The essay “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” was published by Mattew Arnold in his first collection of critical writing Essays In Criticism in 1865. It deals with the phenomenon of criticism. In this essay, he points out some basic rules for criticism, which according to him separate the original criticism from the fake one.
About Matthew Arnold
Mattew Arnold was a Victorian poet and critic. He is considered to be the first modern critic and could be called the Critics of Critics. He started his literary career by writing poetry. At the age of 31, he published his first piece of criticism as a Preface to the Poems’ 1853, and then for the rest of his life the full thirty-five years he only wrote about criticism and critic. As a critic, he talks about social issues, science, religion, and education.
Arnold’s criticism career falls into three periods.
1. The First Period (1853 – 1866)
In this period he produced the following work.
- The Preface to the Poem 1853.
- On Translating Homer 1856.
- Essays in Criticism, first series 1865.
- On the study of Celtic literature 1866.
2. The Second Period (1867 – 1885)
In this period he was involved for more than a decade in political, educational, social, and religious controversies of the day. The chief work of this period:
- Culture and Anarchy 1869.
- Literature and Dogma 1875.
3. The Third Period (1875 to his death)
In this period he retired from contemporary controversies and devoted himself again to his literary studies.
- Essay in Criticism, Second series (1888)
In the function of criticism at the present time, Arnold says Literary Criticism is an evaluation analysis, description, and interpretation of literary work. He defines criticism as:
“A disinterested endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought of in the world, and thus to establish a current of fresh and true ideas.”
According to him:
- A critic needs to be free from two prejudices; historical and personal.
- Historical prejudice is when the critic resorts to viewing through the lens of the past and neglects the present in the work.
- Personal prejudice refers to a personal liking that can be judged.
By the definition of criticism provided by Arnold, there are three tasks for the critic.
- The first task is the critic’s duty to learn; for that, he must “See things as they really are.”
- The second task is to hand on this idea to others, to convert the world to make “The best ideas prevail.”
- The third task requires the critic to create a favorable atmosphere for the creation.
Literary Criticism and Creativity
Arnold also believes that the creator of a text is greater than its critic because “Creative activity is the True Function of Man”, however, it is the critic who draws the true meaning of that particular work of literature. Arnold criticizes the literature produced during the Victorian age. To him, there is a failure of criticism due to the division of society and intellectuals into small political and religious groups that make them incapable of seeing things in their true states. He gives the example of various works of literature which were written to promote the writer’s political agendas.
- The Edinburgh represents views of the wings.
- The Quarterly review represents the views of Tories.
- The British Quarterly Review represents the views of political dissenters.
- The times represent the views of the Rich Englishman.
Arnold takes the example of two poets – Goethe and Byron. Both Goethe and Bayron had great productive power yet the work of Goethe is more productive than that of Byron because the former had a rich cultural background which the latter lacked. Similarly, Shakespeare was not a deep reader. His fame and glory were only because his age had a climate of great ideas. Next, he says that French Revolution, with its writers like Rousseau and Voltaire, was more powerful than the English Revolution of Charles. The works written on the French Revolution are tremendous and well appreciated yet they are biased as they combine politics with thought.
Thus, In the essay “The Function Of Criticism, Matthew Arnold says that critic judgment should be from their own mind without any biases and should communicate fresh knowledge to their readers. It is criticism that has most significantly influenced French and German Literature. The Function of the Critic is not just criticizing a work of art or passing judgment, but presenting the facts so that the reader may make his or her own judgment.