Literary Criticism as a Study with Its Functions

May 6, 2021 by Essay Writer

Literary criticism is a hard study to grasp because of the numerous explanations that must make sense for the critic’s view to be comprehensible to readers. Understanding the role of the critic is vital. The critic is second most important aspect, next to the author and the work itself. In this course, we have read many critics, that all have valid points. The critic’s prospective is the second most important element of literary criticism, next to the author and the work itself. In this course, we have read many critics’ opinions who all have valid points. The critics are what make the works understandable sometimes. Most, if not all, of the critics have particularly interesting ideas on the purpose of the critic. The materials in this course give the reader many things to ponder, concerning the role of the critic. In class, we discoursed how nothing is original, and one must agree with that statement; however, the critic’s opinion is valid in the sense that it is told from a different angle or perspective. This reader feels that the critics can be harsh in some cases, but the harshness may be necessary. The purpose of the critic is not always viewed as black and white; but may be gray by nature. The uneasiness about the critic is so complex that it forces the readers to rely on other critics’ profound knowledge of the material. Literary scholars Matthew Arnold and Alexander Pope both have differing views concerning the necessity of the critic, his role, and his power that he wields over the work/text. While Pope and Arnold are excellent critics, they each bring something different to the playing field. Arnold brings the idea of disinterestedness and Pope outlines the true characteristics of a “good” critic.

Although, both critics have valuable and necessary opinions regarding the critic, Matthew Arnold’s familiarity and concern for the critic is the most stunning to the reader. The essay “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” he outlines the strong feelings that he has against the critical power, he believes “everybody, too, would be willing to admit, as a general proposition, that the critical faculty is lower than the inventive,” with that being said, one derives from the statement his true feelings toward the critic (Arnold 696). Even though, Arnold later discusses the requirements one should possess to be a true critic, the main thing he must possess is curiosity, “But criticism, real criticism, is essentially the exercise of this very quality” (702). Curiosity is a taboo virtue to possess in the American culture, at times, while in many other cultures it is seen as a great attribute to have. Arnold even agrees with the notion that the word “has in our language no sense of the kind, no sense but a rather bad and disparaging one” (702). The idea that the word curiosity has a negative connation speaks volumes of his innate feelings toward the critic’s opinion. It seems his negative idea of curiosity stems from the danger of lurking too hard. He also argues the idea of free play, which the critic must have. We discussed in class what free play actually consists of, which is one must permit the material to flow freely through the mind in order to have a precise or non-biased point of view.

However, now that the idea of free play is known, Arnold introduces the concept of disinterestedness, which is “keeping aloof from what is called ‘the practical view of things’; by resolutely following the law of its own nature, which is to be a free play of the mind on all subjects which it touches,” the idea is great because it gives the critic something to hold on to while criticizing the work (703). The main concept of disinterestedness, is that one must be extremely proficient, in order to understand and make a proper judgment regarding the material in question. A great indication from Arnold’s essay is the theory of outside influences ruining the critic’s judgment because it brings preconceived notions to the work. While Arnold believes the creative power is greater than critical power, he assures the critic that he must present “fresh and true ideas” (712). Arnold concludes, “to have the sense of creative activity is great happiness and the great proof of being alive, and it is not denied to criticism to have it; but then criticism must be sincere, simple, flexible, ardent, ever widening its knowledge,” and with this conclusion the reader is forced to dig deep inside themselves to understand the logic Arnold presents (713).

While confusing the reader, “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” offers great insight into the realm of criticism and the role of the critic. Arnold’s concept of curiosity is valid and it makes sense because without it, one may not have the mettle to want to understand the material. Taking Arnold’s curiosity approach, one must try to understand his essay. Although the essay is methodical, it lacks in simplifying the concept of the critic. Arnold states the critic’s job is to make the material understandable to the simple man. Well if that is the case, he lacks in that area. One cannot fathom how he can issue guidelines on what his fellow critics should do, when he clearly fails to follow them at times. The guidelines appear to be simple, but somehow an intelligent man, such as himself, could not follow them and that is astonishing. The reader looks to Arnold to make the idea of criticism more relatable, but he fails and it causes one to criticize him. Maybe Arnold’s intentions are to bring out the inner critic in his readers. If so, he does a magnificent job in making this reader question his creditability and intent.

