Representative Poetry Online
  Poet Index   Poem Index   Random   Search  
  Introduction   Timeline   Calendar   Glossary   Criticism   Bibliography  
  RPO   Canadian Poetry   UTEL  
by Name
by Date
by Title
by First Line
by Last Line
Poet
Poem
Short poem
Keyword
Concordance

Matthew Arnold (1822-1888)

The Function of Criticism at the Present Time (1865)

{{Page [xx]}}


"Our antagonist is our helper. This amicable conflict with
difficulty obliges us to an intimate acquaintance with our object,
and compels us to consider it in all its relations. It will not
suffer us to be superficial."--BURKE.


{{Page 1}}


THE FUNCTION OF CRITICISM AT THE
PRESENT TIME.



¶1
1   MANY objections have been made to a proposition
2   which, in some remarks of mine on translating Homer,
3   I ventured to put forth; a proposition about criticism,
4   and its importance at the present day. I said: "Of
5  the literature of France and Germany, as of the intellect
6   of Europe in general, the main effort, for now many
7   years, has been a critical effort; the endeavour, in all
8   branches of knowledge, theology, philosophy, history,
9   art, science, to see the object as in itself it really is."
10 I added, that owing to the operation in English litera-
11 ture of certain causes, "almost the last thing for which
12 one would come to English literature is just that very
13 thing which now Europe most desires--criticism;" and
14 that the power and value of English literature was
15 thereby impaired. More than one rejoinder declared
16 that the importance I here assigned to criticism was
17 excessive, and asserted the inherent superiority of the
18 creative effort of the human spirit over its critical
19 effort. And the other day, having been led by an

{{Page 2}}

20 excellent notice of Wordsworth* published in the North
21 British Review, to turn again to his biography, I found,
22 in the words of this great man, whom I, for one, must
23 always listen to with the profoundest respect, a sentence
24 passed on the critic's business, which seems to justify
25 every possible disparagement of it. Wordsworth says
26 in one of his letters:--

27 "The writers in these publications" (the Reviews),
28 "while they prosecute their inglorious employment, can-
29 not be supposed to be in a state of mind very favour-
30 able for being affected by the finer influences of a thing
31 so pure as genuine poetry."

¶2
32 And a trustworthy reporter of his conversation quotes
33 a more elaborate judgment to the same effect:--

34 "Wordsworth holds the critical power very low, in-
35 finitely lower than the inventive and he said to-day
36 that if the quantity of time consumed in writing critiques
37 on the works of others were given to original com-
38 position, of whatever kind it might be, it would be
39 much better employed; it would make a man find out
40 sooner his own level, and it would do infinitely less

*I cannot help thinking that a practice, common in England
during the last century, and still followed in France, of printing a
notice of this kind,--a notice by a competent critic,--to serve as an
introduction to an eminent author's works, might be revived among
us with advantage. To introduce all succeeding editions of Words-
worth, |Mr.| Shairp's notice (it is permitted, I hope, to mention his
name) might, it seems to me, excellently serve; it is written from
the point of view of an admirer, nay, of a disciple, and that is
right; but then the disciple must be also, as in this case he is, a
critic, a man of letters, not, as too often happens, some relation or
friend with no qualification for his task except affection for his
author.

{{Page 3}}

41 mischief. A false or malicious criticism may do much
42 injury to the minds of others; a stupid invention, either
43 in prose or verse, is quite harmless."

¶3
44 It is almost too much to expect of poor human
45 nature, that a man capable of producing some effect in
46 one line of literature, should, for the greater good of
47 society, voluntarily doom himself to impotence and
48 obscurity in another. Still less is this to be expected
49 from men addicted to the composition of the "false or
50 malicious criticism," of which Wordsworth speaks. How-
51 ever, everybody would admit that a false or malicious
52 criticism had better never have been written. Every-
53 body, too, would be willing to admit, as a general propo-
54 sition, that the critical faculty is lower than the inventive.
55 But is it true that criticism is really, in itself, a baneful
56 and injurious employment; is it true that all time given
57 to writing critiques on the works of others would be
58 much better employed if it were given to original
59 composition, of whatever kind this may be? Is it true
60 that Johnson had better have gone on producing
61 more Irenes instead of writing his Lives of the Poets;
62 nay, is it certain that Wordsworth himself was better
63 employed in making his Ecclesiastical Sonnets, than
64 when he made his celebrated Preface, so full of criticism,
65 and criticism of the works of others? Wordsworth was
66 himself a great critic, and it is to be sincerely regretted
67 that he has not left us more criticism; Goethe was one
68 of the greatest of critics, and we may sincerely congratu-
69 late ourselves that he has left us so much criticism.
70 Without wasting time over the exaggeration which
71 Wordsworth's judgment on criticism clearly contains, or

{{Page 4}}

72 over an attempt to trace the causes,--not difficult I
73 think to be traced,--which may have led Wordsworth
74 to this exaggeration, a critic may with advantage seize
75 an occasion for trying his own conscience, and for
76 asking himself of what real service, at any given moment,
77 the practice of criticism either is, or may be made, to his
78 own mind and spirit, and to the minds and spirits of others.

¶4
79 The critical power is of lower rank than the creative.
80 True; but in assenting to this proposition, one or two
81 things are to be kept in mind. It is undeniable that the
82 exercise of a creative power, that a free creative activity,
83 is the true function of man; it is proved to be so by
84 man's finding in it his true happiness. But it is un-
85 deniable, also, that men may have the sense of exercising
86 this free creative activity in other ways than in producing
87 great works of literature or art; if it were not so, all
88 but a very few men would be shut out from the true
89 happiness of all men; they may have it in well-doing,
90 they may have it in learning, they may have it even in
91 criticising. This is one thing to be kept in mind.
92 Another is, that the exercise of the creative power in the
93 production of great works of literature or art, however
94 high this exercise of it may rank, is not at all epochs
95 and under all conditions possible; and that therefore
96 labour may be vainly spent in attempting it, which might
97 with more fruit be used in preparing for it, in rendering
98 it possible. This creative power works with elements,
99 with materials; what if it has not those materials, those
100 elements, ready for its use? In that case it must surely
101 wait till they are ready. Now in literature,--I will limit
102 myself to literature, for it is about literature that the

{{Page 5}}

103 question arises,--the elements with which the creative
104 power works are ideas; the best ideas, on every matter
105 which literature touches, current at the time; at any rate
106 we may lay it down as certain that in modern literature
107 no manifestation of the creative power not working with
108 these can be very important or fruitful. And I say
109 current at the time, not merely accessible at the time;
110 for creative literary genius does not principally show
111 itself in discovering new ideas; that is rather the business
112 of the philosopher; the grand work of literary genius is
113 a work of synthesis and exposition, not of analysis and
114 discovery; its gift lies in the faculty of being happily
115 inspired by a certain intellectual and spiritual atmosphere,
116 by a certain order of ideas, when it finds itself in them;
117 of dealing divinely with these ideas, presenting them in
118 the most effective and attractive combinations, making
119 beautiful works with them, in short. But it must have
120 the atmosphere, it must find itself amidst the order of
121 ideas, in order to work freely; and these it is not so
122 easy to command. This is why great creative epochs
123 in literature are so rare; this is why there is so much
124 that is unsatisfactory in the productions of many men of
125 real genius; because for the creation of a master-work
126 of literature two powers must concur, the power of the
127 man and the power of the moment, and the man is not
128 enough without the moment; the creative power has, for
129 its happy exercise, appointed elements, and those ele-
130 ments are not in its own control.

¶5
131 Nay, they are more within the control of the critical
132 power. It is the business of the critical power, as I said
133 in the words already quoted, "in all branches of know-

{{Page 6}}

134 ledge, theology, philosophy, history, art, science, to see
135 the object as in itself it really is." Thus it tends, at last,
136 to make an intellectual situation of which the creative
137 power can profitably avail itself. It tends to establish
138 an order of ideas, if not absolutely true, yet true by
139 comparison with that which it displaces; to make the
140 best ideas prevail. Presently these new ideas reach
141 society, the touch of truth is the touch of life, and there
142 is a stir and growth everywhere; out of this stir and
143 growth come the creative epochs of literature.

