but monuments to the artist’s or patron’s ego. In this sense, Ruskin construes the Renaissance as a second fall in which people deployed mere technical skill and science to try to overcome the effects of the original fall in Eden, and of course he sees England going down the same path, in search of a false capitalist utopia.
1327. “[I]t is, perhaps, the principal admirableness of the Gothic schools of architecture, that they thus receive the results of the labor of inferior minds, and out of fragments full of imperfection, and betraying that imperfection in every touch, indulgently raise up a stately and unaccusable whole.” But neither Renaissance patrons nor modern English consumers can accept this scheme, says Ruskin, and they can’t appreciate the fact that “the best things shall be seldomest seen in their best form” or that “the finer the nature, the more flaws it will show through the clearness of it.”
1328. As always in Ruskin, there’s a stark moral decision to make regarding the status of labor, that activity so central to human life and value: “you are put to stern choice in this matter. You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him. You cannot make both.” There is no happy medium, no easy accommodation to make, when it comes to honoring the spiritual well-being of laborers or getting the most materially “perfect” work from them. What is imperfect, flawed, incomplete, is exactly what links the thing made to infinity. In both Romantic poetics and Christian theology, the fragment is greater than the limited whole because it indicates striving, progress, aspiration to a higher and even infinite state of spirituality. But Ruskin’s Christian framework is hardly Byronic—it emphasizes not an autonomous attempt at self-transcendence but instead promotes a kind of aspiration that begins with the frank acknowledgement of the individual’s own limitations and imperfections. The body and its material works are finite; art and architecture are of value only insofar as they express the soul’s attempt to break free of materiality while still accepting that it cannot entirely do so. When Ruskin mentions clouds in connection with labor, as he does when he writes of the worker’s efforts, “we know the height of it only, when we see the clouds settling upon him” (1328), we should remember that in his analysis of Turner’s atmospheric paintings, clouds at once veil and bear the sun’s radiance. Clouds need to be read as semi-translucent markers of the boundary between the finite and infinity.
1329. “[E]xamine once more those ugly goblins, and formless monsters . . . but do not mock at them, for they are signs of the life and liberty of every workman, who struck the stone . . . .” With respect to the present day, he says, “It is not that men are ill fed, but that they have no pleasure in the work by which they make their bread.” The dignity of labor is as central to Ruskin as labor in general was to his predecessor Carlyle. And like Carlyle, Ruskin is no great promoter of democratic change: in characterizing liberty, he makes much the same point that Carlyle did, only in a gentler fashion: one day, he says, “men will see that to obey another man, to labour for him, yield reverence to him or to his place, is not slavery. It is often the best kind of liberty.” Ruskin advocates a rank-based yet egalitarian society, one that (like the Christian Church) values the strivings and aspirations of each imperfect believer, one that acknowledges the gap between the human and the divine but treats it in a hopeful way.
1330. “We have much studied and much perfected, of late, the great civilized invention of the division of labor, only we give it a false name. It is not, truly speaking, the labour that is divided, but the men.” The division of labor, of course, is a central tenet of capitalist production, one enunciated by Adam Smith in his 1776 book, The Wealth of Nations. Smith explains this principle in a positive manner that suggests how it has the potential to end millennia of human misery: humanity has never found it easy to keep body and soul together; the ancient problem was that of production: many people simply didn’t get enough to eat, or have enough possessions to make life more or less tolerable, never mind pleasant and full of opportunities for upward mobility. But the vast increases in production made possible by trade and increased volume of production made it possible to conceive of a time when poverty and want would be no more—this is a vital point to understand about Adam Smith’s argument in favor of capitalism; he was not a soulless proponent of material accumulation but a moral philosopher who wanted the new mode and means of production to help people harness selfish individual desires for the good of the wider community. And when the market works, I suppose that’s exactly what it does: the capitalist earns a good profit, and gives us the things we need and want.
