(see also the pages for Culture and Anarchy)

"Equality," 1878

  1. What is the proximate topic of the essay? Would the removal of mandatory entails have been a controversial topic in England in 1878, and if so, among which strata of society?
  2. How do Arnold's views in "Equality" compare with those in Culture and Anarchy? Do you feel he is more interested in "machinery" and equality here than he been in facing working-men's agitation for the vote? What are some factors which may have accounted for the change?
  3. (still accepts class system, 494, but wants a mitigated difference, cmp. Ruskin)
  4. What are similarities in the method of argument between this essay and those in Culture and Anarchy? (e. g. France and America seen as ideal counters, each representing a quality, cmp. Hellenism and Hebraism)
  5. What are distinguishing elements of Arnold's method of thought? What are some advantages of his method? (Only in the past few decades have people stopped merely agreeing or disagreeing with Arnold's ideas and started to comment on his methodology.)
  6. What seems Arnold's attitude toward his audience in this essay?

"Wordsworth," 1879

  1. By what tribunal does Arnold want poetry to be judged? Do you find his suggestion practical?
  2. How does Arnold know that the wrong people won't be honored? (334) Why do you think he is so concerned with ranking and classification? (336)
  3. Does Arnold consider all kinds of poetry to be of equal value? (334) Which forms are less valuable?
  4. What does he see as Wordworth's merits and defects? Would his judgments have been common at the time? Do you see any distortions in his point of view?
  5. Do you find Arnold's form of criticism helpful? Is it reflected in any forms of literary or cultural criticism today?
  6. Does Arnold exhibit a similar interpretation of Wordsworth in his "Memorial Verses"?
  7. "The Study of Poetry," 1888, published posthumously
  8. Does his discussion of poetry and science include many of the most controversial issues which would have been present in the minds of Victorians in 1888?
  9. (502, science will appear incomplete without poetry--poetry will be the "impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all science." Cites Wordsworth. Avoids crucial issues of Darwinian evolution and the increasing evidence that nature is "red in tooth and claw," Tennyson)
  10. Why does Arnold assume that the "impassioned epression . . . in the countenance of all science" will console? How does he know that it will be consistent with the laws of poetic beauty? that it will be attractive, restful or consistent? (503, gives "strength and joy")
  11. How do his views of poetry and science contrast with those of Thomas Hardy?
  12. (for Hardy poetry of nature was a terrible revelation of human isolation and impotence within an emotionless machine, one so devoid of "strength and joy" that even a sadistic god would have been a comfort)
  13. What are some of his methods of argument? Does he define and differentiate his terms carefully? (repetition, fails to define counters in a series of assertions, each item in series identical with every other)
  14. Throughout the essay, what value is given to the notions or terms: "high standard," "best," "poetic truth," the power of "criticism of life," consolation and stay, excellent rather than inferior?
  15. Do Arnold's ideas proceed in logical sequence? Does it matter? (no logical sequence, no definition, no explanation--internal consistency by fiat)
  16. Arnold opposes two methods of reading poetry. On what grounds does he oppose a historical reading? What some forms of understanding are ignored by his ahistorical approach?
  17. context enables us better to understand the fundamental nature of a work, its intentions, its audience, and the pressures which inspired it
  18. a value in the study of human culture, different forms of expression and psychological perception, not just "poetry"--a criticism of culture or consciousness
  19. all "great poetry," as Arnold defines it, overlaps with the less-than-great, and what may seem lesser works can rise at moments to interest or even greatness
  20. the definition of what is best in poetry is to some degree subjective; shifts from person to person and within the same person over time
  21. desirability of keeping available for reading a range of writings to allow for new definitions of the "best"--even the "canon" changes over time
  22. For what reasons does Arnold oppose what he considers a personal reading of poetry? What does he seem to mean by this? Can you think of reasons why such an approach is valuable or inevitable? (humanity is an aggregate of individuals--what is "best" for all is an aggregate of individual goods and ends)
  23. How well do you think Arnold follows his own advice in avoiding "personal" readings?
  24. (his own idiosyncratically personal judgments dominate the essay)
  25. What assumptions lie behind Arnold's belief that there is "one" poetry and that we can automatically "know" its nature? Would his fellow Victorian critics such as Ruskin and Pater have agreed with him?
  26. (his definition assumes a false unity and clarity; yet process of understanding personal and historical reality requires a slow advance by which we approach its meaning; poetry is not a religion, it gives no single answer; in the poetic universe there exist not one but many gods)
  27. What is revealed by Arnold's admission that the study of individual poems may distract from theory? Does this problem find echoes in present-day critical tensions between different levels of interpretive focus?
  28. Is Arnold's absolute tone dependent on suppressing any aspects of experience? ("multitudinousness" of life; he had criticized Keats for failing to impose order on reality's multitudinousness)
  29. What is Arnold's touchstone theory? (507) Why might it have appealed to his audience of Oxford undergraduates? What advantages may this method have offered to critics?
  30. What aspects of reading does the touchstone method ignore?
    • rips single line out of context
    • ignores structure of entire work
    • places little emphasis on sound, imagery and other methods of creating meaning
    • ignores the fact that narrative plot gives statements meaning
    • makes it difficult to interpret elements of drama and character
    • simplifies logical and intellectual content
    • Do the "touchstones" Arnold selects have anything in common?
    • emphasize pathos
    • reflect his personal preferences, e. g. for elegy
    • exhibit Victorian high seriousness
    • attempts to liberate from personal through using examples from past
  31. Does Arnold's method aid in the framing of specific critical interpretations? How are judgments arrived at?
  32. (no extended textual criticism is possible, the ultimate judgement is intuitive; but how can judges be prevented from the influences of history and the personal? only through analysis and definition do we enter a world of attempted common discourse)
  33. How does Arnold deal with the issue of who chooses the touchstones? (he chooses) Does his approach give power chiefly to the sanctioned critic?
  34. Is is useful to read Arnold's essays according to his own standards, i. e. without great concern over their historical and personal significance?