Arnold’s Epochs of Expansion

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Arnold’s Epochs of Expansion

“I am bound by my own definition of criticism: a disinterested endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world;” (Leitch 824) said the Victorian poet and critic Matthew Arnold. Matthew Arnold, an English poet and critic whose work was both a representative of the Romantic ideas and of the Victorian intellectual concerns later on was the primary literary critic of his age. Arnold’s critical theories is highlighted mainly through his most important critical prose “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” in which he examines the role of the critic in society and presents his critical concept. Arnold’s contribution to literary theory is his theories on epochs of expansion and epochs of concentration, which throughout the course of this essay will be thoroughly explained. Matthew Arnold, a Romantic poet transformed into a critic of the Romantic Age, contributes to the English critical theories, the concept of epochs of expansion and epochs of concentration.

Matthew Arnold, poet and critic was born on December 24 1822 in Laleham, Middlesex England and passed away April 15, 1888. He was considered the father of the modern criticism movement into the Objective Theory. Arnold was the eldest son of Thomas Arnold, historian and famous headmaster of Rugby, and of Mary (Penrose) Arnold. Throughout the beginning of Arnold’s life he was educated at Rugby and then at Balliol College, University of Oxford, where he graduated. Shortly after Arnold graduated he was elected to a fellowship at Oriel, and after teaching a little at Rugby he became a private secretary to the Marquis of Lansdowne. After becoming the private secretary to Lord Lansdowne, he was appointed to inspector of schools, a position he held up until 1886, two years before his death.

During his term he went on a number of missions and visitation of European schools. He was impressed by some of the educational systems that he wrote several works about them as well. Arnold’s literary career can be divided into four separate periods in which the first period was in the 1850s where a large amount of his poems appeared; the second being in the 1860s in which his literary criticism and social criticism emerged; and the third being in the 1870s where his religious and educational writings surfaced; finally the fourth period being the one in the 1880s, where his second set of essays in literary criticism emerged. The fact that Arnold was born into an age that was shifting from the Romantics into the Victorian Age gave him a perspective of both ages in which he actually wrote in both ages.

Arnold began as a Romantic poet merely writing Romantic poetry and displaying the various Romantic intellectual ideas. Later on, Arnold switched into prose and began writing critical works in which Arnold became a critic of the Romantic Age and intellectual thoughts. Matthew Arnold was one of the most significant literary critics of his age. He was the Professor of Poetry at Oxford from the time of 1857 to 1867, during which he wrote his first books of criticism, including On Translating Homer (1861), Essays in Criticism (1865; Series 2, 1888), In the Study of Celtic Literature (1867), and a number of other books regarding criticism as well.

In his first volume of Essays in Criticism, came Arnold’s most important critical work in the name of “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time,” in which Arnold examines the role of the critic in society and formulates the critical theory of an epoch of expansion and epoch of concentration. Arnold’s essay suggests that the critic’s role is one of a personal and social nature but the critic must maintain “disinterestedness,” according to Arnold, to produce a proper critique. Arnold wanted to lay down the rules for aesthetic art in his age; he wanted them to have rules in order to produce a great anesthetic object. Arnold also tried to establish an aesthetic realm and emphasize the role of critics. Therefore, Arnold wrote “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time,” which is an essay where he laid down his theory and where he argued for the central role of the critic in collecting and producing great literature.

In Arnold’s essay “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time”, Arnold asserted that criticism is a positive and noble task. Since, Arnold began as a poet and was a poet himself he gives some emphasis to the creative abilities of the poet yet he also gives a greater emphasis to the analytical abilities of the critic. Matthew Arnold introduced the concept of poetry as a synthesizing process in which the poet synthesizes ideas and puts these ideas together to form a work of art. He also introduced the role of the critic being the analyst of those ideas. So, in other words, Arnold states that the poet collects the information and the critic saturates or divides those ideas and by dividing and synthesizing these ideas there will be an artistic process or dialogue in which the poets will see their work analyzed and view their weak points and try to synthesize new and powerful ideas.

After the poet synthesizes newer and powerful ideas the critic then will take these ideas and analyze them, divide them, break them apart and talk about the strong and weak points in them, so this is a continual process of analyzing and synthesizing. Arnold gives the poet the creative ability and the critic the analytical ability; yet, both of them are creators, one of them synthesizes and produces or creates and the other analyzes and by analyzing he introduces new ideas to the poet. The critic introduces new ideas to the poet by analysis and discovery and by seeing the objects as they are and not as they are supposed to be. Therefore, the critic and poet are both interdependent on each other and need the other to function well. Furthermore, Arnold formulated a theory in which the world of art passes through periods which are called epochs. There are two epochs: epoch of expansion and the other epoch is an epoch of concentration.

Matthew Arnold defined the epoch of expansion as a period in time in which the poets come up with new ideas, ideas that are very rare. Arnold believes that only the artistic world would pass through those two epochs. According to Arnold, the epoch of expansion was seen in two very important periods, the first epoch of expansion is Periclean Athens, in which the greatest voices and works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides existed, and the second epoch of expansion is Elizabethan England, where the greatest voices and works of William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, and Ben Jonson flourished. Arnold states that the significance of those periods in the history of art is because they formed many new ideas that were rare at the time. Therefore, according to Arnold’s definition, an epoch of expansion involved the poet synthesizing and creating a creative work of literature from the intellectual cultural moments at the time into a great work of literature.