¶6
144 Or, to narrow our range, and quit these considerations
145 of the general march of genius and of society, considera-
146 tions which are apt to become too abstract and impalp-
147 able,--every one can see that a poet, for instance, ought
148 to know life and the world before dealing with them in
149 poetry; and life and the world being, in modern times,
150 very complex things, the creation of a modern poet, to
151 be worth much, implies a great critical effort behind it;
152 else it must be a comparatively poor, barren, and short-
153 lived affair. This is why Byron's poetry had so little
154 endurance in it, and Goethe's so much; both Byron
155 and Goethe had a great productive power, but Goethe's
156 was nourished by a great critical effort providing the true
157 materials for it, and Byron's was not; Goethe knew life
158 and the world, the poet's necessary subjects, much more
159 comprehensively and thoroughly than Byron. He knew
160 a great deal more of them, and he knew them much more
161 as they really are.

¶7
162 It has long seemed to me that the burst of creative
163 activity in our literature, through the first quarter of this
164 century, had about it, in fact, something premature; and

{{Page 7}}

165 that from this cause its productions are doomed, most of
166 them, in spite of the sanguine hopes which accompanied
167 and do still accompany them, to prove hardly more
168 lasting than the productions of far less splendid epochs.
169 And this prematureness comes from its having proceeded
170 without having its proper data, without sufficient materials
171 to work with. In other words, the English poetry of the
172 first quarter of this century, with plenty of energy, plenty
173 of creative force, did not know enough. This makes
174 Byron so empty of matter, Shelley so incoherent, Words-
175 worth even, profound as he is, yet so wanting in com-
176 pleteness and variety. Wordsworth cared little for books,
177 and disparaged Goethe. I admire Wordsworth, as he is,
178 so much that I cannot wish him different; and it is vain,
179 no doubt, to imagine such a man different from what he
180 is, to suppose that he could have been different; but
181 surely the one thing wanting to make Wordsworth an
182 even greater poet than he is,--his thought richer, and his
183 influence of wider application,--was that he should have
184 read more books, among them, no doubt, those of that
185 Goethe whom he disparaged without reading him.

¶8
186 But to speak of books and reading may easily lead to
187 a misunderstanding here. It was not really books and
188 reading that lacked to our poetry, at this epoch; Shelley
189 had plenty of reading, Coleridge had immense reading.
190 Pindar and Sophocles,--as we all say so glibly, and often
191 with so little discernment of the real import of what we
192 are saying,--had not many books; Shakspeare was no
193 deep reader. True; but in the Greece of Pindar and
194 Sophocles, in the England of Shakspeare, the poet lived
195 in a current of ideas in the highest degree animating and

{{Page 8}}

196 nourishing to the creative power; society was, in the
197 fullest measure, permeated by fresh thought, intelligent
198 and alive; and this state of things is the true basis for
199 the creative power's exercise, in this it finds its data, its
200 materials, truly ready for its hand; all the books and
201 reading in the world are only valuable as they are helps
202 to this. Even when this does not actually exist, books
203 and reading may enable a man to construct a kind of
204 semblance of it in his own mind, a world of knowledge
205 and intelligence in which he may live and work; this is
206 by no means an equivalent, to the artist, for the nationally
207 diffused life and thought of the epochs of Sophocles or
208 Shakspeare, but, besides that it may be a means of
209 preparation for such epochs, it does really constitute, if
210 many share in it, a quickening and sustaining atmosphere
211 of great value. Such an atmosphere the many-sided
212 learning and the long and widely-combined critical effort
213 of Germany formed for Goethe, when he lived and
214 worked. There was no national glow of life and thought
215 there, as in the Athens of Pericles, or the England of
216 Elizabeth. That was the poet's weakness. But there
217 was a sort of equivalent for it in the complete culture and
218 unfettered thinking of a large body of Germans. That
219 was his strength. In the England of the first quarter of
220 this century, there was neither a national glow of life and
221 thought, such as we had in the age of Elizabeth, nor yet
222 a culture and a force of learning and criticism, such as
223 were to be found in Germany. Therefore the creative
224 power of poetry wanted, for success in the highest sense,
225 materials and a basis; a thorough interpretation of the
226 world was necessarily denied to it.

{{Page 9}}

¶9
227 At first sight it seems strange that out of the immense
228 stir of the French Revolution and its age should not
229 have come a crop of works of genius equal to that which
230 came out of the stir of the great productive time of
231 Greece, or out of that of the Renaissance, with its
232 powerful episode the Reformation. But the truth is that
233 the stir of the French Revolution took a character which
234 essentially distinguished it from such movements as these.
235 These were, in the main, disinterestedly intellectual and
236 spiritual movements; movements in which the human
237 spirit looked for its satisfaction in itself and in the in-
238 creased play of its own activity: the French Revolution
239 took a political, practical character. The movement
240 which went on in France under the old régime, from
241 1700 to 1789, was far more really akin than that of the
242 Revolution itself to the movement of the Renaissance;
243 the France of Voltaire and Rousseau told far more
244 powerfully upon the mind of Europe than the France of
245 the Revolution. Goethe reproached this last expressly
246 with having "thrown quiet culture back." Nay, and the
247 true key to how much in our Byron, even in our Words-
248 worth, is this!--that they had their source in a great
249 movement of feeling, not in a great movement of mind.
250 The French Revolution, however,--that object of so
251 much blind love and so much blind hatred,--found
252 undoubtedly its motive-power in the intelligence of men
253 and not in their practical sense;--this is what distinguishes
254 it from the English Revolution of Charles the First's time;
255 this is what makes it a more spiritual event than our Re-
256 volution, an event of much more powerful and world-wide
257 interest, though practically less successful;--it appeals to

{{Page 10}}

258 an order of ideas which are universal, certain, permanent.
259 1789 asked of a thing, Is it rational? 1642 asked of a
260 thing, Is it legal? or, when it went furthest, Is it according
261 to conscience? This is the English fashion; a fashion
262 to be treated, within its own sphere, with the highest
263 respect; for its success, within its own sphere, has been
264 prodigious. But what is law in one place, is not law
265 in another; what is law here to-day, is not law even here
266 tomorrow; and as for conscience, what is binding on
267 one man's conscience is not binding on another's; the
268 old woman who threw her stool at the head of the
269 surpliced minister in |St.| Giles's Church at Edinburgh
270 obeyed an impulse to which millions of the human race
271 may be permitted to remain strangers. But the pre-
272 scriptions of reason are absolute, unchanging, of universal
273 validity; to count by tens is the simplest way of counting,*--

*A writer in the Saturday Review, who has offered me some
counsels about style for which I am truly grateful, suggests that
this should stand as follows:-- To take as your unit an established
base of notation, ten being given as the base of notation, is, except for
numbers under twenty, the simplest way of counting. I tried it so,
but I assure him, without jealousy, that the more I looked at his
improved way of putting the thing, the less I liked it. It seems to
me that the maxim, in this shape, would never make the tour of a
world, where most of us are plain easy-spoken people. He forgets
that he is a reasoner, a member of a school, a disciple of the great
Bentham, and that he naturally talks in the scientific way of his
school, with exact accuracy, philosophic propriety; I am a mere
solitary wanderer in search of the light, and I talk an artless, un-
studied, every-day, familiar language. But, after all, this is the
language of the mass of the world.

The mass of Frenchmen who felt the force of that prescription of
the reason which my reviewer, in his purified language, states thus: --
to count by tens has the advantage of taking as your unit the base of an *


{{Page 11}}

274 that is a proposition of which every one, from here
275 to the Antipodes, feels the force; at least, I should
276 say so, if we did not live in a country where it is not
277 impossible that any morning we may find a letter in
278 the Times declaring that a decimal coinage is an
279 absurdity. That a whole nation should have been pene-
280 trated with an enthusiasm for pure reason, and with an
281 ardent zeal for making its prescriptions triumph, is a very

* established system of notation, certainly rendered this, for themselves,
in some such loose language as mine. My point is that they felt the
force of a prescription of the reason so strongly that they legislated
in accordance with it. They may have been wrong in so doing; they
may have foolishly omitted to take other prescriptions of reason into
account;--the non-English world does not seem to think so, but let
that pass;--what I say is, that by legislating as they did they showed
a keen susceptibility to purely rational, intellectual considerations.
On the other hand, does my reviewer say that we keep our mone-
tary system unchanged because our nation has grasped the intellec-
tual proposition which he puts, in his masterly way, thus : {{"}}to count
by twelves has the advantage of taking as your unit a number in itself
far more convenient than ten for that purpose?" Surely not; but
because our system is there, and we are too practical a people to
trouble ourselves about its intellectual aspect.

