Matthew Arnold at one point in his career was much admired and popular poet. Later in his life, however, his attention turned with force to criticism of both literary works and forms and the social fabric of society.
Criticism, according to Matthew Arnold in his essay, The Function of Criticism at the Present Time, functions as an endeavor that is not reliant upon any creative art form; rather criticism is inherently valuable in itself, whether its value springs from bringing joy to the writer of it or whether that value springs from making sure that the best ideas reach society. Arnold at time seems to be echoing the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle’s views of poetry by exclaiming that the very highest function of humakind is exercising its creative power.
Arnold links criticism with creative power throughout the essay and concludes with a thought that connects to the earlier one above when he asserts that that writing criticism may actually produce in its practitioner a sense of ecstatic creative joy just like the someone engaging in what we normally think of creative writing feels. Arnold is equating the emotional state of writing criticism with the emotional state of creative writing in order to undermine the typical censure of criticism that it serves no purpose, that it’s just someone criticizing something that he can’t even do as well.
The personal function of criticism is just one of the many that Arnold carefully delineates. He leaps from the personal to the universal in his argument that criticism serves a function by propagating the best ideas so that they trickle down to the masses.
Great writing, according to Arnold, springs out of an epoch of great ideas and these epochs are manifested when the great ideas reach the masses. The only way to ensure this process takes place is for the critic to disinterestedly recognize greatness in writing and impart this greatness to the common man, so that he will be stirred by new ideas. In other words, the reason that periods of great creativity and periods of dormant creativity seems to come in spurts can be traced just as much to the critic who recognizes the greatness and brings it to the public’s attention rather than just to solely to the creator of the great work. Examples of this concept can be seen even in recent times when lackluster movie and music periods have been kickstarted by exciting new talent brought to the attention of the masses by critical success. Rather than merely laying out a blueprint for criticism, Arnold attempts to prove that criticism in and of itself has several vital functions and should be regarded as art form that is as high and significant as any creative art form.