T.S. Eliot's response to Matthew Arnold in his early essays

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2004
31 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of contents

I. Introduction

II. Eliot’s response to Arnold’s literary theory
1. Different views on poetry
2. Two positions towards the function of literature
2.1 Eliot’s critique on Arnold’s function of literature as criticism of life
3. The comprehension of morals
4. Different perceptions of history

III. Eliot’s response to Arnold’s literary criticism
1. Arnold’s critical programme
1.1 The literary critic
2. Different concepts of literary criticism

IV. An outlook on Eliot’s response to Arnold’s cultural criticism

V. Evaluation of Eliot’s criticism on Arnold

VI. Conclusion


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 20th 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 19th to the 20th century. Their attitudes towards literary the­ory 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.


1. Different views on poetry

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 back­ground 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.

In this context, Arnold praises the Greek writers who, according to him, per­formed poetry in its best way. Moreover, he perceives the ancient Greek world as a model for his present society. In the application of ancient literature to one’s personal life, Arnold assumes a possibility for the intellectual and cultural pro­gress of the public. Thus, his notion of a literary theory is intimately related with his understanding of culture and hardly separable from it. In applying ancient Greek literature with its values, Arnold regards intellectual deliverance as a solu­tion in order to overcome contemporary problems. In analogy to Aristotle’s term of poetry as high seriousness,4 Arnold reflects the view of poetry as “etwas Phi-losophischeres und Ernsthafteres als Geschichtsschreibung” which he sees ful­filled in the Greek writers. This concept of history, as inferior to poetry, already indicates Arnold’s special sense of historical relations. This high seriousness re­quires the grand style, which consists in enduring human qualities, in this case qualities the author supplies. To exemplify how a suitable artist must behave, Ar­nold refers to ancient authors like Homer, Milton or Dante whose works serve to his mind as a model for everlasting validity. The author’s sensibility depicts the condition of the grand style. Again, the author’s quality as a poet is highly interre­lated with his moral attitude. Arnold observes these human qualities realized in an author such as Goethe. His understanding of morality is therefore another crucial aspect worth to be analysed. Sincerity, on the other hand, depicts the inner posi­tion of the author towards his work. In this respect, René Wellek takes into ac­count that “the term ‘grand style,’ [as] Arnold admits, is ultimately ‘indefin-able’.”5

Eliot’s essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” constitutes the basis for his conception of a literary theory in general. Accordingly, Arnold’s concept contrasts Eliot’s impersonal theory of poetry according to which the poet’s feelings and emotion are neglected. Eliot emphasizes the importance of the artistic process itself and regards the poet’s mind as a medium which works in a passive, subcon­scious manner. “The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality”.6 Eliot consequently accuses Arnold of “putting the em phasis upon the poet’s feelings, instead of upon the poetry.”7 The effect the poem produces is the important aspect for Eliot, which he himself applies in his poetic theory. His view of qualified poetry is thoroughly dependent on his conception of tradition. No poet should be analysed as an individual but as a part of a whole tradition of poets and ages of literature. The artist’s work reflects this whole tradi­tion.

The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The exist­ing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the su­pervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and new.8

Consequently, only the poem entails this tradition, not the poet himself. Thus, his concept of tradition, which consists in the depersonalization of the poet, contra­dicts Arnold’s neo-classicist universality. Instead of observing literary tradition in a chronological way, Arnold isolates singular ages, mainly the ancient Greek era, and subsequently overlooks the historical context. Eliot affirms, that a poet “can neither take the past as a lump, an indiscriminate bolus, nor can he form himself wholly upon one or two private admirations, nor can he form himself wholly upon one preferred period.”9 Nevertheless, this is exactly what Arnold does. One must still bear in mind that Eliot too gives preference to the literature of the Middle Ages.

In the second part of his essay, Eliot exemplifies the significance of emotions dur­ing the writing process. To him, poetry is an “escape from emotion”10, which re­veals Eliot’s anti-romantic position. Arnold‘s theory of imaginative reason al­ready marks the transition from the former Romantic concept of emotionality to­wards a more critical observation of life. It represents “a union of intellect and emotion, of imagination and reason [...]”11 in order to overcome society’s prob­lems. Therefore, it already marks the gradual development towards the modern view of the 20th century.