But Ruskin is dealing with the phenomenon that Marx calls “alienated labor”: the undeniable fact that under nineteenth-century production methods, many workers found little meaning in their work but instead experienced it as essentially dehumanizing and isolating. They were producing a world of riches in which they themselves had miserably little share, and which cost them any chance to become something more than they already were or to make meaningful connections with their fellow laborers. Marx’s term “the fetishism of the commodity” (whereby it is things that matter and have vital relations, not the people who make them with their own minds and hands—the worker is reduced to a thing, while the thing is treated as if it were a living being), applies to virtually everything done in a consumer society. Smith himself points out that we might one day pay people to do specialized kinds of thinking for us, just as we would pay someone to repair our shoes or furniture. So in this way alienation and fragmentation is the law of life under capitalism. Ruskin opposes the entire system for that reason, though of course his solution is radically different from Marx’s, which puts its faith in the revolutionary potential of the industrial proletariat or working class.
1331-32. “The old Venice glass was muddy, inaccurate in all its forms, and clumsily cut, if at all. And the old Venetian was justly proud of it” (1332). What is Ruskin’s answer to the inherent problem of capitalist production? Well, he offers a moral prescription, a consumer’s list of things to consider before buying anything: imitation and exact finish are not to be sought for their own sake, while “invention” is to be rewarded at every turn, wherever possible. His main example is that of Venetian glass, which is of course both strikingly beautiful, all the more so because of its imperfections. Mass-manufactured glass can’t compete with it for quality or beauty. One must accept the simultaneous existence of both poorly executed and well executed Venetian glass; if we want the best of it, we have to accept that quality will vary from one piece to the next. We could name a variety of similar products—indeed, the whole “Crafts” movement in England and America is premised on this model of the moral consumer who has the welfare of the worker in view: things made by hand and produced with care are favored, while merely utilitarian items are generally discouraged because they not only dishonor laborers but also lead to a world that is ugly and unpleasant to live in. And today’s advocates of buying organic produce make a similar argument: fair trade organic coffees, locally grown organic produce, and other such goods are becoming more popular, at least for those who can afford them.
There’s reason to be sympathetic towards Ruskin’s insistence that buying something can be a moral or an immoral act. Proponents of the market philosophy are always insisting that capitalist economics is the appropriate system for lovers of liberty and individual autonomy, yet at times one hears them insisting also that the model of the rational consumer is absolute: people will always follow the law of competition, buying what they need and want on the basis of a certain cost/quality ratio: i.e. they will do what nets them the most good stuff at the lowest possible price. But that is a kind of determinism: what if I want to buy a zero-emissions car even though it costs more, because I think it’s simply the right thing to do and I have sufficient funds to do so? Am I an automaton who can’t make such choices, or am I a free agent who might just make a financial sacrifice to derive both tangible and intangible benefits from my ethical purchase? Or what if I choose not to buy products tested on animals even if they cost more or it takes a bit of effort to find out which products are “cruelty free”? And so forth. It is possible to make such choices, at least some of the time. So Ruskin’s idea is not so far out of the practical orbit that we should discount it as absurd. But at the same time, it’s possible to level a serious criticism: it’s hard to see how to get an entire society to make such choices so frequently as to make more than a token difference in what gets produced. Most people probably don’t have enough money to buy organic avocados or a car that costs an extra 5,000 dollars but runs clean. Perhaps the best solution here is some measure of governmental incentive, mixed with market initiative: on their own, huge companies that benefit from the status quo aren’t likely to make changes in production that threaten to undercut their profits.
1333-34. Ruskin says that there are two reasons why the demand for perfection in art is wrong. The first is “that no great man ever stops working till he has reached his point of failure,” and the second is that “imperfection is in some sort essential to all that we know of life. It is the sign of life in a mortal body, that is to say, of a state of progress and change.” His emblem for the latter point is the foxglove blossom (digitalis purpurea, a beautiful flowering plant used today in the making of an important drug for heart attack victims). This blossom, writes Ruskin, is “a third part bud, a third part past, a third part in full bloom” and is, therefore, “a type of the life of this world.” We are always passing from one state to another. The law of fallen life is change, imperfection, striving. Christian teleology implies a purposeful movement from decay (the fallen past) to a redemptive future (the foxglove’s “bud”). To sum up in Ruskin’s words, “All things are literally better, lovelier, and more beloved for the imperfections which have been divinely appointed, that the law of human life may be Effort, and the law of human judgment, Mercy.”
