In what ways does "The Function of Criticism at the Present Time" by Matthew Arnold represent Victorian literary criticism and the Victorian era? And what does the article deal with in detail?

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Tamara K. H. eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In "The Function of Criticism at the Present Time," Matthew Arnold argues it is criticism that has most significantly influenced French and German literature, and that criticism is applied using all "branches of knowledge, theology, philosophy, history, art, [and] science," in order to see things as they truly are. He further argues that those who write and study English literature fail to apply any criticism, and English literature is suffering in quality due to the lack of criticism.

By criticism, Arnold means more than just critiquing though critiquing is certainly a part of literary criticism. Literary criticism is an "evaluation, analysis, description, [and] interpretation of literary works" ("Literary Criticism"). And, Arnold is arguing it is through such criticism that new ideas are gained and literature is improved in order for literature to deal in deeper subject matters.

He particularly notes that Victorian society is failing to improve literature through criticism, and one of the reasons why is because the society is so divided by its members' own political and religious ideals that the society is unable to see things as they truly are. He goes on to list many various works of English literature that are written solely to promote the writers' own political agendas; for example, the Edinburgh Review represents the agenda of the Whigs; the Quarterly Review represents the agenda of the Tories; the British Quarterly Review represents the vies of "political Dissenters; and the Times represents the views of the "common, satisfied, well-to-do Englishman." In short, each faction of Victorian English society has found a way to voice its own criticism, but the biased criticisms of factions alone are meaningless and will not lead to truth. As Arnold argued, British Victorian society had no interest in combining all of the criticisms from all factions into one common, "disinterested" criticism, which is what would be needed for criticism to draw any true conclusions.

He further argues that true criticism can only be reached when one analyzes things from a detached standpoint. But unfortunately, "The mass of mankind will never have any ardent zeal for seeing things as they are; very inadequate ideas will always satisfy them."