To take a second case. The French Revolutionists abolished
the sale of offices, because they thought (my reviewer will kindly
allow me to put the thing in my imperfect, popular language) the
sale of offices a gross anomaly. We still sell commissions in the
army. I have no doubt my reviewer, with his scientific powers, can
easily invent some beautiful formula to make us appear to be doing
this on the purest philosophical principles; the principles of
Hobbes, Locke, Bentham, |Mr.| Mill, |Mr.| Bain, and himself, their
worthy disciple. But surely the plain unscientific account of the
matter is, that we have the anomalous practice (he will allow it is, in
itself, an anomalous practice?) established, and that (in the words of
senatorial wisdom already quoted) "for a thing to be an anomaly we
consider to be no objection to it whatever."

{{Page 12}}

282 remarkable thing, when we consider how little of mind,
283 or anything so worthy and quickening as mind, comes
284 into the motives which alone, in general, impel great
285 masses of men. In spite of the extravagant direction
286 given to this enthusiasm, in spite of the crimes and
287 follies in which it lost itself, the French Revolution
288 derives, from the force, truth, and universality of the
289 ideas which it took for its law, and from the passion
290 with which it could inspire a multitude for these ideas, a
291 unique and still living power; it is,--it will probably long
292 remain,--the greatest, the most animating event in history.
293 And, as no sincere passion for the things of the mind,
294 even though it turn out in many respects an unfortunate
295 passion, is ever quite thrown away and quite barren of
296 good, France has reaped from hers one fruit, the natural
297 and legitimate fruit, though not precisely the grand fruit
298 she expected; she is the country in Europe where the
299 people is most alive.

¶10
300 But the mania for giving an immediate political and
301 practical application to all these fine ideas of the reason
302 was fatal. Here an Englishman is in his element: on
303 this theme we can all go on for hours. And all we are in
304 the habit of saying on it has undoubtedly a great deal
305 of truth. Ideas cannot be too much prized in and for
306 themselves, cannot be too much lived with; but to
307 transport them abruptly into the world of politics and
308 practice, violently to revolutionise this world to their
309 bidding,--that is quite another thing. There is the world
310 of ideas and there is the world of practice; the French are
311 often for suppressing the one and the English the other;
312 but neither is to be suppressed. A member of the House

{{Page 13}}

313 of Commons said to me the other day: "That a thing is
314 an anomaly, I consider to be no objection to it what-
315 ever." I venture to think he was wrong; that a thing
316 is an anomaly is an objection to it, but absolutely and in
317 the sphere of ideas: it is not necessarily, under such and
318 such circumstances, or at such and such a moment, an
319 objection to it in the sphere of politics and practice.
320 Joubert has said beautifully: "C'est la force et le droit
321 qui règlent toutes choses dans le monde; la force en
322 attendant le droit." Force and right are the governors
323 of this world; force till right is ready. Force till right is
324 ready; and till right is ready, force, the existing order
325 of things, is justified, is the legitimate ruler. But right
326 is something moral, and implies inward recognition, free
327 assent of the will; we are not ready for right,--right, so
328 far as we are concerned, is not ready,--until we have
329 attained this sense of seeing it and willing it. The way
330 in which for us it may change and transform force, the
331 existing order of things, and become, in its turn, the
332 legitimate ruler of the world, will depend on the way
333 in which, when our time comes, we see it and will it.
334 Therefore for other people enamoured of their own
335 newly discerned right, to attempt to impose it upon us as
336 ours, and violently to substitute their right for our force,
337 is an act of tyranny, and to be resisted. It sets at nought
338 the second great half of our maxim, force till right is ready.
339 This was the grand error of the French Revolution, and
340 its movement of ideas, by quitting the intellectual sphere
341 and rushing furiously into the political sphere, ran, in-
342 deed, a prodigious and memorable course, but produced
343 no such intellectual fruit as the movement of ideas of

{{Page 14}}

344 the Renaissance, and created, in opposition to itself, what
345 I may call an epoch of concentration. The great force of
346 that epoch of concentration was England; and the great
347 voice of that epoch of concentration was Burke. It
348 is the fashion to treat Burke's writings on the French
349 Revolution as superannuated and conquered by the
350 event; as the eloquent but unphilosophical tirades of
351 bigotry and prejudice. I will not deny that they are
352 often disfigured by the violence and passion of the
353 moment, and that in some directions Burke's view was
354 bounded, and his observation therefore at fault; but on
355 the whole, and for those who can make the needful
356 corrections, what distinguishes these writings is their
357 profound, permanent, fruitful, philosophical truth; they
358 contain the true philosophy of an epoch of concentration,
359 dissipate the heavy atmosphere which its own nature
360 is apt to engender round it, and make its resistance
361 rational instead of mechanical.

¶11
362 But Burke is so great because, almost alone in England,
363 he brings thought to bear upon politics, he saturates
364 politics with thought; it is his accident that his ideas
365 were at the service of an epoch of concentration, not of
366 an epoch of expansion; it is his characteristic that he so
367 lived by ideas, and had such a source of them welling up
368 within him, that he could float even an epoch of con-
369 centration and English Tory politics with them. It does
370 not hurt him that |Dr.| Price and the Liberals were enraged
371 with him; it does not even hurt him that George the Third
372 and the Tories were enchanted with him. His greatness
373 is that he lived in a world which neither English Liberal-
374 ism nor English Toryism is apt to enter;--the world of

{{Page 15}}

375 ideas, not the world of catchwords and party habits. So
376 far is it from being really true of him that he "to party
377 gave up what was meant for mankind," that at the very
378 end of his fierce struggle with the French Revolution,
379 after all his invectives against its false pretensions, hollow-
380 ness, and madness, with his sincere conviction of its
381 mischievousness, he can close a memorandum on the
382 best means of combating it, some of the last pages
383 he ever wrote,--the Thoughts on French Affairs, in
384 December, 1791,--with these striking words:--

385 "The evil is stated, in my opinion, as it exists. The
386 remedy must be where power, wisdom, and information,
387 I hope, are more united with good intentions than they
388 can be with me. I have done with this subject, I believe,
389 for ever. It has given me many anxious moments for
390 the last two years. If a great change is to be made in
391 human affairs, the minds of men be fitted to it; the
392 general opinions and feelings will draw that way. Every
393 fear, every hope will forward it; and then they who persist
394 in opposing this mighty current in human affairs, will
395 appear rather to resist the decrees of Providence itself, than
396 the mere designs of men. They will not be resolute and
397 firm, but perverse and obstinate."

398 That return of Burke upon himself has always seemed
399 to me one of the finest things in English literature, or
400 indeed, in any literature. That is what I call living by
401 ideas; when one side of a question has long had your
402 earnest support, when all your feelings are engaged, when
403 you hear all round you no language but one, when your
404 party talks this language like a steam engine and can
405 imagine no other,--still to be able to think, still to be

{{Page 16}}

406 irresistibly carried, if so it be, by the current of thought
407 to the opposite side of the question, and, like Balaam, to
408 be unable to speak anything but what the Lord has put
409 in your mouth. I know nothing more striking, and I
410 must add that I know nothing more un-English.