Despite all these analogies and rather slight differences in their poetic theories, the reader still gets the impression of a certain rivalry or love-hate relationship be­tween them, which is provoked by Eliot. On the one hand, his essay on Arnold is abundant in sarcastic remarks, but on the other hand, he appreciates his achieve­ments, although these concessions are mostly of a weak nature. It seems to the reader as if Eliot considers himself superior to his Victorian antecedent whose “poetry had little technical interest.”12 This arrogant and self-centred way of re­ducing Arnold’s poetic achievements is not at all a special case. Even when he gives the impression to honour what Arnold writes, he manages to ridicule him as “something more than an agreeable Professor of Poetry.”13 It often appears that Eliot intentionally tries to stand out from his predecessor. Nevertheless, he cannot deny that several of his own theories found on Arnold’s conceptions. In this con­text, Krieger argues in his article that the attentive reader will perceive the similar­ity of Eliot’s unity of sensibility as a product of Arnold’s unity of the senses of conduct, beauty and knowledge.14 These sentiments are nonetheless the basis for Arnold’s disinterestedness, which constitutes the starting point for Eliot’s imper­sonal theory.

Moreover, Arnold formed Eliot’s notion of the objective correlative, which, as he argues in “Hamlet”,15 is compulsory to provoke genuine emotions. This idea con­veys a relation between outside circumstances and the emotions aroused by a writ­ten piece of art. With the negative example of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” Eliot tries to exemplify that the “artistic ‘inevitability’ lies in this complete adequacy of the external to the emotion”.16 Eliot criticizes the absent equilibrium of emotions, which are conveyed through Arnold’s vague conception of impressions, and the given facts, which he considers surpassed in the play. Hence, the poet is depend­ent and has to stick to a coherent balance. Likewise, Arnold requires the separa­tion of ideas from practice. In the end, the poet finds himself therefore in a rela­tionship of dependence. Krieger tries to exemplify this complex relation and as­serts, that “the poet is to give us the verbal equivalent of the emotional equivalent of the beliefs he borrows from his intellectual environment.”17 Subsequently, he remains objective and procures the claimed disinterestedness.

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 touchstone-method 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.

2. Two positions towards the function of literature

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 con­ventional 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 feelings.21

Eliot is aware of an existing purpose of poetry. Nevertheless, his statement shows that the final function is indefinable and cannot be generalized.

In his essay on “The Function of Criticism” he does not deny that art may be affirmed to serve ends beyond itself; but art is not required to be aware of these ends, and indeed performs its function, whatever that may be, according to various theories of value, much better by indifference to them.22

Instead, Arnold wants literature to have a prevailing and defined impact on soci­ety. Once more, his interest as a cultural theorist stands out. Arnold perceives his­tory divided into creative epochs and eras of lesser creativity. It is the poet’s duty to collect an epoch’s ideas and subsequently transform them into art. If an age does not provide enough ideas, it requires the critic who searches for new ideas. As Arnold considers Victorian England deprived of ideas, he regards the function of literature as critique itself. Critique in this sense should search for the best ideas and supply the poet with material for his writings. Thus, to him, literature presents an equivalent to criticism. However, the critic must always secure a certain disin­terestedness in order to select the best ideas of an era in an objective way. The special emphasis on literature as a criticism of life, and Eliot’s comment on this awareness will be exposed later.

In his dissertation on the literary theory of Matthew Arnold, Thomas Spielkamp observes that literature, in his sense, served as an interpretation of life: “Dichtung wird in Arnolds Literaturkonzept somit zu lebensnotwendigem Wissen, das durch den Versuch einer Interpretation tief in den jeweiligen Betrachtungsgegenstand eindringt [...]”.23 This shows that Arnold applies literature in order to bring about a change and to improve social standards. Besides, Arnold finds in emotionality another privilege of the function of literature, which is absent in comparison to other sciences. Thus, he argues that [p]oetry gives the idea, but it gives it touched with beauty, heightened by emotion.

This is what we feel to be interpretative for us, to satisfy us-thought, but thought invested with beauty, with emotion. Poetry then, is more of a stay to us than art or science. It is more explicative than art, and it has the emotion which to science is wanting.24

In opposition to the narrowness of Eliot’s concept of the poetic function, Arnold ascribes an impact of poetry on life equivalent to other spheres.25 As a result, Ar nold attributes literature an authority unique in life because of its ability to fuse emotion and intellect.