Using Arnold’s logic, I can analyze a movie entitled, For Colored Girls, in which I witnessed the intersected lives of nine black women, who all have tremendous turmoil they must overcome. Each woman has a name and a color. The character in question is the Lady in Red. The movie is powerful and yet one of the most criticized movies, in the African-American culture because of the taboo characteristics the characters exhibit. Using Arnold’s idea of criticism opens up the realm of the creative power; I can acknowledge the need for the art. The movie provides an insight into the troubled world of the black woman, and with that insight, criticism is bound to occur. The Lady in Red is married and her husband is a “down low” man. I cannot fathom how she did not know that he was attracted to men, but she knew he was having an affair. Nevertheless, I am forced to realize that I must stay disinterested, and while doing that, I will realize there is more to the wife’s logic. While her husband does cheat on her, she refuses to leave him. Upon discovering, they both have AIDS, she ponders on the idea of leaving him, but she sticks by his side. Keeping the disinterested view in mind, I can only conclude that the love within the marriage is stronger and deeper than one can imagine. Knowing that love is strong and flexible, it allows me to understand her reaction. I cannot help but to contend that Arnold’s theory concerning disinterestedness does work with a little time and dedication taken to understand the intent of the material being analyzed.

However, Alexander Pope also has great ideas concerning criticism in “An Essay on Criticism.” The essay is in the form of a poem and it takes some time to analyze it. Nonetheless, once the process begins, it is accurate in its intentions. Pope’s intentions are simple, in the sense that his points are thorough. The main entity a reader can take from Pope is that judgment is universal, and with that being the case, no one critic is wrong. Nevertheless, he does mention one cannot judge without knowing the whole truth. On page 349, Pope states, “Most have the Seeds of Judgment in their Mind / Nature affords at least a glimm’ring Light; / The Lines tho’ touch’d but faintly are drawn right” (lines 20-22). The aforementioned statement allows the critic to realize it is okay to judge a body of work. He later indicates the idea of nature as the source of art, so therefore, art can be judged, but it must be done properly. Pope also discusses how the failure to learn can damage ones perception:

A little Learning is a dang’rous Thing;

Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring:

There shallow Draughts intoxicate the Brain,

And drinking largely sobers us again. 215-218

By stating the above, he assures the reader that human nature is imperfect. The principles drawn from the quote are it is extremely dangerous to assume one knows a lot, when they know very little, because it can ruin ones judgment.

However, Pope also assures the reader that taste is determines how one judges something. Additionally, Pope warns the reader to be careful because her perception can be misperceived. In a scholar’s true fashion, Pope delivers the following message:

‘Tis best sometimes your Censure to restrain,

And charitably let the Dull be vain:

Your Silence there is better than your Spite,

For who can rail so long as they can write? 596-599

The message allows the reader to understand that is it better to be silent than to embarrass oneself. The lack of knowledge one presents will do more harm than good. Pope also outlines the general differences between good and bad critics. A good critic knows that he may not necessarily be fond of the material, but they can appreciate the value of the work. Whereas, the bad critic is one who thinks he knows something, but he lacks complete understanding of the material, yet he continues to place judgment.

Using Pope’s method of criticism, I can re-evaluate the movie For Colored Girls. When I first saw the movie, the points the director was transmitting were difficult to understand. Upon completing the movie, I discovered the movie was actually a play from the 1970’s entitled For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Isn’t Enuf, and I researched to learn more history regarding it. After I learned the history behind the project, I understood the intentions of it. When I watched it for the first time, my perception of the movie was biased, and I believed that it was horrible because of the intersecting plots. Nevertheless, I discovered that the production used the technique “six degrees of separation,” and I began to understand why. According to Alexander Pope, I am a “good” critic because I was willing to learn more about the production before I judged it. Because I am an inquisitive person, being a good critic may just be second nature. If I had taken the” bad” critic approach to the production, the wonderful piece of art would have been damned in my mind due to lack of knowledge. Being a “good” critic allows me to appreciate art and to grow from the lesson that art has taught.

Although literary criticism is a hard study to comprehend, it teaches the reader to appreciate art. Without critics, the world of literature is dull and sometimes disconcerting. Albeit, some critics’ investigations are bursting with harshness and lack of appreciation for the texts, but Alexander Pope and Matthew Arnold differ from the ordinary. Both of the critic’s ideas come full circle, in the sense that the reader now understands more than she did before. Nonetheless, the purpose of the critic is not always viewed as black and white: It may be gray by nature, but Arnold and Pope present their readers with knowledge that make the concept of the critic more understandable. Each critic leaves an indelible mark in the reader’s mind. Matthew Arnold’s mark is the concept of disinterestedness and Alexander Pope’s is the idea of a “good” critic. One must contend that without such scholars as, Arnold and Pope, literary criticism would remain a mystery to readers. Arnold and Pope make the uneasiness about the critic dissipate enormously.

Works Cited

  • Arnold, Matthew. “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. 2nd. ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 2001. 695-714. Print.
  • Pope, Alexander. “From An Essay On Criticism.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. 2nd. ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 2001. 349-362. Print.
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