¶12
411 For the Englishman in general is like my friend the
412 Member of Parliament, and believes, point-blank, that
413 for a thing to be an anomaly is absolutely no objection
414 to it whatever. He is like the Lord Auckland of Burke's
415 day, who, in a memorandum on the French Revolution,
416 talks of "certain miscreants, assuming the name of
417 philosophers, who have presumed themselves capable of
418 establishing a new system of society." The Englishman
419 has been called a political animal, and he values what is
420 political and practical so much that ideas easily become
421 objects of dislike in his eyes, and thinkers "miscreants,"
422 because ideas and thinkers have rashly meddled with
423 politics and practice. This would be all very well if
424 the dislike and neglect confined themselves to ideas
425 transported out of their own sphere, and meddling rashly
426 with practice; but they are inevitably extended to ideas
427 as such, and to the whole life of intelligence; practice is
428 everything, a free play of the mind is nothing. The
429 notion of the free play of the mind upon all subjects
430 being a pleasure in itself, being an object of desire, being
431 an essential provider of elements without which a nation's
432 spirit, whatever compensations it may have for them,
433 must, in the long run, die of inanition, hardly enters into
434 an Englishman's thoughts. It {{is}} [[[it]]] noticeable that the word
435 curiosity, which in other languages is used in a good sense,
436 to mean, as a high and fine quality of man's nature, just

{{Page 17}}

437 this disinterested love of a free play of the mind on all
438 subjects, for its own sake,--it is noticeable, I say, that
439 this word has in our language no sense of the kind,
440 no sense but a rather bad and disparaging one. But
441 criticism, real criticism, is essentially the exercise of this
442 very quality; it obeys an instinct prompting it to try to
443 know the best that is known and thought in the world,
444 irrespectively of practice, politics, and everything of the
445 kind; and to value knowledge and thought as they
446 approach this best, without the intrusion of any other
447 considerations whatever. This is an instinct for which
448 there is, I think, little original sympathy in the practical
449 English nature, and what there was of it has undergone
450 a long benumbing period of blight and suppression in
451 the epoch of concentration which followed the French
452 Revolution.

¶13
453 But epochs of concentration cannot well endure for
454 ever; epochs of expansion, in the due course of things,
455 follow them. Such an epoch of expansion seems to be
456 opening in this country. In the first place all danger of
457 a hostile forcible pressure of foreign ideas upon our
458 practice has long disappeared; like the traveller in the
459 fable, therefore, we begin to wear our cloak a little more
460 loosely. Then, with a long peace, the ideas of Europe
461 steal gradually and amicably in, and mingle, though in
462 infinitesimally small quantities at a time, with our own
463 notions. Then, too, in spite of all that is said about the
464 absorbing and brutalising influence of our passionate
465 material progress, it seems to me indisputable that this
466 progress is likely, though not certain, to lead in the end
467 to an apparition of intellectual life; and that man, after

{{Page 18}}

468 he has made himself perfectly comfortable and has now
469 to determine what to do with himself next, may begin to
470 remember that he has a mind, and that the mind may be
471 made the source of great pleasure. I grant it is mainly
472 the privilege of faith, at present, to discern this end to
473 our railways, our business, and our fortune-making; but
474 we shall see if, here as elsewhere, faith is not in the end
475 the true prophet. Our ease, our travelling, and our un-
476 bounded liberty to hold just as hard and securely as
477 we please to the practice to which our notions have
478 given birth, all tend to beget an inclination to deal a
479 little more freely with these notions themselves, to canvass
480 them a little, to penetrate a little into their real nature.
481 Flutterings of curiosity, in the foreign sense of the word,
482 appear amongst us, and it is in these that criticism must
483 look to find its account. Criticism first; a time of true
484 creative activity, perhaps,--which, as I have said, must
485 inevitably be preceded amongst us by a time of criticism,
486 --hereafter, when criticism has done its work.

¶14
487 It is of the last importance that English criticism
488 should clearly discern what rule for its course, in order
489 to avail itself of the field now opening to it, and to pro-
490 duce fruit for the future, it ought to take. The rule may
491 be summed up in one word,--disinterestedness. And how
492 is criticism to show disinterestedness? By keeping aloof
493 from practice; by resolutely following the law of its own
494 nature, which is to be a free play of the mind on all
495 subjects which it touches; by steadily refusing to lend
496 itself to any of those ulterior, political, practical con-
497 siderations about ideas which plenty of people will be
498 sure to attach to them, which perhaps ought often to be

{{Page 19}}

499 attached to them, which in this country at any rate are
500 certain to be attached to them quite sufficiently, but
501 which criticism has really nothing to do with. Its busi-
502 ness is, as I have said, simply to know the best that is
503 known and thought in the world, and by in its turn
504 making this known, to create a current of true and fresh
505 ideas. Its business is to do this with inflexible honesty,
506 with due ability; but its business is to do no more, and
507 to leave alone all questions of practical consequences and
508 applications, questions which will never fail to have due
509 prominence given to them. Else criticism, besides being
510 really false to its own nature, merely continues in the old
511 rut which it has hitherto followed in this country, and
512 will certainly miss the chance now given to it. For what
513 is at present the bane of criticism in this country? It is
514 that practical considerations cling to it and stifle it; it
515 subserves interests not its own; our organs of criticism
516 are organs of men and parties having practical ends to
517 serve, and with them those practical ends are the first
518 thing and the play of mind the second; so much play of
519 mind as is compatible with the prosecution of those prac-
520 tical ends is all that is wanted. An organ like the Revue
521 des Deux Mondes, having for its main function to under-
522 stand and utter the best that is known and thought in
523 the world, existing, it may be said, as just an organ for a`
524 free play of the mind, we have not; but we have the
525 Edinburgh Review, existing as an organ of the old Whigs,
526 and for as much play of mind as may suit its being that;
527 we have the Quarterly Review, existing as an organ of
528 the Tories, and for as much play of mind as may suit its
529 being that; we have the British Quarterly Review, exist-

{{Page 20}}

530 ing as an organ of the political Dissenters, and for as
531 much play of mind as may suit its being that; we have
532 the Times, existing as an organ of the common, satisfied,
533 well-to-do Englishman, and for as much play of mind as
534 may suit its being that. And so on through all the
535 various fractions, political and religious, of our society;
536 every fraction has, as such, its organ of criticism, but the
537 notion of combining all fractions in the common pleasure
538 of a free disinterested play of mind meets with no favour.
539 Directly this play of mind wants to have more scope, and
540 to forget the pressure of practical considerations a little,
541 it is checked, it is made to feel the chain; we saw this
542 the other day in the extinction, so much to be regretted,
543 of the Home and Foreign Review; perhaps in no organ
544 of criticism in this country was there so much knowledge,
545 so much play of mind; but these could not save it; the
546 Dublin Review subordinates play of mind to the prac-
547 tical business of English and Irish Catholicism, and lives.
548 It must needs be that men should act in sects and par-
549 ties, that each of these sects and parties should have its
550 organ, and should make this organ subserve the interests
551 of its action; but it would be well, too, that there should
552 be a criticism, not the minister of these interests, not
553 their enemy, but absolutely and entirely independent of
554 them. No other criticism will ever attain any real
555 authority or make any real way towards its end,--the
556 creating a current of true and fresh ideas.

¶15
557 It is because criticism has so little kept in the pure
558 intellectual sphere, has so little detached itself from
559 practice, has been so directly polemical and controver-
560 sial, that it has so ill accomplished, in this country, its

{{Page 21}}

561 best spiritual work; which is to keep man from a self-
562 satisfaction which is retarding and vulgarising, to lead
563 him towards perfection, by making his mind dwell upon
564 what is excellent in itself, and the absolute beauty and
565 fitness of things. A polemical practical criticism makes
566 men blind even to the ideal imperfection of their prac-
567 tice, makes them willingly assert its ideal perfection, in
568 order the better to secure it against attack; and clearly
569 this is narrowing and baneful for them. If they were
570 reassured on the practical side, speculative considera-
571 tions of ideal perfection they might be brought to
572 entertain, and their spiritual horizon would thus gra-
573 dually widen. |Mr.| Adderley says to the Warwickshire
574 farmers:--

575 "Talk of the improvement of breed! Why, the race
576 we ourselves represent, the men and women, the old
577 Anglo-Saxon race, are the best breed in the whole world.
578 ... The absence of a too enervating climate, too un-
579 clouded skies, and a too luxurious nature, has produced
580 so vigorous a race of people, and has rendered us so
581 superior to all the world."