Notes on Matthew Arnold
“The Buried Life”
This poem brilliantly analyzes what Arnold posits as a universal need to look within, to trace the operations of our inner being and to express them in a language commensurate with this inner life. In other words, Arnold is writing about the very stuff of romantic expressivism. The first few stanzas make it clear that the poet is unable in the present instance to make the connection with another he later posits as being necessary to the insight he seeks. In spite of that, the poem is one of Arnold ’s more optimistic efforts. A power he simply describes as “Fate” (30), has kept “The unregarded river of our life” from plain view to protect us from our own destructive frivolity, but this river of authentic being flows on nonetheless. The poet explains that no individual, looking within only himself or herself, can truly gained access to the inner springs of life and thought. Acting on our own, we cannot know from whence we have come or where we are going; we cannot grasp the purpose of our lives. And we cannot, it almost goes without saying, express a purpose we cannot even apprehend. From lines 55-66, the speaker suggests that most of what we do is a kind of self-deception—what we do and say, that is, conceals far more than it reveals about what we really are inside. Society demands no less of a charade. Even so, the speaker is by no means downcast: there are those rare moments when the voice, the gaze, or the touch of a beloved person gives us access to our being in all its authenticity. Arnold casts the result of this rarity in Wordsworthian terms: “The eye sinks inward, and the heart lies plain, / And what we mean, we say, and what we would, we know” (86-87). So it is possible on rare occasion, and with the help of another, really to look within and to express what we see there. This is, especially for a gloomy poet like Arnold, a cheerful thought, and it bears comparison to Wordsworth’s beautiful lines from “Tintern Abbey,” “with an eye made quiet by the power / Of harmony, and the deep power of joy, / We see into the life of things” (47-49). It is possible to achieve an epiphany of the self and to express the insight flowing from it. What is captured is not something static but rather dynamic and flowing, as the poem’s persistent river metaphor indicates. Some may find a note of hesitancy in the poem’s final lines, “And then he thinks he knows / The hills where his life rose, / And the sea where it goes” (96-98). But I don’t think the word “knows” connotes doubt in this case; the conjectural seeker may or may not know the last word about his origins or destination, but that seems less important than the knowledge of his present self the poem says can, in fact, be attained. We should not expect from Matthew Arnold a brash statement such as John Donne’s “She is all States, and all Princes, I; / Nothing else is.” What we get, instead, is a sort of quiet, wistful optimism in the midst of so many melancholy and contemplative utterances by this earnest mid-Victorian.
The poem opens with the description of a beautiful natural scene, a seascape. Apparently it is a clear night in patches because the speaker can see the nightlights of France across the English Channel . And he catches something eternal about humanity in the effects of natural process—Sophocles, the poet says, heard the same sound attentively long ago, the sound of pebbles tossing back and forth in the surf with the tide and the waves. (In the play referenced, the Chorus speaks of something much harsher—the low moan that accompanies gale force winds as they beat against the seashore, a sound compared to the ruin and devastation of Thebes ’s royal house thanks to the anger of the gods.) what our speaker hears is the melancholy retreat of simple religious faith, a retreat that leaves Western civilization all but naked. It is evident that Matthew Arnold does not draw the same sustenance from nature that Wordsworth, a poet he much admires, was able to draw. Both the natural and human world before him in prospect are described as beautiful illusions—sights that seem to promise certitude and intelligibility, a sense that there is meaning out there, that there is “a place for us.” But the speaker is unable to put his faith in anything he sees or hears. He remains disillusioned, I think, even though he tries to cheer himself and his lover with the injunction, “let us be true / To one another!” The world remains hostile, dreary, and violent. It makes no sense in itself, and the knowledge that we can at least temporarily make a genuine human connection with someone else, and thereby create the meaning we seek, does not satisfy the speaker. This poem might be described as what Meyer Abrams would call a Greater Romantic Lyric—it begins in meditation, proceeds to analyze a spiritual problem, and attempts to offer an emotional resolution. The tenuousness of that resolution gives the poem its distinctive Arnoldian quality. The couple remain isolated from the world, withdrawn from the violence and confusion surrounding them. Religion no longer offers solace in such a situation, at least not for this particular Victorian couple.
“Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse”
As always, Matthew Arnold turns out to be a very poetical Eeyore figure. The young enthusiasts of science and progress that give the mid-Victorian period its characteristic feel are welcome to go about their cheerful way, and enter the bright world of striving and competition. They do not feel the death of Christianity, suggests the speaker, because they were not brought up deeply believing in the religion. Arnold ’s melancholy is characteristic of many Victorian intellectuals with respect to the ancient religion that had shaped so many generations before them. I don’t suppose Arnold is addressing the scientific studies that proved so devastating to the faith of many Victorians, although he writes at what we might call the “ground zero” of religious doubt—a time still before Charles Darwin’s fully developed evolutionary theory, but a time in which other scientists such as Sir Charles Lyell were confidently estimating the vast amounts of time necessary to the formation of the geological structures they examined and puzzling over the strangeness of the fossils they unearthed. I would put this point around the 1830s in the English context. No, Arnold ’s “rigorous teachers” are the Enlightenment’s finest rationalists—philosophers who, as the Norton note says, subjected the tenets and texts of faith to the rigors of reason and historical inquiry. Arnold ’s speaker can neither believe nor dismiss from his mind the desire to believe (or at least to find certitude and moral meaning). I think he feels special affinity with the monks who dwell in the monastery and cultivate their herb garden, faithfully and simply following the religion of beautiful sorrow, presumably oblivious to the unbelievers all around them in a changing world. All the same, he cannot enter the mindset that makes such a life possible. What on earth he is doing at such a gloomy place (66)? he wants to know.
The romantic predecessors Byron and Shelley, as the speaker says, struck a defiant attitude towards what they considered the diminution of spirit in an increasingly “modern” world: they rejected traditional religious belief, but kept alive the passionate conviction that lies at the heart of faith. They believed in inspired utterance, in creative imagination, and in defying the oppressors who threatened to stamp out freedom of thought and action. They sought to remind us of what was truly enduring about us as human beings. But in the end they, too, passed, and the speaker, a true son of the romantics, is left wondering what good all that storming and stressing has done: after all, the people of the 1850’s are no less subject to the world’s cares as anyone in the romantics’ time. What good does describing and acting out our anguish in verse, no matter how fine it may be, do us? A latter-day Shelley would be no more apt to change the world than the original Shelley was. (A modern author responds eloquently to this downcast notion when, in his elegy “In Memory of William Butler Yeats,” he writes, “ For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives / In the valley of its making where executives / Would never want to tamper, flows on south / From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs, / Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives, / A way of happening, a mouth.”
Well, Arnold ’s speaker describes his own position as that of a man “Wandering between two worlds, one dead, / The other powerless to be born” (85-86). Where others may see a confident world re-forming itself in ever-new and exciting patterns, our speaker sees confusion and disarray—steeped in his desire for the moral and spiritual certitude of the past, and in the strivings of the romantic poets who preceded him, he feels himself a member of a tragic generation that can neither simply embrace the past nor smugly accept the present. But it is with the past that the speaker will dwell, however uncomfortably and equivocally: his place is with the contemplative and the reclusive, not with the proponents of modernity. Indeed, the concluding stanzas of the poem are clever and somewhat Tennysonian in their conjuring of colorful, bright medieval soldiering and hunting parties to describe a world of action and reality whose proponents would characterize as radically new. (See, in particular, “The Lady of Shalott.”) I suppose that in this poem, Arnold isn’t exactly writing the “poetry of action” he prescribes in his “Preface” to the Poems of 1853: his art is the kind that treats of problems it admits must remain insoluble because they are linked to the eternal, deep-down strivings and sorrows of humanity. In this sense, art (or, more broadly, culture), for Arnold , partly replaces religion, as so many critics have said.
