What are merits and demerits of Arnold as a critic?

Matthew Arnold, the greatest of the Victorian critics, has been both eulogized and condemned by scholars. In recent times too T.S. Eliot has criticised him. He calls him a propagandist, a salesman, a clever advertiser, rather than a great critic. He finds him lacking in the power of connected reasoning at any length says that “his flights are short flights or circular flights.” F.R. Leavis accuses him of “high pamphleteering”. Prof. Garrod, who otherwise is an admirer of Arnold, feels that Arnold became a critic only by accident (the accident of Oxford Professorship), and names him “the vendor of Frenchified disin terestedness.”

His Shortcomings
Arnold’s limitations as a critic can be summarised in the following manner:—
(1)   He is incapable of connected reasoning at any length, and often contradicts himself. Thus first he lays down the test of total impression for judging the worth of a poet, but soon after contradicts himself and prescribes the well-known, “Touchstone method.”
(2)   There is a certain want of logic and method in Arnold’s criticism. He is not a scientific critic. Often he is vague, and fails to define or state clearly his views. Often he is lop-sided as in his Essay on Shelley which is all biography except a brief concluding paragraph. His criticism is often gappy; before he has fully established a point, he would hastily hurry on
to another.
(3)   He frowns upon mere literary criticism. He mixes literary criticism with socio-ethical considerations and regards it as an instrument of culture. Purely literary criticism with him has no meaning and significance.
(4)   There is some truth in the criticism that he was a propagandist and a salesman. As Wimsatt and Brooks point out, “very simply, very characteristically, and repetitiously, Arnold spent his career in hammering the thesis that poetry is a, “criticism of life.” All his practical criticism is but an illusion of this view.
(5)   His criticism is lacking in originality. Practically all of his critical concepts are borrowed. In his emphasis on ‘action’ and high seriousness,’ he merely echoes Aristotle; his concept of “grand style” is exactly the same thing as, ‘the sublime,’ of Longinus and his biographical method is the method of the French Saint-Beauve. As George Watson says, “he
plagiarises too heavily.”
(6)   He might be learned, but his learning is neither exact, nor precise. He does not collect his facts painstakingly. His illustrations of his touchstone method are’all misquotations. Similarly, his biographical data are often inaccurate.
(7)   He is in favour of biographical interpretation; he is also conscious  he importance of “the moment,” and yet he is against the historical method of criticism.
(8)   He advocates ‘disinterestedness,’ but ties the critic to certain socio- ethical interests. He would like him to rise above ‘practical’ and ‘personal’ interests, but he wants him to establish a current of great and noble ideas and thus promote culture. But disinterestedness means that the critic should
have no interests except aesthetic appreciation.
(9)   He speaks of the moral effects of poetry, of its ‘high seriousness,’ but never of its pleasure, the ‘aesthetic pleasure’ which a poet must impart, and which is the true test of its excellence. His standards of judgment are not literary.
(10)His literary criticism is vitiated by his moral, classical, and continental prejudices. He is sympathetic only to the classical, he rates the continental poets higher than the great English poets, and the moral test which he applies often makes him neglect the literary qualities of a poet. The immoral in the life of a poet, prejudices him against his poetry.
His Merits and Achievements
Arnold’s faults are glaring, but more important are his merits and achievements. He is the most imposing figure in Victorian criticism. In his own day, and for years afterwards, he was venerated and respected almost like Aristotle. After him the cry, for years, was, “Arnold has said so.” “For half a century, Arnold’s position in this country was comparable with that of the venerable Greek, in respect of the wide influence he exercised, the mark he impressed upon criticism, and the blind faith with which he was trusted by his votaries.” (Scott-James). Another critic praises him because his criticism is more “compellingly alive”, more thought-provoking than that of any other critic of his age. Harbert Paul goes to the extent of saying that Arnold did not merely criticise books, he taught others to criticise books.
Judged historically, Arnold rendered a great service to criticism. He rescued it from the disorganised state in which it had fallen by stressing the need of system in critical judgement. He also waged a relentless battle against the intrusion of personal, religious, or political considerations in the judgement of authors and works. Lastly, he raised criticism to a higher level than was ever thought by making it the care-taker of literature in epochs unfavourable to its growth. But more than one critic has been struck by the incongruity between Arnold, the more or less romantic poet, and Arnold, the more or less classical critic.
In certain respects, as shown by Scott-James, Arnold is superior to Aristotle. Aristotle knew none but the classics of Greece, the only literary models available to him, whilst Arnold, having the literature of many nations and ages before him, was limited only, of his own choice, to, “the best that is known and thought in the world.” Further, Arnold repudiated the idea that the critic should be an “abstract lawgiver.” Above all, “Aristotle shows us the critic in relation to art. Arnold shows us the critic in relation to the public. Aristotle dissects a work of art Arnold dissects a critic.” The one gives us the principles which govern the making of a poem : the other, the principles by which the best poems should be selected and made known. Aristotle’s critic owes allegiance to the Artist, but Arnold’s critic has a duty to society. He is a propagandist tilling the soil so that ‘the best ideas.’ may prevail, making “an intellectual situation of which the creative power can profitably avail itself.
In the words of Saintsbury, “His services, therefore, to English Criticism, whether as a “receptist” or as an actual craftsman cannot possibly be overestimated. In the first respect he was, if not the absolute reformer, the leader in reform, of the slovenly and disorganised condition into which Romantic criticism had fallen. In the second, the things which he had not, as well as those which he had, combined to give him a place among the very first. He had not the sublime and ever new-inspired inconsistency of Dryden. He had not the robustness of Johnson, the supreme critical “reason” of Coleridge; scarcely the exquisite, fitful, appreciation of Lamb, or the full-blooded and passionate appreciation of Hazlitt. But he had an exacter knowledge than Dryden; the fitness of his judgment seems finer beside Johnson’s bluntness; he could not wool-gather like Coleridge; his range was far wider than Lamb’s; his scholarship and his delicacy alike were superior to those of Hazlitt.”

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