Lionel Trilling and the Critics: Opposing Selves

By John Rodden | Go to book overview

4
Excerpt from “Lionel Trilling’s Matthew Arnold,” in Poets,
Critics, Mystics {originally published as “Matthew Arnold
Today,” Times Literary Supplement}
1970 {March 1939}

John Middleton Murry

John Middleton Murry (1889–1957) was one of Britain’s leading men of letters in the first half of the twentieth century. Although he published three novels, a play, and a volume of verse, Murry was chiefly known as a passionate, controversial literary critic and a skilled editor.

Murry’s best-known full-length critical works are Fyodor Dostoevsky (1916) and Keats and Shakespeare (1925), both of which examine the relation of the authors’ spiritual values (as represented in their writings) to their artistic visions. Murry was also a keen champion of modern literature, and his criticism did much to shape the modernist canon. As editor of The Atheneum (1919–21) and The Adelphi (1923–48), Murry helped establish the reputations of several modern writers (Proust, Joyce, Valéry, and Hardy’s poetry). Above all, Murry promoted the work of his close friend, D. H. Lawrence (Son of Woman: The Story of D. H. Lawrence [1931}), and of his first wife, Katherine Mansfield, who died in 1923 at the age of thirty-four (Katherine Mansfield, and Other Literary Studies [1959]). Both Murry’s writings and his magazines combined literary analysis with a liberal-Left politics and a religious, indeed mystical (though often preachy), sensibility.

Like Trilling, Murry was a moral critic. Both men were deeply indebted to Arnold, but whereas Trilling owed more to Arnold’s cultural and political writings, Murry drew on Arnold’s religious orientation, specifically Arnold’s relation of literature to religious thought and practice. In the review below, Murry judges Trilling’s work to be “the best book” ever written on Arnold. Although Murry criticizes Trilling’s excessively secular approach to

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