Preface To Poems (1853)
Overview: Evidently, Matthew Arnold believes that the romantics, as some wag said about Thomas Carlyle, “led us into the wilderness and left us there.” Arnold seeks a balance between poetic form and expression; art should be oriented towards action, he believes, and it should not wallow in Hamlet-like, self-centered anguish or luxuriate in fine phrases and images. That kind of self-indulgence, he believes, has been the tendency since the early modern period. Shakespeare is wonderful, but Matthew Arnold doesn’t advocate taking him as your model if you want to be a writer. Modernity is a threat since it leads us away from what is permanent in us, and away from a unified sensibility and coherent outlook. The Greeks, according to Arnold, are the best artistic models because they can help us fight modernity’s worst aspects: its threat of incoherence and its predilection for the part over the whole, its penchant for selfishness over what benefits the individual most genuinely and serves the community as well. The Greeks offer clarity, rigor, simplicity, and a balanced perspective on life. Like so many Victorian sages and culture critics, Arnold reasserts humanity’s need for some principle of excellence by which to think and live.
1375. “The dialogue of the mind with itself has commenced,” says Arnold. This dialogue cannot be wished away, but he is concerned about its negative effects on consciousness. Complexity is part of modern life, and the question is how to deal with it. Arnold declares himself against any representation that is, as he says, “vaguely conceived and loosely drawn.” We demand accuracy and precision in art; we demand that it should “add to our knowledge.” Or at least, that is what Arnold says we should demand of it; only if this is done, he implies, will it do what it really ought: “inspirit and rejoice the reader.” As always, Arnold draws much from German enlightenment and romantic authors—his descriptions, as he makes clear, are derived from Friedrich von Schiller, a great disciple of Immanuel Kant. The passage he cites is followed by The claim that the best art facilitates the free play of all the mind’s powers: “Der höchste Genuß aber ist die Freiheit des Gemüthes in dem lebendigen Spiel aller seiner Kräfte.”
Unfortunately, in his view, this sort of spirit-expanding free play is exactly what much modern art does not encourage. Instead, modern poetry gives us representations “in which the suffering finds no vent in action; in which a continuous state of mental distress is prolonged, unrelieved by incident, hope, or resistance; in which there is everything to be endured, nothing to be done.” This sort of artistic representation is not tragic in the high classical sense; it is not uplifting but is, he says, merely “painful.” The bottom line is that art should not give in to or merely reflect a particular era’s worst tendencies; it should challenge them, and generate a counter-balancing effect.
1376-77. Arnold insists that “The date of an action… signifies nothing.” There is no reason why we cannot derive as much pleasure and enlightenment from ancient works of art as from modern ones. This is no different from what many critics have said in their own way. Samuel Johnson, after all, wrote that the best art consists in “just representations of general nature” that have been highly esteemed for long periods of time, and he insisted that a painter should not “streak the leaves of the tulip” but should rather provide us with a general, universally recognizable representation. And Percy Bysshe Shelley, of course, writes in his “Defense Of Poetry” that poets write from a perspective beyond particular places or historical epochs. So the claim that art should deliver to us something of universal and eternal significance is nothing new. Arnold is asserting his neoclassical bent here: he derives from Aristotle’s Poetics the notion that literary art should be about “action,” about the construction of plot and story. Emotional expression is secondary to this imperative. As usual, Arnold is in dialogue with William Wordsworth, whose poetry he much admires but whose poetics he does not always agree with. We recall that Wordsworth, in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads, said that expression was the prime consideration and that action should simply be made to suit the expression. For Wordsworth, poetry is mainly an expressive vehicle; for Arnold, such a prescription is liable to result in morbid, unbalanced poetry. Somewhat like Thomas Carlyle, Arnold is telling us, “Close thy Byron, open thy Goethe.” As for the moderns in comparison with the ancients, Arnold writes that “with us, attention is fixed mainly on the value of the separate thoughts and images which occur in the treatment of an action. They regarded the whole; we regard the parts. With them, the action predominated over the expression of it; with us, the expression predominates over the action.” It is action, not expression, that delivers to us a sense of an intelligible cosmos. Arnold is therefore very interested in the formal qualities and integrity of a given poem; he emphasizes craftsmanship over intensity of expression.
1378-79. At this point in his argument, Arnold offers some rather harsh words about his fellow critics. He says that they not only allow unhealthy practices, they promote “false aims.” Such critics, he says, are mostly interested in “detached expressions,” and are quite an interested in demanding a sense of the whole in any particular poem. They treat poetry like what we would call “sound bites.” But to treat words and indeed entire works of art this way is to divorce language or whatever medium we are dealing with from the realm of action. While Matthew Arnold is a great believer in the integrity and autonomy of art, he does not promote the idea that the composition of a literary work should amount to navel-gazing on the part of the artist. We do not, he insists, or rather we should not, favor a kind of art that amounts to “A true allegory of the state of one’s own mind.”