582 |Mr.| Roebuck says to the Sheffield cutlers:--

583 "I look around me and ask what is the state of
584 England? Is not property safe? Is not every man able
585 to say what he likes? Can you not walk from one end
586 of England to the other in perfect security? I ask you
587 whether, the world over or in past history, there is any-
588 thing like it? Nothing. I pray that our unrivalled
589 happiness may last."

590 Now obviously there is a peril for poor human nature
591 in words and thoughts of such exuberant self-satisfaction,

{{Page 22}}

592 until we find ourselves safe in the streets of the Celestial
593 City.

594 "Das wenige verschwindet leicht deln Blicke
595 Der vorwärts sieht, wie viel noch übrig bleibt--"

596 says Goethe; the little that is done seems nothing when
597 we look forward and see how much we have yet to do.
598 Clearly this is a better line of reflection for weak humanity,
599 so long as it remains on this earthly field of labour and
600 trial. But neither |Mr.| Adderley nor |Mr.| Roebuck are
601 by nature inaccessible to considerations of this sort.
602 They only lose sight of them owing to the controversial
603 life we all lead, and the practical form which all specu-
604 lation takes with us. They have in view opponents
605 whose aim is not ideal, but practical, and in their zeal to
606 uphold their own practice against these innovators, they
607 go so far as even to attribute to this practice an ideal
608 perfection. Somebody has been wanting to introduce a
609 six-pound franchise, or to abolish church-rates, or to
610 collect agricultural statistics by force, or to diminish local
611 self-government. How natural, in reply to such pro-
612 posals, very likely improper or ill-timed, to go a little
613 beyond the mark, and to say stoutly: "Such a race of
614 people as we stand, so superior to all the world! The
615 old Anglo-Saxon race, the best breed in the whole world!
616 I pray that our unrivalled happiness may last! I ask
617 you whether, the world over or in past history, there is
618 anything like it!" And so long as criticism answers this
619 dithyramb by insisting that the old Anglo-Saxon race
620 would be still more superior to all others if it had no
621 church-rates, or that our unrivalled happiness would last

{{Page 23}}

622 yet longer with a six-pound franchise, so long will the
623 strain, "The best breed in the whole world!" swell
624 louder and louder, everything ideal and refining will be
625 lost out of sight, and both the assailed and their critics
626 will remain in a sphere, to say the truth, perfectly unvital,
627 a sphere in which spiritual progression is impossible.
628 But let criticism leave church-rates and the franchise
629 alone, and in the most candid spirit, without a single
630 lurking thought of practical innovation, confront with our
631 dithyramb this paragraph on which I stumbled in a news-
632 paper soon after reading |Mr.| Roebuck:--

633 "A shocking child murder has just been committed
634 at Nottingham. A girl named Wragg left the workhouse
635 there on Saturday morning with her young illegitimate
636 child. The child was soon afterwards found dead on
637 Mapperly Hills, having been strangled. Wragg is in
638 custody."

639 Nothing but that; but, in juxtaposition with the absolute
640 eulogies of |Mr.| Adderley and |Mr.| Roebuck, how elo-
641 quent, how suggestive are those few lines!" Our old
642 Anglo-Saxon breed, the best in the whole world!"--how
643 much that is harsh and ill-favoured there is in this best!
644 Wragg! If we are to talk of ideal perfection, of "the
645 best in the whole world," has anyone reflected what a
646 touch of grossness in our race, what an original short-
647 coming in the more delicate spiritual perceptions, is
648 shown by the natural growth amongst us of such hideous
649 names,--Higginbottom, Stiggins, Bugg! In Ionia and
650 Attica they were luckier in this respect than "the best
651 race in the world;" by the Ilissus there was no Wragg,
652 poor thing! And "our unrivalled happiness;"--what

{{Page 24}}

653 an element of grimness, bareness, and hideousness mixes
654 with it and blurs it; the workhouse, the dismal Map-
655 perly Hills,--how dismal those who have seen them will
656 remember;--the gloom, the smoke, the cold, the strangled
657 illegitimate child!" I ask you whether, the world over
658 or in past history, there is anything like it?" Perhaps
659 not, one is inclined to answer; but at any rate, in that
660 case, the world is very much to be pitied. And the final
661 touch,--short, bleak, and inhuman: Wragg is in custody.
662 The sex lost in the confusion of our unrivalled happiness;
663 or, shall I say? the superfluous Christian name lopped off
664 by the straightforward vigour of our old Anglo-Saxon
665 breed! There is profit for the spirit in such contrasts as
666 this; criticism serves the cause of perfection by esta-
667 blishing them. By eluding sterile conflict, by refusing to
668 remain in the sphere where alone narrow and relative
669 conceptions have any worth and validity, criticism may
670 diminish its momentary importance, but only in this way
671 has it a chance of gaining admittance for those wider and
672 more perfect conceptions to which all its duty is really
673 owed. |Mr.| Roebuck will have a poor opinion of an
674 adversary who replies to his defiant songs of triumph
675 only by murmuring under his breath, Wragg is in custody;
676 but in no other way will these songs of triumph be induced
677 gradually to moderate themselves, to get rid of what in
678 them is excessive and offensive, and to fall into a softer
679 and truer key.

¶16
680 It will be said that it is a very subtle and indirect
681 action which I am thus prescribing for criticism, and that
682 by embracing in this manner the Indian virtue of detach-
683 ment and abandoning the sphere of practical life, it

{{Page 25}}

684 condemns itself to a slow and obscure work. Slow and
685 obscure it may be, but it is the only proper work of
686 criticism. The mass of mankind will never have any
687 ardent zeal for seeing things as they are; very inadequate
688 ideas will always satisfy them. On these inadequate
689 ideas reposes, and must repose, the general practice of
690 the world. That is as much as saying that whoever sets
691 himself to see things as they are will find himself one of
692 a very small circle; but it is only by this small circle
693 resolutely doing its own work that adequate ideas will
694 ever get current at all. The rush and roar of practical
695 life will always have a dizzying and attracting effect upon
696 the most collected spectator, and tend to draw him into
697 its vortex; most of all will this be the case where that
698 life is so powerful as it is in England. But it is only by
699 remaining collected, and refusing to lend himself to the
700 point of view of the practical man, that the critic can do
701 the practical man any service; and it is only by the
702 greatest sincerity in pursuing his own course, and by at
703 last convincing even the practical man of his sincerity,
704 that he can escape misunderstandings which perpetually
705 threaten him.

¶17
706 For the practical man is not apt for fine distinctions,
707 and yet in these distinctions truth and the highest culture
708 greatly find their account. But it is not easy to lead a
709 practical man,--unless you reassure him as to your prac-
710 tical intentions you have no chance of leading him,--to
711 see that a thing which he has always been used to look
712 at from one side only, which he greatly values, and which,
713 looked at from that side, more than deserves, perhaps, all
714 the prizing and admiring which he bestows upon it,--that

{{Page 26}}

715 this thing, looked at from another side, may appear much
716 less beneficent and beautiful, and yet retain all its claims
717 to our practical allegiance. Where shall we find lan-
718 guage innocent enough, how shall we make the spotless
719 purity of our intentions evident enough, to enable us to
720 say to the political Englishman that the British Constitu-
721 tion itself, which, seen from the practical side, looks such
722 a magnificent organ of progress and virtue, seen from the
723 speculative side,--with its compromises, its love of facts,
724 its horror of theory, its studied avoidance of clear
725 thoughts,--that, seen from this side, our august Consti-
726 tution sometimes looks,--forgive me, shade of Lord
727 Somers!--a colossal machine for the manufacture of
728 Philistines? How is Cobbett to say this and not be mis-
729 understood, blackened as he is with the smoke of a life-
730 long conflict in the field of political practice? how is
731 |Mr.| Carlyle to say it and not be misunderstood, after his
732 furious raid into this field with his Latter-day Pamphlets
733 how is |Mr.| Ruskin, after his pugnacious political economy?
734 I say, the critic must keep out of the region of immediate
735 practice in the political, social, humanitarian sphere, if
736 he wants to make a beginning for that more free specu-
737 lative treatment of things, which may perhaps one day
738 make its benefits felt even in this sphere, but in a natural
739 and thence irresistible manner.

