The Function of Matthew Arnold's Criticism: Resolution and Independence

By Bahr, Katherine | Nineteenth-Century Prose, Spring-Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

The Function of Matthew Arnold's Criticism: Resolution and Independence


Bahr, Katherine, Nineteenth-Century Prose


Sara van den Berg has argued that object-relations theory provides a tool for analyzing the pre-oedipal content in Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams. She finds in Freud's interpretive strategy "the pre-oedipal mother who models interpretation as nurturing care and merging," and the same model for nurturing might be found in Matthew Arnold's understanding of the critical function. While critics have paid ample attention to Marguerite and other feminine personae in Arnold's poems, the metaphorical allusions to nursing and nurture that characterize the role of the critic in Arnold's prose have not been analyzed. The attributes of the "good nurse" help to define both the nature of the critic and the nature of culture for Arnold. In Culture and Anarchy, culture becomes an instrument for the transformation and perfection of character. Characterized by "sweetness and light," culture guides both the individual and collective character toward the development of a "best self." I have used Christopher Bollas' understanding of the transformational object to shape a claim that culture, for Arnold, is a rationalized maternal function.

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Most of Matthew Arnold's biographers, with the notable exception of Park Honan, (1) have emphasized Dr. Thomas Arnold's influence on his son's development as a writer while scarcely acknowledging the effects of Mary Arnold's mothering. Recent biographies remain true to tradition. Ian Hamilton devotes his entire first chapter to "Dr. Arnold of Rugby," while Nicholas Murray concludes, "Arnold's whole career can be seen, in some sense, as a subtle reaction against the dominant personality of his father" (3). Perhaps his career ought also to be seen as expressing a subtle preference for the nurturing personality of this mother. While critics have paid ample attention to Marguerite and other feminine personae in Arnold's poems, the metaphorical allusions to nursing and nurture that characterize the role of the critic in Arnold's prose have not been analyzed.

Neither have Arnold's poetic images of despair and longing been connected with their rationalized counterparts in his critical prose. In "To Marguerite--Continued" the poet speaks of islands who remember being "part of a single continent," as if the separation from the engendering body is too much to bear. As critic, Arnold proposes a particular definition of "culture," that is, "the best that is thought and known in the world." Such a culture would require the union of English and European, or continental, thought. The images of isolation and the feeling of despair that permeate the Marguerite poems are optimistically replaced with an image of cultural union, a European confederation. The island and continent, then, reunite in an intellectual bond, as they cannot do in the poem. The function of Arnold's criticism is to overcome the misery of separation expressed in his poetry by appropriating the role of nurturer for the critic.

It is hardly surprising that the few psychoanalytic readings of Arnold's works have emphasized his oedipal struggle and subsequent ambivalence toward paternal influence. In contrast to classical Freudian theory, object-relations theory focuses on the earliest bonding and nurturing experiences, and on the early psychodynamics that shape perceptions of external objects and the mental representations of those objects. (2) Therefore, an object-relations analysis of Arnold's works may expand upon literary criticism that has privileged the oedipal stage of development and singled out paternal influence as the index to unconscious authorial conflict. Moreover, in respect to Arnold, this approach has the value of highlighting his attraction to traits perceived as "feminine."

Sara van den Berg has argued that object-relations theory provides a tool for analyzing the pre-oedipal content in Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams. She finds in Freud's interpretive strategy "the pre-oedipal mother who models interpretation as nurturing care and merging" (van den Berg), and the same might be found in Arnold's understanding of the critical function. …

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