The Art Of Writing & Speaking The English Language : Chapter VIII - Criticismby@sherwincody
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The Art Of Writing & Speaking The English Language : Chapter VIII - Criticism

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Matthew Arnold and Ruskin.

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The Art Of Writing & Speaking The English Language Word-Study, by Sherwin Cody is part of HackerNoon Books Series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here.


Matthew Arnold and Ruskin.

The term “criticism” may appropriately be used to designate all writing in which logic predominates over emotion. The style of criticism is the style of argument, exposition, and debate, as well as of literary analysis; and it is the appropriate style to be used in mathematical discussions and all scientific essays.

Of course the strictly critical style may be united with almost any other. We are presenting pure types; but very seldom does it happen that any composition ordinarily produced belongs to any one pure type. Criticism would be dull without the enlivening effects of some appeal to the emotions. We shall illustrate this point in a quotation from Ruskin.

The critical style has just one secret: It depends on a very close definition of work in ordinary use, words do not have a sufficiently definite meaning for scientific purposes. Therefore in scientific writing it is necessary to define them exactly, and so change common words into technical terms. To these may be added the great body of words used in no other way than as technical terms.

Of course our first preparation for criticism is to master the technical terms and technical uses of words peculiar to the subject we are treating. Then we must make it clear to the reader that we are using words in their technical senses so that he will know how to interpret them.

But beyond that we must make technical terms as we go along, by defining common words very strictly. This is nicely illustrated by Matthew Arnold, one of the most accomplished of pure critics. The opening paragraphs of the first chapter of “Culture and Anarchy”―the chapter entitled “Sweetness and Light”―will serve for illustration, and the student is referred to the complete work for material for further study and imitation.

From “Sweetness and Light.”

The disparagers of culture, [says Mr. Arnold], make its motive curiosity; sometimes, indeed, they make its motive mere exclusiveness and vanity. The culture which is supposed to plume itself on a smattering of Greek and Latin is a culture which is begotten by nothing so intellectual as curiosity; it is valued either out of sheer vanity and ignorance, or else as an engine of social and class distinction, separating its holder, like a badge or title, from other people who have not got it. No serious man would call this culture, or attach any value to it, as culture, at all. To find the real ground for the very different estimate which serious people will set upon culture, we must find some motive for culture in the terms of which may lie a real ambiguity; and such a motive the word curiosity gives us.

I have before now pointed out that we English do not, like the foreigners, use this word in a good sense as well as in a bad sense. A liberal and intelligent eagerness about the things of the mind may be meant by a foreigner when he speaks of curiosity, but with us the word always conveys a certain notion of frivolous and unedifying activity. In the Quarterly Review, some little time ago, was an estimate of the celebrated French critic, M. Sainte-Beuve, and a very inadequate estimate it in my judgment was. And its inadequacy consisted chiefly in this: that in our English way it left out of sight the double sense really involved in the word curiosity, thinking enough was said to stamp M. Sainte-Beuve with blame if it was said that he was impelled in his operations as a critic by curiosity, and omitting either to perceive that M. Sainte-Beuve himself, and many other people with him, would consider that this was praiseworthy and not blameworthy, or to point out why it ought really to be accounted worthy of blame and not of praise. For as there is a curiosity about intellectual matters which is futile, and merely a disease, so there is certainly a curiosity,―a desire after the things of the mind simply for their own sakes and for the pleasure of seeing them as they are,―which is, in an intelligent being, natural and laudable. Nay, and the very desire to see things as they are implies a balance and regulation of mind which is not often attained without fruitful effort, and which is the very opposite of the blind and diseased impulse of mind which is what we mean to blame when we blame curiosity. Montesquieu says: ‘The first motive which ought to impel us to study is the desire to augment the excellence of our nature, and to render an intelligent being yet more intelligent.’ This is the true ground to assign for the genuine scientific passion, however manifested, and for culture, viewed simply as a fruit of this passion; and it is a worthy ground, even though we let the term curiosity stand to describe it.

Starting with exact definitions of words, it is easy to pass to exact definitions of ideas, which is the thing we should be aiming at all the time. The logical accuracy of our language, however, is apparent throughout.