¶18
740 Do what he will, however, the critic will still remain
741 exposed to frequent misunderstandings, and nowhere so
742 much as in this country. For here people are particu-
743 larly indisposed even to comprehend that without this
744 free disinterested treatment of things, truth and the
745 highest culture are out of the question. So immersed are

{{Page 27}}

746 they in practical life, so accustomed to take all their
747 notions from this life and its processes, that they are apt
748 to think that truth and culture themselves can be reached
749 by the processes of this life, and that it is an impertinent
750 singularity to think of reaching them in any other. "We
751 are all terræ filii," cries their eloquent advocate; "all
752 Philistines together. Away with the notion of proceed-
753 ing by any other course than the course dear to the
754 Philistines; let us have a social movement, let us organise
755 and combine a party to pursue truth and new thought,
756 let us call it the liberal party, and let us all stick to each
757 other, and back each other up. Let us have no nonsense
758 about independent criticism, and intellectual delicacy,
759 and the few and the many; don't let us trouble our-
760 selves about foreign thought; we shall invent the whole
761 thing for ourselves as we go along; if one of us speaks
762 well, applaud him; if one of us speaks ill, applaud him
763 too; we are all in the same movement, we are all liberals,
764 we are all in pursuit of truth." In this way the pursuit
765 of truth becomes really a social, practical, pleasureable
766 affair, almost requiring a chairman, a secretary, and
767 advertisements; with the excitement of an occasional
768 scandal, with a little resistance to give the happy sense
769 of difficulty overcome; but, in general, plenty of bustle
770 and very little thought. To act is so easy, as Goethe
771 says; to think is so hard! It is true that the critic has
772 many temptations to go with the stream, to make one of
773 the party of movement, one of these terræ filii; it seems
774 ungracious to refuse to be a terræ filius, when so many
775 excellent people are; but the critic's duty is to refuse,
776 or, if resistance is vain, at least to cry with Obermann:
777 Périssons en résistant.

{{Page 28}}

¶19
778 How serious a matter it is to try and resist, I had
779 ample opportunity of experiencing when I ventured some
780 time ago to criticise the celebrated first volume of Bishop
781 Colenso. * The echoes of the storm which was then
782 raised I still, from time to time, hear grumbling round
783 me. That storm arose out of a misunderstanding almost
784 inevitable. It is a result of no little culture to attain to
785 a clear perception that science and religion are two
786 wholly different things; the multitude will for ever con-
787 fuse them, but happily that is of no great real im-
788 portance, for while the multitude imagines itself to live
789 by its false science, it does really live by its true religion.
790 |Dr.| Colenso, however, in his first volume did all he could
791 to strengthen the confusion, and to make it dangerous.

* So sincere is my dislike to all personal attack and controversy,
that I abstain from reprinting, at this distance of time from the
occasion which called them forth, the essays in which I criticised
the Bishop of Natal's book; I feel bound, however, after all that
has passed, to make here a final declaration of my sincere impenitence
for having published them. The Bishop of Natal's subsequent volumes
are in great measure free from the crying fault of his first; he has at
length succeeded in more clearly separating, in his own thoughts, the
idea of science from the idea of religion; his mind appears to be
opening as he goes along, and he may perhaps end by becoming a
useful biblical critic, though never, I think, of the first order.

Still, in here taking leave of him at the moment when he is pub-
lishing, for popular use, a cheap edition of his work, I cannot
forbear repeating yet once more, for his benefit and that of his
readers, this sentence from my original remarks upon him: There is
truth of science and truth of religion; truth of science does not become
truth of religion till it is made religious. And I will add: Let us
have all the science there is from the men of science; from the men
of religion let us have religion.

It has been said I make it "a crime against literary criticism *

{{Page 29}}

792 He did this with the best intentions, I freely admit, and
793 with the most candid ignorance that this was the natural
794 effect of what he was doing; but, says Joubert, "Igno-
795 ance, which in matters of morals extenuates the crime,
796 in itself, in intellectual matters, a crime of the first order."
797 I criticised Bishop Colenso's speculative confusion. Im-
798 mediately there was a cry raised: "What is this? here
799 a liberal attacking a liberal. Do not you belong to
800 the movement? are not you a friend of truth? Is not
801 Bishop Colenso in pursuit of truth? then speak with
802 proper respect of his book. |Dr.| Stanley is another friend
803 of truth, and you speak with proper respect of his book;
804 why make these invidious differences? both books are
805 excellent, admirable, liberal; Bishop Colenso's perhaps
806 the most so, because it is the boldest, and will have the
807 best practical consequences for the liberal cause. Do
808 you want to encourage to the attack of a brother liberal
809 his, and your, and our implacable enemies, the Church
810 and State Review or the Record,--the High Church
811 rhinoceros and the Evangelical hyæna? Be silent,
812 therefore; or rather speak, speak as loud as ever you can,
813 and go into ecstasies over the eighty and odd pigeons."
814 But criticism cannot follow this coarse and indiscriminate
815 method. It is unfortunately possible for a man in pur-
816 suit of truth to write a book which reposes upon a false
817 conception. Even the practical consequences of a book
818 are to genuine criticism no recommendation of it, if the
819 book is, in the highest sense, blundering. I see that a

*and the higher culture to attempt to inform the ignorant." Need
I point out that the ignorant are not informed by being confirmed
in a confusion?

{{Page 30}}

820 lady who herself, too, is in pursuit of truth, and who
821 writes with great ability, but a little too much, perhaps,
822 under the influence of the practical spirit of the English
823 liberal movement, classes Bishop Colenso's book and
824 M. Renan's together, in her survey of the religious state of
825 Europe, as facts of the same order, works, both of them,
826 of "great importance;" "great ability, power and skill;"
827 Bishop Colenso's, perhaps, the most powerful; at least,
828 Miss Cobbe gives special expression to her gratitude
829 that to Bishop Colenso "has been given the strength to
830 grasp, and the courage to teach truths of such deep
831 import." In the same way, more than one popular writer
832 has compared him to Luther. Now it is just this kind
833 of false estimate which the critical spirit is, it seems to
834 me, bound to resist. It is really the strongest possible
835 proof of the low ebb at which, in England, the critical
836 spirit is, that while the critical hit in the religious
837 literature of Germany is |Dr.| Strauss's book, in that of
838 France M. Renan's book, the book of Bishop Colenso
839 is the critical hit in the religious literature of England.
840 Bishop Colenso's book reposes on a total misconcep-
841 tion of the essential elements of the religious problem,
842 as that problem is now presented for solution. To cri-
843 ticism, therefore, which seeks to have the best that is
844 known and thought on this problem, it is, however well
845 meant, of no importance whatever. M. Renan's book
846 attempts a new synthesis of the elements furnished to
847 us by the four Gospels. It attempts, in my opinion, a
848 synthesis, perhaps premature, perhaps impossible, cer-
849 tainly not successful. Up to the present time, at any
850 rate, we must acquiesce in Fleury's sentence on such

{{Page 31}}

851 recastings of the Gospel story : Quiconque s'imagine la
852 pouvoir mieux écrire, ne l'entend pas. M. Renan had
853 himself passed by anticipation a like sentence on his
854 own work, when he said: "If a new presentation of the
855 character of Jesus were offered to me, I would not have
856 it; its very clearness would be, in my opinion, the best
857 proof of its insufficiency." His friends may with perfect
858 justice rejoin that at the sight of the Holy Land, and
859 of the actual scene of the Gospel-story, all the current
860 of M. Renan's thoughts may have naturally changed,
861 and a new casting of that story irresistibly suggested
862 itself to him; and that this is just a case for applying
863 Cicero's maxim: Change of mind is not inconsistency--
864 nemo doctus unquam mutationem consilii inconstantiam
865 dixit esse. Nevertheless, for criticism, M. Renan's first
866 thought must still be the truer one, as long as his new
867 casting so fails more fully to commend itself, more fully
868 (to use Coleridge's happy phrase about the Bible) to find
869 us. Still M. Renan's attempt is, for criticism, of the
870 most real interest and importance, since, with all its
871 difficulty, a fresh synthesis of the New Testament data,--
872 not a making war on them, in Voltaire's fashion, not a
873 leaving them out of mind, in the world's fashion, but
874 the putting a new construction upon them, the taking
875 them from under the old, adoptive, traditional, un-
876 spiritual point of view and placing them under a new
877 one,--is the very essence of the religious problem, as
878 now presented; and only by efforts in this direction can
879 it receive a solution.

