Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2004, 31 Pages
Term Paper (Advanced seminar)
In the course of history, literature as well as literary theory and critique experienced various changes due to social circumstances. Their function in certain periods and epochs differed vastly. Without any doubt, the Victorian critic and poet, Matthew Arnold, represents a significant predecessor of Thomas Stearns Eliot and is fundamentally important for the understanding of his literary theory and criticism. The modern literary critic of the 20 th century, T. S. Eliot, is therefore more closely associated with the theories of the Victorian artist than any other literary critic or poet. However, their relation is not easy to define and bares not only immense analogies but also many divergences and contradictions. The present work represents an analysis of T. S. Eliot’s reaction towards Matthew Arnold in his early essays. Therefore, it also traces the transition of literary theory and criticism from the 19 th to the 20 th century. Their attitudes towards literary the-ory and poetry will be exposed as well as their concept of literary criticism and its functions. Besides, their notion of historical circumstances and their perception of morality in literature are crucial aspects worth a detailed observation. For this purpose, Eliot’s comments on Matthew Arnold in his early essays serve as a basis for the illustration and form the central source. Therefore, “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919), “Hamlet” (1919), “The Perfect Critic” (1920), “The Function of Criticism” (1923), “Matthew Arnold” (1933), and “Arnold and Pater” (1930) constitute the main works of reference. Further works by various authors provide supplementary opinions on the subject and subsequently offer more postures when it comes to forming a judgement on the complex relation between the two artists.
One has to bear in mind, however, that this exposition focuses on Eliot’s early years, which differ to some degree from the position he holds towards several subjects in his later achievements.
One recurrent critical observation by T. S. Eliot regarding Matthew Arnold deals with his concept of poetry and its function. With respect to his comments on Arnold, Eliot never reacts in a reserved way. In his essay “Matthew Arnold” 1 , he states that “Arnold was not a man of vast or exact scholarship, and he had neither walked in hell nor been rapt to heaven; but what he did know, of books and men, was in its way well-balanced and well-marshalled.” 2 This comment reflects the ironic and sarcastic attitude towards Arnold, which is a recurring characteristic of Eliot. To understand his harsh critique on Arnold, it is as a first step indispensable to analyse their basic notions towards a concept of literary theory, especially of their poetry.
Fundamental for Arnold’s poetic theory and literary theory in general, is the orientation towards different European artists and works from different periods in history. His poetic concept includes assumptions and notions from artists such as Wordsworth, Keats, Goethe, Heine, Homer, Dante, Aristotle and many more. This variety and interest in different nations illustrates his intention to create a modern literary concept as universal as possible. This is, however, what makes an analysis of his literary theory a complex undertaking. Throughout this, his poetical concept always requires the permanent consideration of his historical and social back-ground as well as his understanding of historical contexts, to which this exposition will refer later on.
Arnold employs various points of reference, which are necessary for valuable poetry. One essential aspect in his understanding of authentic poetry is the necessity of the articulation of those “feelings which subsist permanently in the race, and which are independent of time.” 3 Arnold holds the view that each time possesses a certain quantity of valuable ideas, which have to be discovered. He considers these basic human sentiments as a guarantee for successful, everlasting literature.
1 T.S. Eliot, “Matthew Arnold,” The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, (London: Faber and
Faber, 1933) 103-119.
2 Eliot, Matthew Arnold 104.
3 Matthew Arnold, The Complete Prose Works of Matthew Arnold, ed. R. H. Super, 11 vols. (Ann
Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1960-1977).
There is another theory elaborated by Arnold, which, to his mind, serves as basic orientation for the public to procure literary quality. The so-called touchstonemethod consists of eleven chosen segments of the works from famous historical personalities, such as Homer, Dante, Shakespeare and Milton. He considers these short passages “of the very highest poetical quality.” 18 This method of judging poetry and the occurring problems and contradictions that his theory involve will be analysed in the paper further on.
Another important focus of Eliot’s critique on Arnold is his multifunctional theory of literature, especially of poetry. The function of literature, in particular the function of poetry, differs due to social and historical circumstances and progresses. In the course of history, literature performs diverse functions and aims in different ages. Characteristic for the Victorian Age is a certain functionalism of literature, which is typical for Arnold.
In his essay “Funktionsgeschichtliche Aspekte der Englischen Literaturtheorie”, 19 Erwin Wolff describes Arnold’s conception of the function of literature in Victorian England: “Arnold geht nicht, wie fast alle seiner Vorgänger, von der Fiktion einer überzeitlichen und unveränderlichen Aufgabe der Literatur aus, sondern von der Wandelbarkeit ihrer ‘Zwecke’.” 20 Thus, Arnold’s idea of the function of literature differs from Eliot’s notion. As Eliot argues in “The Use of Poetry and The Use of Criticism” literature, especially poetry
is of course not to be defined by its uses. […] It […] may help to break up the con-ventional modes of perception and valuation which are perpetually forming, and
make people see the world afresh, or some new part of it. It may make us from
time to time a little more aware of the deeper, unnamed feelings which form the
substratum of our being, to which we rarely penetrate; […] But to say all this is
only to say what you know already, if you have felt poetry and thought about your
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