John Stuart Mill and Matthew Arnold Duke it Out

An allegory of the state of one’s own mind, the highest problem of an art which imitates actions!
So along comes Matthew Arnold. Matthew Arnold is my comrade-in-arms. This is my take of a conversation between Matthew Arnold and John Stuart Mill:

MA: Come on John, do you seriously think that “the object of poetry is confessedly to act upon the emotions?” What about the intellect? What’s so wrong about appealing to the reader’s intellect and increasing his knowledge. To actually affect the reader, you need to interest them first, and you know “what is not interesting, is that which does not add to our knowledge of any kind.” But you propose that any conveyance of knowledge is not poetry but rather eloquence.

JSM: Matthew, you do me an injustice, something I would expect from the French but not from you. Poetry can convey knowledge. In fact, great poets convey knowledge all the time – knowledge of human emotion. It is the intent to convey knowledge, to influence or to impress that I protest.

MA: So you are saying that if a poet writes as if someone may read his poem, he subverts the poem?

JSM: Matthew, a French person would never grasp my meaning so quickly, but you are obviously not French. Yes that is exactly what I’m saying. The act of writing a poem is the act of looking inward, a “delineation of the deeper and more secret workings of human emotion” and that can only be achieved through a communion of the poet with himself.

MA: John, that’s poppycock. That’s right. I said it. Poppycock. Poets ignore the external world at their peril. If they possess ignorance of outward events and circumstances, they are ignorant of “action!” Action is the only worthwhile subject of the poet.

JSM: Matthew! You are sounding so French. I never thought I would see the day when you-

MA: Can you just listen for a second you snooty francophobe? Assuming action as the subject of the poem doesn’t preclude the poet’s access to the inner workings of man. In fact, I agree with you. Poets “business is with their inward man; with their feelings and behaviour in certain tragic situations, which engage their passions as men.” What you unilaterally exclude in your narrow focus of emotion, are the vast complexities of behavior and situation. In other words, action in context, in the outward events and circumstances that you deride.

JSM: But don’t you see? The actions and contexts don’t matter. They are merely grist for mill, the palate for the mixing of paint. What matters is the poet’s apprehension of the action in context. That is what will expand for the reader “the vigor of their intellectual powers or […] the depth of their sensibilities.” This is something you French just can’t wrap your minds around.

MA: So now I’m French? Fine, I’m French. As a representative of that great country, I ask you, what about the reader’s apprehension of the action in context? Instead of treating poetry as a heuristic platform on which only the poet’s interpretation is valid (and most likely exclusionary), what about creating a poem in which we present the action and value, nay, privilege the reader’s thoughts and images instead of insisting that the real value lay in the poet’s “separate thoughts and images which occur in the treatment of an action.”

JSM: I’m sorry, Matthew, but I did poorly in my studies of French and have trouble understanding you. Are you suggesting that we write poems that merely provide readers with the opportunity to reinforce their own thoughts and images, which extend to their intellect and sensibility? Where is the Art in that? They should expand their intellect and sensibility by immersing themselves in the thoughts and images of another who is more intelligent and sensitive than themselves. I’m talking about the Great Poet.

MA: I’m sorry, John, but I received an F in aristocratic assumptions so I have trouble understanding you. Yes, if poets wrote about common experiences and common actions and common circumstances in which only the common happens culminating in common outcomes, then readers would have very little on which to develop their understanding of both the world and human nature and emotions. That is why the subject of the poem must be of “excellent action […] which most powerfully appeal to the great primary human affections: to those elementary feelings which subsist permanently in the race, and which are independent of time.” These excellent actions are outside of the reader’ common experience and by forcing the reader outside of his own actions and his own contexts, he is able, nay, forced to expand his intellect and sensibilities to grasp these excellent actions.”

JSM: Je suis désolé, mais je ne parle pas français.

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1 Comment »

  1. Edward Knuckles said

    thanks for the antepasta, i liked it but to better appreciate it i suppose that i’ll have to read up on Mill’s views on poetry and Arnold’s view of science as i’ve tended to see JSM as a philosopher of the scientific method and have only just read Arnold’s “The Function of Criticism.”

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