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Mr. Henry Bartlett Learned read the Bowdoin Prize Dissertation last evening before an audience which comfortably filled Sever 5. The subject was "A Critical Study of the Writings of Matthew Arnold." In opening Mr. Larned gave an interesting sketch of Arnold's life, dwelling particularly on his university days at Oxford under his great father. The speaker then proceeded to a critical estimate of Arnold's works, which he divided into five classes, The writings on English society were first taken up. In them one sees Arnold's critical faculty at its best. Culture was Arnold's god. The Greeks put a great emphasis on knowledge, the Jews on conduct. The two tendencies, the one towards Hellenism, and the other towards Hebraism, are visibly at work in modern society and Arnold's ideas of culture made room for both. Arnold was convinced, however, that English society he braized too much, and needed men to hellenize, to cultivate the intellect. "The Bible," he said "was not the only book. No man who knew nothing else could know the Bible" Critics of Arnold's system ratner unfairly call it selfish, destructive of religion, dreamy. Yet Arnold does not give one the impression that he was at all times filled with that spirit of sweetness and light to which he has given a name.
Turning to Arnold's writings on the Bible, the speaker said that the reception of "Literature and Dogma" was the old story of Faust and Marguerite over again. The book was one which would never make converts, but which would strengthen and delight those inclined to think with its author.
In his books on America Arnold criticized American society without knowing it, and while he often told the truth, he seldom told the whole truth.
Arnold's fame as a literary critic rests on his two well known collections of essays. The essence of criticism, he says, is disinterestedness. At the same time he well understood that it was the sine qua non of a great critic to have a definite point of view. He chose a text and threw a strong and steady light upon it. His horizon was wider even than that of St. Beuve's. Yet he sometimes fell into ambiguities, and was often led astray by his fondness for phrases. Arnold will always live, nevertheless, as the greatest English critic of the nineteenth century. Arnold's poetry is largely introspective. It is terse, melodious, and clear, but profoundly melancholy. No man's poetry was ever a better guide to his own higher life.
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