Monday, October 15, 2012

Homage to Matthew Arnold

Ultimately, I think he managed to transcend Romanticism, and that is much to his credit.  It was not easy, given the times in which he lived, to appeal to the rational, nor was it easy for him to do what I think he did, and that is to move poetry from its overwrought, sometimes saccharine, indulgence in the emotions and gushing celebration of nature towards the modernism of such as Elliot and Stephens; towards a coolly intellectual though melancholy appraisal of life.  Dover Beach remains, for me, one of the greatest poems, and it fascinates me that a Victorian managed to write it.

He was a fine writer of prose as well, and an astute social and literary critic.  When it comes to religion, which clearly was of great importance to him, it strikes me that in a way he is a tragic figure, doomed to appreciate the Greek and Roman thinkers, including Marcus Aurelius and the Stoics, who espoused a pre-Christian view he admired and yet bound to champion Christianity, or at least a version of it, cleansed as best as possible in that era from superstition.  It makes for a certain inconsistency in his thought.

So does his respect for tradition and his formidably aristocratic perspective of culture, what it could and should mean, with respect to his desire to improve society.  I'm reading his Culture and Anarchy now, and his musings regarding Nonconformist and Establishment religions are striking in their conservatism, as is his view of education, and he was quite well-versed regarding what passed as education then.

He is inclined to be critical of American education, though he indicates he believes that it has resulted in increased literacy, because he views it as being limited to informing people of and interesting them merely in business and politics, and not what he clearly believes to be of importance, i.e., those aspects of culture which have not much of anything to do with business and politics.  But unless he describes later in this work or otherwise in his writings how one manages to teach the classics and the nonmaterial aspects of culture to the masses, this kind of criticism appears ineffective, and even rather petulant.  Are we to avoid education because it only manages to allow people to read newspapers and does not induce them to read Plato or (shudder) Newman?

One must start somewhere, or not start at all.  I get the impression that he would rather not start at all, unless in starting we teach everything, and this was not a realistic goal then nor is it now.  Still, his sincerity is apparent.  Perhaps that was typical of the Victorians.  They were sincere in their desire to improve humanity, but their conception of what constituted improvement was limited and their conception of the means by which improvement could be made was narrow.

I think of him as a transitional figure, much like J.S. Mill was in philosophy.  Too thoughtful to be an irrational windbag like Emerson or a complete and utter elitist like Coleridge and others of the time, but still inherently conservative in thought and belief,  He reminds me somewhat of Santayana in his prejudices, but he lacks Santayana's naturalism.  A figure worthy of note and serious consideration.

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