Matthew Arnold's 1864 essay on "The Literary Influence of Academies" examines how the absence of a centralized academic system shapes English thought. Arnold takes the French Academy as an example of "a recognized authority in matters of the highest literary opinion, a recognized authority in matters of intellectual tone and taste" (59). In contrast to the way the French academy creates a centralized institution of learning, English provinciality represents the fragmentation of cultural thought. Arnold outlines the problem with provinciality in these terms:

The less literature has felt the influence of a supposed centre of correct information, correct judgment, correct taste, the more shall we find in it this note of provinciality . . . For here great — even the greatest — powers of mind most fail a man. Great powers of mind will make him inform himself thoroughly, great powers of mind will make him think profoundly, even with ignorance and platitude all round him; but not even great powers of mind will keep his taste and style perfectly sound and sure, if he is left too much to himself, with no `sovereign organ of opinion,' in these matters, near him. [47]

What interests me about this passage is the way Arnold identifies taste and style as markers of academic socialization. On first reading, it seems strange for Arnold to defend the significance of the academy by pointing to apparently superficial phenomena like taste and style. Yet my sense is that Arnold does not take style as a surface ornament or non-essential aspect of writing. Provinciality is a problem that plagues both the form and the content of intellectual life, and it is in this sense that style speaks to the heart of how culture engages ideas: "In short, where there is no centre like an academy, if you have genius and powerful ideas, you are apt not to have the best style going; if you have precision of style and not genius, you are apt not to have the best ideas going" (50). Without a clearly identified center of intellectual authority, authors either fail to restrain the idiosyncrasies of their writing, on the one hand, or find their ideas lacking in intellectual depth, on the other hand. Arnold compares Burke to Addison in this regard; Burke's Asiatic prose is "somewhat barbarously rich and overloaded," whereas Addison's moralism, though stylistically sophisticated, is intellectually pedestrian. Here we could long debate whether to agree or disagree with Arnold's analysis of these figures. What I would like to take away from his analysis, though, is how style reveals — either in its excess or absence — the modes by which society creates and disseminates knowledge. In other words, Arnold argues that the way we write says a great deal about the relative predominance of genius or intelligence in the culture at large. Where scientific intelligence defines the French academy, a decentralized literary genius characterizes England's intellectual life.

Questions

1. Can we speculate about how the influence of the academy plays into Arnold's distinctions among barbarians, philistines, and the populace?

2. According to Arnold's "Function of Criticism at the Present Time," how are the British Romantic poets limited in their response to the French Revolution?

3. How does Arnold's advocacy for disinterested criticism relate to the sweetness and light of culture, as he formulates the idea in Culture and Anarchy (text)?

4. Given the many point of class dialogue that Arnold observes among the barbarians, philistines, and the populace, where does Arnold situate himself?

5. Asked differently, whose culture is Arnold defending? What can we take away from his seemingly die-hard conservatism?

References

Arnold, Matthew. Essays in Criticism; First and Second Series. Introd by G.K. Chesterton. London: Everyman's Library, 1964.


Victorian Overview Matthew Arnold

Last modified 25 November 2006