The question of whether or not Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy is conservative or progressive is a difficult one to answer, because, in actuality, it could be considered both. Arnold says “Culture is then properly described not as having its origins in curiosity, but as having its origin in the love of perfection… not merely… the scientific passion for pure knowledge, but also… the moral and social passion for doing good” (1596). His belief in the purpose of culture to be to propagate the value of learning for learning’s sake (the pursuit of what is known as pure knowledge) and his belief that culture should be equally focused on promoting the common good are not new values. The pursuit of knowledge solely for its propagation is reflective of some ancient Greek civilizations, and, in more recent times, the Renaissance, where the arts and sciences flourished. This growth was not due to a need for advancement, but because the focus of the age was on growth in the arts and sciences. His ideas surrounding culture working towards the common good are reflective of revolutionary ideals, which professed the need for a government whose purpose is to protect the rights and freedom of its citizens. Of course, many of the earlier revolutionary writers also clarified that freedom should be allowed only to the extent that one’s own freedom does not impinge on the freedoms of others, which Arnold does note later on. So yes, this could be considered a conservative viewpoint due to the call to remember what was once valued. However, Arnold’s call for reform is also progressive.
Arnold’s argument goes against the very foundations of the society that England has created for itself. He does not claim that the only solution is a “returning to the old ways;” instead, Arnold desires to take the society they have now and make it better. Yes, machinery and technological progress is useful. It opens up doors that previous generations could scarcely dream of. but it should not be achieved at the cost of forgetting to be curious, to be imaginative and discover for oneself what lies beyond the realms of the evident. Progress, that multi-million dollar word, should not be valued above human life, human decency. If his society is progressing, fantastic, but may these advancements contribute to the common good. It is not “every man for himself,” it is not “survival of the fittest,” it is one person and the next and the next- each with their own goals, each with their own needs, each with their own gifts. People, he says, cannot forget their humanity and the humanity of those above and below them. This is important- nay, necessary- for any progress to be made. By seeking these old-made-new values, society can advance towards what Arnold believes to be “perfection.”
Both Barrett Browning and Equino express the need/love for knowledge, which was revolutionary for the both of them, given the time periods they lived in. “The Interesting Narrative” first portrays Equino as a young boy, ignorant to the new world he’s been forced to live in. The reader first see’s Equino’s curiosity and whenever he states “I had often seen my master Dick employed in reading; and I had a great curiosity to talk to the books, as I thought they did; and so to learn how all things had a beginning.” From this quote alone, one can sense the longing that young Equino has to be knowledgeable. Equino later shows the desire to learn navigational skills. He states, “I determined to make every exertion to obtain my freedom, and return to Old England. For this purpose I thought a knowledge of navigation might be of use to me.” Equino actually does gain this knowledge, which is unheard of for a person of color in this time period. Equino’s ability to learn and eventually buy back his freedom is revolutionary indeed.
Barrett Browning’s desire for knowledge is also portrayed through her epic, Aurora Leigh. The speaker in Aurora Leigh discusses what is considered “lady-like” starting a line 427. She seems to make a mockery of the issues brought up, and she does not speak positively on what a woman “ought to do” for that time period. Here, the reader can gather that these feminine skills are not what grabs her interest. Later on in the poem, the speaker discovers “garrett-room,” or attic, so to speak. There, she discovers her father’s books. This excites the speaker beyond belief! “Like some small nimble mouse between the ribs / Of a mastodon, I nibbled here and there / At this or that box, pulling through the gap, / In heats of terror, haste, victorious joy, / The first book first. (838-841) This portrays the speaker’s excitement to read new texts, and discover new stories. The speaker is both nervous and excited to be doing something that her aunt would not approve of. This shows how it was not a common thing at the time for a female to pursue knowledgeable things and books. Her excitement to learn is revolutionary, just like Equino.
Throughout this story, Elizabeth Gaskell makes the them of Darwin’s “natural selection” very evident. Natural selection is define by google as: the process whereby organisms better adapted to their environment tend to survive and produce more offspring. The author focused heavily on the external aspects of the characters describing some as “20 shades prettier” and others as sickly and pale. This represents the difference between those who may have been “selected” as opposed to those who have slim chances. The idea is that beauty is connected to strength and adaptability but it is not always the case. Some may have all the physical aspects yet not be able to adapt. This is manifested in her writing. The only character that represents all the qualities as explained in the previous stated definition is Miss Jessie Brown. She being the only one that survives proves that and especially being able to adapt and get married. Which is the second part of the definition; to produce more offspring. Being one that survived and adapted she will produce offspring who will be stronger and more capable of serving as well which will reinforce the idea that Darwin put forth.
It is very clear that the qualities we talked about in class (sweetness and beauty) are representative of the ability to adapt and survive. Darwin may suggest that maybe inherently people are subconsciously looking for a “mate” who will allow their offspring the best chance at survival.
Arnold believed that through education men could become (more) perfect individuals. As such individuals, they would be concerned with the social welfare of those around them and would work hard (within their respective classes and spheres) to better themselves and others morally and intellectually. In “The Waste Land,” Eliot presents the failure of this notion of culture. He depicts a place lacking in knowledge, and any kind of emotional attachment, occupied by isolated individuals.
The lack of knowledge, or the failure of education, is stated beginning on line 19: “What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow/ Out of this stormy rubbish? Son of man, / You cannot say, or guess, for you know only / A heap of broken images…/ And the dry stone no sound of water” (19-24). Here, education is depicted as being thoroughly inadequate; men have no notion of their history (symbolized by the image of roots), or even of themselves in the present time (symbolized by the branches). Rather than the real, useful, knowledge and education that Arnold believed in, Eliot depicts a world in which men have only “A heap of broken images” for guidance. The lack of knowledge is further seen in the lack of water (“no sound of water”). Eliot emphasizes this towards the end of the poem, saying: “If there were water we should stop and drink / Amongst the dry rocks one cannot stop or think” (335-36). As water is often associated with knowledge, the inability to find any spring, pool, etc. anywhere to drink from symbolizes the ignorance of the modern age.
The fragmentation of culture is also reflected throughout the poem in the lack of any kind of emotional connection between individuals. Eliot describes London and a crowd in that “Unreal City” (60), but as the crowd moves “..each man fixed his eyes before his feet” (65), suggesting that there is no connection and no desire for connection among anyone. Everyone is only interested in his own business. This is also reflected in the interaction between the typist and the “young man carbuncular” (231). They sleep together but have no real connection; the typist “is bored and tired” (236) and the young man “makes a welcome of indifference” (242). This scene presents both an emotional and a moral decay. Whatever culture these two are a part of, it has not made them better human beings.
The ignorance of the isolation together help to undermine any kind of culture that unifies individuals to become some “people” who work for the public good and ordaer. Instead, every human thinks himself a prisoner (“We think of the key, each in his prison / Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison” (414-415) ). In this manner, Eliot critiques Arnold’s notion of culture, showing that it leads only to confusion and the fragmentation and withdrawal of the individual from others.