Mary W. Schneider. Poetry in the Age of Democracy. the Literary Criticism of Matthew Arnold

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Mary W. Schneider. Poetry in the Age of Democracy. The Literary Criticism of Matthew Arnold. Lawrence: UP of Kansas, 1989.

In Mary Schneider's careful study of Arnold's ideas about the role of literary criticism in a democracy, she argues that Arnold "was offering a new declaration of the rights of humankind--the right to know the best that is thought and said" (104). Arnold has frequently been accused of advocating not the right to know but the requirement to know the best that is thought and said (the "classics") in order to resist the philistine unintelligence of a popular democracy. In our era of debate over the place of a literary canon in an ethnically diverse society, a precise distinction between the two points is perhaps crucial to Arnold's critical status. Schneider argues that Arnold, instead of standing above the democratic struggles, set out to show how the activity of criticism or poetry could make the good life of happiness "available to all in a democratic society" (13).

Schneider's strategy is twofold: to place Arnold in the intellectual context of his Balliol peers, and to examine carefully his definition of terms such as "high seriousness," "sincerity," "imaginative reason," and "classic." The currency of the debate among the Balliol group and their friends about a literature for a democracy unquestionably required Arnold to consider his ideas against those of Arthur Hugh Clough, William Young Sellars, John Campbell Shairp, James Anthony Froude, and Benjamin Jowett. Clough and Shairp were enthusiastic advocates for a poetry of or by the people that arose from the language and customs of the folk and expressed itself in ballad form. Their models were Scott and Bums, and they had little belief in the relevance of the classics to the new democratic masses.

Arnold did not see the people "as a folk--as a source of natural wisdom" (17), but the concern of this debate--a literature for the people--forced him to examine his ideas about the classics, the happiness that poetry brought, and the intellectually salubrious influence of criticism, in the context of advancing a democratic society. Schneider's delineation of Arnold's ideas against those of Clough and Shairp is a major strength of her study, and though her judgment that his ideas were always superior and distinct from his peers is somewhat less convincing, she clearly places Arnold's ideas within the liberal debate. One may argue that Arnold's belief in criticism, poetry, the classics, and education as the means to such happiness was naive, but Schneider's study makes it hard not to acknowledge that this was his intent.

Schneider traces Arnold's belief that the people can be educated to love the classics to Aristotle's idea that "all mankind naturally desire knowledge" edge" (30) and that "imitation" in art is a matter of "the universals in human thought and action" (52). Poetry's function was "to re-construct the Universe," to give us "life." Given a common desire for knowledge and "universals in human thought and action," class and culture, history and geography, should not be barriers to enjoying the classics. "So what seems on the surface to be an argument for a literature for the few turns out to be an argument for a literature for the many" (53).

The conflict within the Balliol group about the best literature for the people comes into focus in their disagreement about Robert Burns. Arnold had argued that the ballad form was not "the grand style," lamenting its use in Wordsworth and detaching Homer from the ballad tradition. Shairp saw Bums as the poet of the Scottish people, drawing from their language and folkways to create a national literature. Arnold located Bums's poetic power in his "genius" instead of his feeling for the life of the peasants. "Arnold felt that the actual life of the poor was often harsh and ugly" (159), and he wanted to educate them. Schneider calls Shairp "essentially feudal" and "conservative" because he opposed changing the life of the peasants and praised Scott for turning the tide of the Enlightenment, reviving Scottish nationalism, and idealizing the "worth and beauty" of peasant life. …