People will not stay to examine patiently whether Mr. Arnold makes out his case or not. They will but carry away the general impression, that here is a man of genius and of strong conviction, who speaks of criticism as just now the greatest power upon earth. They will, therefore, expect from it the mightiest effects; and grievous will be their disappointment at the modesty of its actual exploits.
homas Carlyle taught his contemporaries and those who followed to look for signs of the times — key defining events or phenomena that define an age — and for Dallas “there is no more healthy sign of our times than the popularity which has been accorded to the writings of Mr. Matthew Arnold, who has come forward to denounce our criticism as folly, and to call upon the critics to mend their ways” (I, 38). Damning with faint praise, Dallas immediately follows the previous sentence by asserting that “in many most important points it is impossible to agree with this delightful writer. . . especially when he attempts to reason and to generalize.” According to Dallas, Arnold is an extremely charming but essentially shallow thinker, someone, in other words, someone quite the opposite of Lionel Trilling’s intellectual hero: “He is a suggestive writer, but not a convincing one. He starts many ideas, but does not carry out his conclusions. He has power of thought enough to win our attention, charm of style enough to enchant us with his strain; but we are won without conviction, and we are enchanted without being satisfied” (I, 38-39).
According to Dallas, who continues with praise followed by savage criticism,
The most marked peculiarity of his style, when he has to deal not with facts but with ideas, is its intense juvenility — a boy-power to the nth. It would be unjust so to characterize his robust scholarship, and his keen biographical insight. But when he comes to what is more especially called an idea, then his merits and his defects alike are those of youthfulness. There is in his thinking the greenness, the unfitness, the impracticability of youth; there is also in it the freshness, the buoyancy, the indescribable gracefulness, the raging activity of youth. We learn as we read him to have so much sympathy with the fine purpose, the fine taste, the fine temper of his writing, that we forget, or we are loth to express, how much we differ with him whenever he attempts to generalize. [I,39]
Pointing out that his “outcry against English criticism for its want of science (though that is not the phrase by which he would describe its deficiency) has been received with the greatest favour,” Dallas argues that “he does less than justice to English criticism comparing it with foreign; for if we have faults, so also have the Germans and the French. All alike fall short of science. If we fall short of it in our treatment of idea, they fall short of it in their treatment of fact” (I, 39). Nonetheless, “be he right or wrong however in this matter, the fact of his having raised his voice against our criticism is in itself important” and “what he thinks, others think also. When such a man complains of the lack of idea in English criticism, we may be satisfied that he is giving form to an opinion which, if it has not before been expressed with equal force, has been widely felt, and has often been at the point of utterance” (I, 40).
Dallas then makes several specific charges against Arnold, the first being that he overstates the importance of criticism and the second that he seems to have a very fuzzy idea of what criticism actually might be. Arnold “is in our day the most hearty in denouncing the weakness of our criticism . . . is also the most imperious in vaunting the office of the critic; and there is a danger lest from his unguarded expressions it should be supposed that criticism promises more than it can perform” (I, 65). Arnold tells us that “what Europe now desires most is criticism. What he means by this it is not easy to make out,” in part because ”he assures us that Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare, are to be regarded as critics, and that everything done in literature is at root criticism; from which it would appear that there can be nothing specially critical in the intellectual movement which is now in progress” (65-66). Yet another problem, says Dallas, appears in Arnold’s claim “the first of living critics is M. Sainte Beuve,” whom Dallas admits is “an indefatigable, a clever, and well-informed writer— a man of good judgment, and in France of great literary influence” but hardly ”the prophet of the age — a great leader of thinking — the enlightener of Europe” (I, 66).
Yet another major problem with Arnold’s position appears in his
statement that the intellectual movement of our time is critical. Mr. Arnold identifies criticism with the modern spirit; and then he tells us that the modern spirit arises in a sense of contrast between the dictates of reason and of custom, the world of idea and the world of fact. We live amid prescriptions and customs that have been thrusted upon us from ages. When we become alive to the fact that the forms and institutions of our daily life — the life individual and the life national, are prescribed to us not by reason but only by custom, that, says Mr. Arnold, is the awakening of the modern spirit. The truth is, however, that what he describes as the peculiar spirit of modern thought — that is, nineteenth-century thought — is the spirit of every reforming age. It was, for example, the spirit of Christianity as it showed itself at first in the midst of surrounding Judaism. [I, 67]
Continuing his strategy of first praising and then damning, Dallas claims that “Mr. Arnold has allowed himself, in the graceful eagerness of a poetical nature, to be carried headlong into generalizations that are illusive. But the general effect of his expressions is to spread abroad an inflated idea of criticism — what it is, what it can do” [I, 67]
Links to Related Material
- Dallas, Matthew Arnold, & the Main Characteristics of the Victorian Age
- Thomas Carlyle’s “Signs of the Times” (complete annotated text)
Dallas, Eneas Sweetland . The Gay Science. 2 vols. London: Chapman and Hall, 1866. A HathiTrust online version of a copy in the Harvard University Library. Web. 30 April 2022.
Last modified 12 May 2022