Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

A Sages Science: Matthew Arnold and the Uses of Imprecision

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

A Sages Science: Matthew Arnold and the Uses of Imprecision

Article excerpt

Arnold always associated his critical method with the disinterestedness that characterizes the scientific spirit, yet at crucial points in many texts, he deliberately evades the kind of precision that science seeks. Levine argues that Arnold wants to have it both ways. But Arnold holds the same view of the relationship between scientific and poetic consciousness that is common to Kant and, through Kant, to most Romantic and Victorian poets. He recognizes the epistemological claims of science, but he consistently gives priority to the ontological reality of subjective experience. His rhetorical art in "Literature and Science" illustrates that his ultimate critical appeal is to the experience of his readers, and he uses a strategy of "imprecision" to prompt their responses.

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The Victorian sage tradition ends somewhere in the late nineteenth century, but without any generally recognized finale. (It waned, it seems, along the same declining curve as the fashion in flowing beards.) Its demise has a tangled history, but implicated somewhere in the story is the increasingly quick march of modern science. John Gross makes the main point: "In a science-dominated world the writer can no longer hope for the same degree of intellectual authority which he enjoyed in the past" (286). Gross is identifying a transfer of power so familiar to us that some of its more fine-grained history gets very little attention any longer. It is important to remember that the transfer of power was not simply a shift but a reversal. The immediate predecessors of the essayistic Victorian sages were the Romantic poets who were lavish in their commitment to poetry's transcendence of scientific knowledge. Wordsworth wrote, sonorously, in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, that the man of science "seeks truth as a remote and unknown benefactor [while] the Poet, singing a song in which all human beings join with him, rejoices in the presence of truth as our visible friend and hourly companion" (606). Part of what I mean by the fine-grained history of the sage's displacement is lodged in this passage since it contains exactly the distinction Matthew Arnold makes in his significantly more embattled defense of the poet's role in "Literature and Science" eighty years later. (1)

Arnold was a writer who took his cues more readily from Wordsworth than from Shelley, but it is worth recalling that Shelley was even more decisive in the privilege he assigned to the poet. Poetry, he wrote, "is at once the centre and circumference of knowledge; it is that which comprehends all science, and that to which all science must be referred. It is at the same time the root and blossom of all other systems of thought" (503). This, too, is an Arnoldian principle; it carries all through Arnold's work and is most deeply embedded in the rhetoric of "Literature and Science" though, as a principle, it is under much greater dialectical pressure in Arnold's text than in Shelley's.

These remarks form a context for a discussion of the rhetorical and performative quality of Arnold's prose discourse. Though it may seem a long way from the background I have invoked to the discussion I have proposed, the connection becomes clear in the light of certain habitual features of the prose. One of these is its deliberate imprecision, a quality Arnold appears even to prize. The trait is especially striking in view of the fact that Arnold is a Victorian sage who not only struggled with the evolving authority of science, but also claimed adherence to its solemn compact with reason, nature, and method. At the very outset of his great effort to modernize critical discourse, Arnold identified the "supreme characteristic" of a modern age as "the tendency to observe facts with a critical spirit; to search for their law, not to wander among them at random; to judge by the rule of reason, not by the impulse of prejudice or caprice" (1: 23-24). He acknowledged a "scientific sense in us" which he described as "the sense which seeks exact knowledge" (6: 8-9). …

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