¶20
880 Again, in the same spirit in which she judges Bishop
881 Colenso, Miss Cobbe, like so many earnest liberals of

{{Page 32}}

882 our practical race, both here and in America, herself
883 sets vigorously about a positive reconstruction of religion,
884 about making a religion of the future out of hand, or at
885 least setting about making it; we must not rest, she and
886 they are always thinking and saying, in negative criti-
887 cism, we must be creative and constructive; hence we
888 have such works as her recent Religious Duty, and works
889 still more considerable, perhaps, by others, which will
890 be in everyone's mind. These works often have much
891 ability; they often spring out of sincere convictions,
892 and a sincere wish to do good; and they sometimes,
893 perhaps, do good. Their fault is (if I may be permitted
894 to say so) one which they have in common with the
895 British College of Health, in the New Road. Everyone
896 knows the British College of Health; it is that building
897 with the lion and the statue of the Goddess Hygeia before
898 it; at least, I am sure about the lion, though I am not
899 absolutely certain about the Goddess Hygeia. This
900 building does credit, perhaps, to the resources of |Dr.|
901 Morrison and his disciples; but it falls a good deal
902 short of one's idea of what a British College of Health
903 ought to be. In England, where we hate public inter-
904 ference and love individual enterprise, we have a whole
905 crop of places like the British College of Health; the
906 grand name without the grand thing. Unluckily, credit-
907 able to individual enterprise as they are, they tend to
908 impair our taste by making us forget what more grandiose,
909 noble, or beautiful character properly belongs to a public
910 institution. The same may be said of the religions of
911 the future of Miss Cobbe and others. Creditable, like
912 the British College of Health, to the resources of their

{{Page 33}}

913 authors, they yet tend to make us forget what more
914 grandiose, noble, or beautiful character properly belongs
915 to religious constructions. The historic religions, with
916 all their faults, have had this; it certainly belongs to the
917 religious sentiment, when it truly flowers, to have this;
918 and we impoverish our spirit if we allow a religion of
919 the future without it. What then is the duty of criticism
920 here? To take the practical point of view, to applaud
921 the liberal movement and all its works,--its New Road
922 religions of the future into the bargain,--for their general
923 utility's sake? By no means; but to be perpetually dis-
924 satisfied with these works, while they perpetually fall
925 short of a high and perfect ideal.

¶21
926 For criticism, these are elementary laws; but they
927 never can be popular, and in this country they have
928 been very little followed, and one meets with immense
929 obstacles in following them. That is a reason for asserting
930 them again and again. Criticism must maintain its
931 independence of the practical spirit and its aims. Even
932 with well-meant efforts of the practical spirit it must
933 express dissatisfaction, if in the sphere of the ideal they
934 seem impoverishing and limiting. It must not hurry on
935 to the goal because of its practical importance. It must
936 be patient, and know how to wait; and flexible, and
937 know how to attach itself to things and how to withdraw
938 from them. It must be apt to study and praise elements
939 that for the fulness of spiritual perfection are wanted,
940 even though they belong to a power which in the prac-
941 tical sphere may be maleficent. It must be apt to discern
942 the spiritual shortcomings or illusions of powers that in
943 the practical sphere may be beneficent. And this with-

{{Page 34}}

944 out any notion of favouring or injuring, in the practical
945 sphere, one power or the other; without any notion of
946 playing off, in this sphere, one power against the other.
947 When one looks, for instance, at the English Divorce
948 Court,--an institution which perhaps has its practical
949 conveniences, but which in the ideal sphere is so hideous;*

*A critic, already quoted, says that I have no right, on my own
principles, to "object to practical measures on theoretical grounds,"
and that only "when a man has got a theory which will fully explain
all the duties of the legislator on the matter of marriage, will he
have a right to abuse the Divorce Court." In short, he wants me
to produce a plan for a new and improved Divorce Court, before I
call the present one hideous. But God forbid that I should thus
enter into competition with the Lord Chancellor! It is just this
invasion of the practical sphere which is really against my principles;
the taking a practical measure into the world of ideas, and seeing
how it looks there, is, on the other hand, just what I am recom-
mending. It is because we have not been conversant enough with
ideas that our practice now falls so short; it is only by becoming
more conversant with them that we shall make it better. Our
present Divorce Court is not the result of any legislator's meditations
on the subject of marriage; rich people had an anomalous privilege
of getting divorced; privileges are odious, and we said everybody
should have the same chance. There was no meditation about
marriage here; that was just the mischief.

If my practical critic will but himself accompany me, for a little
while, into the despised world of ideas;--if, renouncing any attempt
to patch hastily up, with a noble disdain for transcendentalists, our
present Divorce law, he will but allow his mind to dwell a little,
first on the Catholic idea of marriage, which exhibits marriage as
indissoluble, and then upon that Protestant idea of marriage, which
exhibits it as a union terminable by mutual consent,--if he will
meditate well on these, and afterwards on the thought of what
married life, according to its idea, really is, of what family life really
is, of what social life really is, and national life, and public morals,
--he will find, after a while, I do assure him, the whole state of his*


{{Page 35}}

950 an institution which neither makes divorce impossible
951 nor makes it decent, which allows a man to get rid of
952 his wife, or a wife of her husband, but makes them drag
953 one another first, for the public edification, through a
954 mire of unutterable infamy,--when one looks at this
955 charming institution, I say, with its crowded benches,
956 its newspaper-reports, and its money-compensations, this
957 institution in which the gross unregenerate British Philis-
958 tine has indeed stamped an image of himself,--one may
959 be permitted to find the marriage-theory of Catholicism
960 refreshing and elevating. Or when Protestantism, in
961 virtue of its supposed rational and intellectual origin,
962 gives the law to criticism too magisterially, criticism may
963 and must remind it that its pretensions, in this respect,
964 are illusive and do it harm; that the Reformation was a
965 moral rather than an intellectual event; that Luther's
966 theory of grace no more exactly reflects the mind of the
967 spirit than Bossuet's philosophy of history reflects it;
968 and that there is no more antecedent probability of the
969 Bishop of Durham's stock of ideas being agreeable to-
970 perfect reason than of Pope Pius the Ninth's. But
971 criticism will not on that account forget the achievements
972 of Protestantism in the practical and moral sphere; nor
973 that, even in the intellectual sphere, Protestantism,

*spirit quite changed; the Divorce Court will then seem to him, if he
looks at it, strangely hideous; and he will at the same time discover
in himself, as the fruit of his inward discipline, lights and resources
for making it better, of which now he does not dream.

He must make haste, though, for the condition of his "practical
measure" is getting awkward; even the British Philistine begins to
have qualms as he looks at his offspring; even his "thrice-battered
God of Palestine" is beginning to roll its eyes convulsively.

{{Page 36}}

974 though in a blind and stumbling manner, carried for-
975 ward the Renaissance, while Catholicism threw itself
976 violently across its path.

¶22
977 I lately heard a man of thought and energy contrasting
978 the want of ardour and movement which he now found
979 amongst young men in this country with what he re-
980 membered in his own youth, twenty years ago. "What
981 reformers we were then!" he exclaimed; "what a zeal
982 we had! how we canvassed every institution in Church
983 and State, and were prepared to remodel them all on
984 first principles!" He was inclined to regret, as a spiritual
985 flagging, the lull which he saw. I am disposed rather to
986 regard it as a pause in which the turn to a new mode of
987 spiritual progress is being accomplished. Everything
988 was long seen, by the young and ardent amongst us,
989 in inseparable connexion with politics and practical
990 life; we have pretty well exhausted the benefits of
991 seeing things in this connexion, we have got all that
992 can be got by so seeing them. Let us try a more dis-
993 interested mode of seeing them; let us betake ourselves
994 more to the serener life of the mind and spirit. This
995 life, too, may have its excesses and dangers; but they
996 are not for us at present. Let us think of quietly
997 enlarging our stock of true and fresh ideas, and not,
998 as soon as we get an idea or half an idea, be running
999 out with it into the street, and trying to make it rule
1000 there. Our ideas will, in the end, shape the world all
1001 the better for maturing a little. Perhaps in fifty years
1002 time it will in the English House of Commons be an
1003 objection to an institution that it is an anomaly, and my
1004 friend the member of Parliament will shudder in his

{{Page 37}}

1005 grave. But let us in the meanwhile rather endeavour
1006 that in twenty years time it may, in English literature,
1007 be an objection to a proposition that it is absurd.
1008 That will be a change so vast, that the imagination
1009 almost fails to grasp it. Ab integro sæclorum nascitur
1010 ordo.

