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This review is taken from PN Review 42, Volume 11 Number 4, March - April 1985.

PIMPS AND MISSIONARIES Chris Baldick, The Social Mission of English Criticism 1848-1932 (Oxford) £19.50

When the present is troubled and the future uncertain, we are likely to look to the past, in a spirit of nostalgia, or in order to try and grasp the causes of our current plight. Recent troubles in English studies have been marked by many backward glances, some nostalgic, some investigative and iconoclastic. Baldick's study is of the latter kind, but fortunately his iconoclastic impulse is checked by investigative rigour. This makes his book very useful as a selective survey, though questionable in its general attitude.

He begins his investigation with Matthew Arnold. 'Poetry is the reality, philosophy the illusion': this maxim summed up Arnold's elevation of literature: but, since Arnold did not believe that his was a great age of poetry, he placed great importance on criticism. Criticism was to prepare the ground for future creation, and, by eschewing direct controversy, contribute, eventually, to social and political improvement. Criticism became, in fact, 'a long-term programme for the reform of Britain's entire intellectual life'. Arnold's concern for psychological and social order (those famous Hyde Park railings) led him to evolve an influential mode of critical discourse in a supposedly 'innocent' language, apparently untainted by parti pris, appealing to implicit criteria and 'touchstones'.

Walter Pater said little directly about criticism's social mission, but was nonetheless, Baldick suggests, an important link between Arnold and subsequent critics. His Hegelian concept of the fusion of form and content in art, and his vision of the Mona Lisa as concentrating ...


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