Für Arnold ist somit allein Literatur dazu in der Lage, die moderne Gesellschaft mit ihren vielfältigen Institutionen und spezialisierten Wissensbereichen einer har monischen Synthese ihrer emotionalen sowie geistigen Fähigkeiten und Bedürfnis-se zuzuführen.26

Since the field of religion is a principal concern in various works of Matthew Ar­nold, it is comprehensible that literature also has a certain impact on it. It seems appropriate to state that religion for both, Eliot and Arnold, obtains recurrent sig­nificance in their works. Although Eliot is primarily concerned with religion in his later expositions, he attacks Arnold’s comments on this subject already in his ear­lier works. The main issue that bothers Eliot in this context lies in Arnold’s substi­tution of poetry for religion and philosophy.

For Arnold the best poetry supersedes both religion and philosophy. [...] nothing in this world [...] is a substitute for anything else; and if you find that you must do without something, such as religious faith or philosophic belief, then you must just do without it.27

Eliot openly attacks Arnold’s functionalism regarding poetry. He even comes across a plausible explanation for Arnold’s attitude. The social circumstances and conditions of the Victorian Age, which is characterized by a loss in faith and sta­bility. Therefore, Eliot considers Arnold’s theory an attempt to bring back the faith in his and the people’s lives. Consequently, his definition of poetry is condi­tioned by a state of mind due to his historical period, which Eliot paraphrases as “the conservatism which springs from lack of faith, and the zeal for reform which springs from dislike of change. [...] he [Arnold] was somewhat disturbed.”28 This sharp attack on Eliot’s part reveals his discontent with the purpose Arnold assigns to literature or rather poetry. In contrast to the Victorian critic, Eliot insists on the separation of literature, religion and other sciences as, for instance, philosophy. Unlike Arnold, he does not comprehend why the Victorian critic considers litera­ture capable of substituting religion. Therefore, he simply contemplates him as a person of a “mind which was unsuited and ill-equipped. In philosophy and theol­ogy he was an undergraduate; in religion a Philistine.”29 Obviously, Eliot regards himself superior in terms of religion and philosophy.


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).

4 Aristoteles, Poetik, trans. Manfred Fuhrmann (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1982) 29.

5 René Wellek, A History of Modern Criticism, 1750-1950, vol. 5 (New Haven: Yale UP, 1986) 170.

6 T.S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot, ed. Frank Kermode (London: Faber and Faber, 1975) 40.

7 Eliot, Matthew Arnold 115.

8 Eliot, Tradition and the Individual Talent 38/39.

9 Eliot, Tradition and the Individual Talent 39.

10 Eliot, Tradition and the Individual Talent 43.

11 Wellek, 166.

12 Eliot, Matthew Arnold 105.

13 Eliot, Matthew Arnold 105.

14 Murray Krieger, The Critical Legacy of Matthew Arnold, 463.

15 Eliot, Hamlet 45-49.

16 Eliot, Hamlet 48.

17 Murray Krieger, “The Critical Legacy of Matthew Arnold: Or, The Strange Brotherhood of T. S. Eliot, I.A. Richards, and Northrop Frye,” ed. Lewis P. Simpson; Donald E. Stanford, The Southern Review 5, 2 (1969): 462.

18 Arnold, IX 170.

19 Erwin Wolff, “Funktionsgeschichtliche Aspekte der Englischen Literaturtheorie,” Englische und Amerikanische Literaturtheorie: Studien zu ihrer historischen Entwicklung , ed. Rüdiger Ahrens; Erwin Wolff, 2 vols. (Heidelberg: Winter, 1979) 11-44.

20 Wolff, 30.

21 Eliot, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism 95/96.

22 Eliot, The Function of Criticism 69.

23 Thomas Spielkamp, Literaturkritik als “Criticism of Life”: Zur zentralen Stellung des Kritikbe-griffs in der Literaturtheorie Matthew Arnolds, diss., Münster (Westfalen), Univ., 1993. Arbeiten zur Ästhetik, Didaktik, Literatur- und Sprachwissenschaft 18. (Frankfurt a. M.: Lang, 1994)

24 Arnold, “On Poetry,” (1879), IX, 62 f.

25 Spielkamp, 70.

26 Spielkamp, 72.

27 Eliot, Matthew Arnold 113.

28 Eliot, Matthew Arnold 119.

29 Eliot, Matthew Arnold 105.

Excerpt out of 31 pages


T.S. Eliot's response to Matthew Arnold in his early essays
University of Münster  (Englisches Seminar)
T.S. Eliot, Critical Essays
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T.S. Eliot, Matthew Arnold, essay, literary criticism, Literaturkritik
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Magistra Artium Marion Meerpohl (Author), 2004, T.S. Eliot's response to Matthew Arnold in his early essays, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/137723


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