Matthew Arnold does not embellish his criticism, nor does he make any special appeal to the feelings or emotions of his readers. Not so Ruskin. He discovers intellectual emotions, and makes pleasant appeals to those emotions. Consequently his criticism has been more popular than Matthew Arnold's. As an example of this freer, more varied critical style, let us cite the opening paragraphs of the lecture “Of Queens' Gardens”——in “Sesame and Lilies”:

From “Sesame and Lilies.”

It will be well … that I should shortly state to you my general intention… The questions specially proposed to you in my former lecture, namely How and What to Read, rose out of a far deeper one, which it was my endeavor to make you propose earnestly to yourselves, namely, Why to Read I want you to feel, with me, that whatever advantage we possess in the present day in the diffusion of education and of literature, can only be rightly used by any of us when we have apprehended clearly what education is to lead to, and literature to teach. I wish you to see that both well directed moral training and well chosen reading lead to the possession of a power over the ill-guided and illiterate, which is, according to the measure of it, in the truest sense kingly;* conferring indeed the purest kingship that can exist among men. Too many other kingships (however distinguished by visible insignia or material power) being either spectral, or tyrannous; spectral―that is to say, aspects and shadows only of royalty, hollow as death, and which only the “likeness of a kingly crown have on;” or else tyrannous―that is to say, substituting their own will for the law of justice and love by which all true kings rule.

*The preceding lecture was entitled “Of Kings's Treasures.”

There is then, I repeat (and as I want to leave this idea with you, I begin with it, and shall end with it) only one pure kind of kingship, ―an inevitable or eternal kind, crowned or not,―the kingship, namely, which consists in a stronger moral state and truer thoughtful state than that of others, enabling you, therefore, to guide or to raise them. Observe that word “state” we have got into a loose way of using it. It means literally the standing and stability of a thing; and you have the full force of it in the derived word “statue”―“the immovable thing.” A king's majesty or “state,” then, and the right of his kingdom to be called a State, depends on the movelessness of both,―without tremor, without quiver of balance, established and enthroned upon a foundation of eternal law which nothing can alter or overthrow.

Believing that all literature and all education are only useful so far as they tend to confirm this calm, beneficent, and therefore kingly, power,―first over ourselves, and, through ourselves, over all around us,―I am now going to ask you to consider with me further, what special portion or kind of this royal authority, arising out of noble education, may rightly be possessed by women; and how far they also are called to a true queenly power,―not in their households merely, but over all within their sphere. And in what sense, if they rightly understood and exercised this royal or gracious influence, the order and beauty induced by such benignant power would justify us in speaking of the territories over which each of them reigned as ‘Queens' Gardens.’

Here still is the true critical style, with exact definitions; but the whole argument is a metaphor, and the object of the criticism is to rouse feelings that will lead to action.

It will be observed that words which by definition are to be taken in some sort of technical sense are distinguished to the eye in some way. Matthew Arnold used italics. Ruskin first places “state” within quotation marks, and then, when he uses the word in a still different sense, he writes it with a capital letter―State. Capitalization is perhaps the most common way for designating common words when used in a special sense which is defined by the writer―or defined by implication. This is the explanation of the capital letters with which the writings of Carlyle are filled. He constantly endeavors to make words mean more than, or something different from, the meaning they usually have.

The peculiar embellishments of the critical writer are epigram, paradox, and satire. An epigram is a very short phrase or sentence which is so full of implied meaning or suggestion that it catches the attention at once, and remains in the memory easily. The paradox is something of the same sort on a larger scale. It is a statement that we can hardly believe to be true, since it seems at first sight to be self-contradictory, or to contradict well known truths or laws; but on examination we find that in a peculiar sense it is strictly true. Satire is a variation of humor peculiarly adapted to criticism, since it is intended to make the common idea ridiculous when compared with the ideas which the critic is trying to bring out: it is a sort of argument by force of stinging points. We may find an example of satire in its perfection in Swift, especially in his “Gulliver's Travels”―since these are satires the point of which we can appreciate to-day. Oscar Wilde was peculiarly given to epigram, and in his plays especially we may find epigram carried to the same excess that the balanced structure is carried by Macaulay. More moderate epigram may be found in Emerson and Carlyle. Paradox is something that we should use only on special occasion.

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Cody, Sherwin, 2007. The Art Of Writing & Speaking The English Language Word-Study. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved April 2022 from

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by Sherwin Cody @sherwincody.American writer and entrepreneur who developed a long-running home-study course in speaking and writing
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