¶23
1011 If I have insisted so much on the course which
1012 criticism must take where politics and religion are con-
1013 cemed, it is because, where these burning matters are
1014 in question, it is most likely to go astray. In general,
1015 its course is determined for it by the idea which is the
1016 law of its being; the idea of a disinterested endeavour
1017 to learn and propagate the best that is known and
1018 thought in the world, and thus to establish a current
1019 of fresh and true ideas. By the very nature of things,
1020 as England is not all the world, much of the best
1021 that is known and thought in the world cannot be of
1022 English growth, must be foreign; by the nature of
1023 things, again, it is just this that we are least likely
1024 to know, while English thought is streaming in upon
1025 us from all sides and takes excellent care that we shall
1026 not be ignorant of its existence; the English critic,
1027 therefore, must dwell much on foreign thought, and
1028 with particular heed on any part of it, which, while
1029 significant and fruitful in itself, is for any reason
1030 specially likely to escape him. Again, judging is often
1031 spoken of as the critic's one business; and so in some
1032 sense it is; but the judgment which almost insensibly
1033 forms itself in a fair and clear mind, along with fresh
1034 knowledge, is the valuable one; and thus knowledge,
1035 and ever fresh knowledge, must be the critic's great

{{Page 38}}

1036 concern for himself; and it is by communicating fresh
1037 knowledge, and letting his own judgment pass along
1038 with it,--but insensibly, and in the second place not the
1039 first, as a sort of companion and clue, not as an abstract
1040 law-giver,--that he will generally do most good to his
1041 readers. Sometimes, no doubt, for the sake of esta-
1042 blishing an author's place in literature, and his relation to
1043 a central standard (and if this is not done how are we to
1044 get at our best in the world?), criticism may have to deal
1045 with a subject-matter so familiar that fresh knowledge is
1046 out of the question, and then it must be all judgment;
1047 an enunciation and detailed application of principles.
1048 Here the great safeguard is never to let oneself become
1049 abstract, always to retain an intimate and lively con-
1050 sciousness of the truth of what one is saying, and, the
1051 moment this fails us, to be sure that something is wrong.
1052 Still, under all circumstances, this mere judgment and
1053 application of principles is, in itself, not the most satis-
1054 factory work to the critic; like mathematics it is tauto-
1055 logical, and cannot well give us, like fresh learning, the
1056 sense of creative activity.

¶24
1057 But stop, some one will say; all this talk is of no
1058 practical use to us whatever; this criticism of yours is
1059 not what we have in our minds when we speak of cri-
1060 ticism; when we speak of critics and criticism, we mean
1061 critics and criticism of the current English literature of
1062 the day; when you offer to tell criticism its function, it
1063 is to this criticism that we expect you to address yourself.
1064 I am sorry for it, for I am afraid I must disappoint these
1065 expectations. I am bound by my own definition of cri-
1066 ticism: a disinterested endeavour to learn and propagate

{{Page 39}}

1067 the best that is known and thought in the world. How
1068 much of current English literature comes into this "best
1069 that is known and thought in the world"? Not very
1070 much, I fear; certainly less, at this moment, than of the
1071 current literature of France or Germany. Well, then,
1072 am I to alter my definition of criticism, in order to meet
1073 the requirements of a number of practising English critics,
1074 who, after all, are free in their choice of a business? That
1075 would be making criticism lend itself just to one of those
1076 alien practical considerations, which, I have said, are so
1077 fatal to it. One may say, indeed, to those who have to
1078 deal with the mass,--so much better disregarded,--of
1079 current English literature, that they may at all events
1080 endeavour, in dealing with this, to try it, so far as they
1081 can, by the standard of the best that is known and thought
1082 in the world; one may say, that to get anywhere near
1083 this standard, every critic should try and possess one great
1084 literature, at least, besides his own; and the more unlike
1085 his own, the better. But, after all, the criticism I am
1086 really concerned with,--the criticism which alone can
1087 much help us for the future, the criticism which, through-
1088 out Europe, is at the present day meant, when so much
1089 stress is laid on the importance of criticism and the
1090 critical spirit,--is a criticism which regards Europe as
1091 being, for intellectual and spiritual purposes, one great
1092 confederation, bound to a joint action and working to a
1093 common result; and whose members have, for their
1094 proper outfit, a knowledge of Greek, Roman, and Eastern
1095 antiquity, and of one another. Special, local, and tempo-
1096 rary advantages being put out of account, that modern
1097 nation will in the intellectual and spiritual sphere make

{{Page 40}}

1098 most progress, which most thoroughly carries out this
1099 programme. And what is that but saying that we too,
1100 all of us, as individuals, the more thoroughly we carry
1101 it out, shall make the more progress?

¶25
1102 There is so much inviting us! what are we to take?
1103 what will nourish us in growth towards perfection? That
1104 is the question which, with the immense field of life and
1105 of literature lying before him, the critic has to answer;
1106 for himself first, and afterwards for others. In this idea
1107 of the critic's business the essays brought together in
1108 the following pages have had their origin; in this idea,
1109 widely different as are their subjects, they have, perhaps,
1110 their unity.

¶26
1111 I conclude with what I said at the beginning: to have
1112 the sense of creative activity is the great happiness and
1113 the great proof of being alive, and it is not denied to
1114 criticism to have it; but then criticism must be sincere,
1115 simple, flexible, ardent, ever widening its knowledge.
1116 Then it may have, in no contemptible measure, a joyful
1117 sense of creative activity; a sense which a man of
1118 insight and conscience will prefer to what he might
1119 derive from a poor, starved, fragmentary, inadequate
1120 creation. And at some epochs no other creation is
1121 possible.

¶27
1122 Still, in full measure, the sense of creative activity
1123 belongs only to genuine creation; in literature we must
1124 never forget that. But what true man of letters ever
1125 can forget it? It is no such common matter for a
1126 gifted nature to come into possession of a current of
1127 true and living ideas, and to produce amidst the inspira-
1128 tion of them, that we are likely to underrate it. The

{{Page 41}}

1129 epochs of Æschylus and Shakspeare make us feel their
1130 pre-eminence. In an epoch like those is, no doubt, the
1131 true life of a literature; there is the promised land,
1132 towards which criticism can only beckon. That pro-
1133 mised land it will not be ours to enter, and we shall
1134 die in the wilderness: but to have desired to enter it, to
1135 have saluted it from afar, is already, perhaps, the best
1136 distinction among contemporaries; it will certainly be
1137 the best title to esteem with posterity.


Copytext: Arnold 1865.
Source: Matthew Arnold. "The Function of Criticism at the Present Time." Essays in Criticism. London and Cambridge: Macmillan and Co., 1865. Pp. 1-41.
Ed. (text): Ian Lancashire, Rep. Criticism On-line (1996).

Editorial Conventions

This edition does not include the text of original running titles or page numbers.

Old spelling is retained except for long-s and ligatured letters, which are normalized. Contractions and abbreviations are placed within vertical bars and are generally expanded. Italics and lineation are retained, but not small capitals and the text of catchwords, signatures, and running titles. Reference citations are by page numbers and through-text paragraph and line numbers at the left margin.

Double square brackets enclose the first part of a word split between pages. Double vertical bars enclose the first part of a word split between pages when it is repeated just before the second part of the word at the top of the following page.

Editorial additions are in double braces. Editorial deletions are in triple square brackets.


Online text copyright © 2005, Ian Lancashire for the Department of English, University of Toronto.
Published by the Web Development Group, Information Technology Services, University of Toronto Libraries.


Other works by Matthew Arnold