Arnold also defines the epoch of concentration as the epochs in which the critics find the good use of the ideas introduced in the epoch of expansion and they analyze it, and by analyzing them, they come up with new ideas to present to the poets. In other words, the epoch of expansion consists of numerous new ideas that are emerge up and many sources in these periods that when they pass, the critics look at them, break them down, analyze them and then produce new ideas. The critic’s role would be of a rational nature in which he analyzes the object or work of literature. Then after the epoch of concentration presents the new ideas to the poets, another epoch of expansion comes to life by the poets in which they synthesized and put together newer ideas from the analysis of the critics in order to present a newer epoch of expansion.

Time then passes as well and the critic takes those new ideas, breaks them down again, and analyzes them to come up with fresher ideas. Furthermore, the critics and poets are working one after the other, and each epoch completes the next by displaying its features. Yet, in the epoch of concentration, the criticism produced “must maintain its independence of the practical spirit and its aim.” (Leitch 822) This quote in simpler words states that the critic should be an unbiased individual that does not let his emotions, thoughts, or any action in the country at the time to influence his analysis and that the analysis presented is based solely on the work of art presented to him. Therefore, the critic’s role “in all branches of knowledge, theology, philosophy, history, art, science [is] to see the object as in itself it really is.” (Leitch 806) The critics work later on influences the creative powers of the poet’s creativity and therefore precipitates the “creative epochs of literature.” (Leitch 808) Arnold states that the great force of the epoch of concentration was England and the greatest voice of this epoch was Burke.

The objective theorists made it their job to drift away from the Romantic values and establish their own similar to the Expressive theorists and their rebellions against the Neoclassicists. Therefore, they gave the critic a stronger role in producing great literature, which was not given by previous and older theorists and theories. Hence, Arnold aid that a critic is as important as the poet in this artistic process, which is very similar to Alexander Pope’s ideas. Arnold also stated that the critic ought to have a disinterested way of looking at the world, being natural and not subjective, but objective.

Therefore, some of Matthew Arnold’s influences on his theories were of Aristotle, in the emphasis of the synthesizing process of the poet as a creative creator. An influence of Burke in referencing that the poet is a creative force and the critic is a rational force similar to the concept of Imagination and Judgment. There is also the influence of Alexander Pope in relating that the role of criticism is a positive and noble task and that the critic is as important if not more important than the poet himself. Finally, one more influence would be that of the Pragmatic way of asserting that criticism should be a neutral task and not biased.

There is no doubt that Arnold influenced numerous individuals with his critical concept that one of those influenced by Arnold is T.S. Elliot, in the manner of replacig the Romantic emphasis on spontaneity, originality, and novelty with the new focus on history, culture and tradition. Elliot also presents his critical work “The Function of Criticism” being derived from the same title Arnold used in his critical work “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time.” Arnold’s criticism also had a major impact on the work of writers such as Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde, George Eliot, Henry James, Thomas Hardy, and even George Santayana, and Wallace Stevens. Another critic influenced by Matthew Arnold is Harold Bloom, a critic who expresses a lofty disregard for Arnold.

Matthew Arnold, therefore, “defines criticism as involving flexibility, openness, to new experiences, and curiosity…He insists, too, on the ‘free play’ of mind.” (Leitch 805) Within Arnold’s definition lies the concept of an epoch of expansion and an epoch of concentration being interdependent and related to each other. This view contributed to laying down the roles of each the poet and the critic as being the creative and rational individuals who synthesize and analyze great works of literature. Criticism might praise certain elements of literature, but must maintain dissatisfaction with the whole as long as it falls short of the “fullness of spiritual perfection.” (Leitch 822) The critic is therefore the propagator of art, culture, and society. Through the critic’s work, fresh and true ideas are observed and passed into the world in order to shape and influence the creative mind. Without criticism, the flow of creativity and progress would be detained, according to Arnold’s thoughts.

In conclusion, Matthew Arnold, a Romantic poet transformed into a critic of the Romantic Age contributed highly to the Objective theorist approach to criticism. This contribution is presented through his great prose work “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time,” in which, the critical concept of an epoch of expansion and an epoch of concentration is presented. An epoch of expansion being an era, in which a poet creatively synthesizes an intellectual cultural moment into a great work of literature and the critic therefore in his epoch of concentration, analyzes this work disinterestedly and presents the weakness and strong points of this, therefore presenting fresher and newer ideas to the poet to be taken in consideration.

The poet therefore, takes those ideas and applies them to the later works, which presents the interdependent relationship of both the critic and poet. This concept later on influenced a number of writers and critics and their works and contributed highly to the modern critical theory. I believe that throughout this research paper, I benefited a lot from the information researched and presented and understand Arnold’s perspective and theory to an extent that I can agree to his theory of the critic and poet being codependent on each others.


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  • University/College: University of Chicago

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 18 July 2016

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