Also on this page, Arnold returns to the idea that a young writer must find suitable models. This advice obviously rejects the romantic idea that we can more or less dismiss our predecessors if we find them uncongenial and create something almost from nothing. What Arnold describes is not so much “the anxiety of influence” that, as Harold Bloom would say, caused romantic poets to struggle mightily against the overwhelming influence of John Milton. Rather, Arnold is pointing out that the sheer “multitude of voices counseling different things” threatens modern authors with a profound sense of incoherence when they most need clarity and balance. This is a prominent strain in Arnold’s thinking on art and culture more generally, and even on politics. I think we can understand him without too much trouble because we live in a time with an even larger “marketplace of ideas” from which we may choose. So many ideas, many of them utterly incompatible—how is one to choose amongst them? To use a contemporary phrase, Arnold suggests that modern humanity is beset by “information overload.”
1380-81. But what about Shakespeare as a model? Why not make the greatest of English literary artists our model? Well, Shakespeare’s gift of “abundant… and ingenious expression” may be remarkable, but it is not what we need. In Arnold’s view, Shakespeare was a bit too much in love with beautiful language and fine expression, so much so that it sometimes leads him away from sound construction and concentration on the actions with which his plays are concerned. Criticism on Shakespeare is punctuated by such gentle barbs—Ben Jonson essentially said he wished Shakespeare had had a good editor, that the man had “blotted out” more lines than he did. And Samuel Johnson lamented that the Bard was too fond of silly quibbles, too willing to let semi-obscene puns and the like mar the dignity and moral tenor of his dramas. I think what Arnold is getting at is that Shakespeare was a man of unparalleled artistry and genius who could give us both a complete action and fineness and intensity of expression, but when the other artists attempt to imitate his methods, the results fall short of the original’s mark. (By way of example, he mentions John Keats’s “Isabella, or the Pot of Basil.” It is a poem full of beautiful lines, Arnold suggests, but what is it really about?) Even so, I wouldn’t deny that Arnold is offering a pointed criticism: he says explicitly that Shakespeare’s “gift of expression… rather even leads him astray, degenerating sometimes into a fondness for curiosity of expression….” If this fondness proceeds too far, by implication, we will end up with a work of art that is more eccentric than universal in its appeal. He caps this argument with Guizot’s delicious quip that “Shakespeare appears in his language to have tried all styles except that of simplicity.” If we admire and emulate what is least worthy of such attention in Shakespeare, his art may please us, but it may not improve us or give us a holistic view of life; it may not contribute to our development as whole human beings.
1382-83. Most of all, Arnold recommends the classics, for their “unity and profoundness of moral impression.” Furthermore, he writes of the “steadying and composing effect upon . . . [the] judgment, not of literary works only, but of men and events in general” (1382) that stems from reading classical literature. Perhaps that’s partly why Alexander Pope said Virgil found that “to study Homer was to study Nature.” Arnold’s argument isn’t a diatribe against the modern world; he admits that “The present age makes great claims upon us” and that his classicists “wish neither to applaud nor to revile their age; they wish to know what it is, what it can give them, and whether this is what they want.” He concludes with the thought that progress is a threat mainly if it ignores what is best and most permanent about humanity; the “touchstone” of human nature must be retained amidst the Heraclitean flux of the modern world. His exhortation to fellow poets and readers is that they ought to “transmit to [future generations] the practice of poetry, with its boundaries and wholesome regulative laws,” even if his own generation is comprised mainly of dilettanti who find themselves unable to equal the ancients in their artistic brilliance or their power of thought and feeling. The argument he makes is paradoxical in that what he describes as permanent and natural in us seems to be threatened with extinction by the forces of modernity. As so often, we find a cultural critic dealing with the dilemma posed by the disjunction between broad social imperatives and individual needs and aspirations, and not finding any easy answers. But in his view, ancient art at least gives us some sense of the tranquility, nobility, and excellence of which we are capable.