PERSPECTIVEnBETWEEN THE LINESn”He whom nature has made weak and idlenessnkeeps ignorant may yet support his vanity by thenname of a critic. “n—Samuel JohnsonnNot too long ago we devoted an issue to the death ofnserious art. While there may be many objections tonthe thesis that popular culture has replaced painting, thensymphony, and the drama, there is no doubt that the estatenof poetry is as low as it has ever been in the long history ofnour civilizahon. The decadence of poetry is a more seriousnaffair than similar developments in music, painting, andnsculpture. Of all high arts, poetry best expresses thencharacter of a ciilization. Heroic poetry embodies thenli’ing history and traditions of a people, while other genresnlike tragedy and sahre proide the most powerful weaponsnfor attacking pressing problems of polihcs and social ethics.nUnlike philosophy or science, which can have a directninfluence only on a tiny minority, poetry is a part ofneervone’s life from the time we first hear “Little BovnBlue.”nThese sentiments are hardly noel. They were not evennoriginal with Matthew Arnold, who did so much to gi’enthem currency. In his own lifetime, Arnold had witnessednthe moral collapse of Christianity in England and the rise ofna scientific world view that threatened to undermine allnsystems of value. Against both these forces, old and new,nArnold put his faith in culture, specifically poetry:nMore and more mankind will discover that we havento turn to poetry to interpret life for us, to consolenus, to sustain us. Without poetry, our science willnappear incomplete; and most of what now passes fornreligion and philosophy will be replaced by poetry.n’—“The Study of Poetry”nIt was a noble—albeit blasphemous—answer to a generationnthat had begun to doubt of everything received. Arnoldnhad strong resers’ations about even the best poetry of then19th century, including his own. The problem with nearlynall of English verse, he believed, was a lack of discipline.nThe remedy lay in criticism, whose function is to make usn”perpetually dissatisfied with these works, while they perpetuallynfall short of a high and perfect ideal.” The Victoriansndid not, he insisted, live in anything like a GoldennAge—“the promised land, towards which criticism cannonly beckon” (“The Function of’Criticism at the PresentnTime”). Arnold clearly saw himself as a Moses able to leadnhis people out of the desert but unable himself to pass overnJordan.n81 CHRONICLES OF CULTUREnby Thomas FlemingnnnIt is hard to avoid the feeling that a great deal of modernnliterary history, in England and the U.S., has been a seriesnof efforts to fulfill (or refute) Arnold’s magisterial pronouncements.nWhile A.E. Housman thought the critic wasnthe rarest thing on God’s green earth, criticism has, in fact,nbecome the occupation of thousands of English professorsnand literary interpreters, whose published works wouldnmore than fill the shelves of a decent-sized college library.nApart from the more obviously prominent journals like thenPMLy and distinguished period journals like VictoriannStudies, there are literalh’ thousands of publications deotednto eery imaginable author and period and edited fromnnearh” every concei’able perspectie. For a young assistantnprofessor, it must be glorious: How could he fail to place atnleast two articles a year? Who will read them is anothernmatter.nAnd yet, for all this activity and business since Arnold’sntime, there is rather clear evidence that poetry does not pla>’nthe role he had imagined for it. So far from replacingnreligion, the faith endures—at least in the more backwardnsections of the U.S.—while the influence of the sciencesnhas continued to wax strong, and not just in the academ’.nNow, during this period, we have witnessed the rise and fallnof New Criticism (and much new poetry), the projectiistntheories of Charles Olson and his friends, Freudianninterpretations—especially as mystified by the Frenchn—sociological criticism, and currentiy the antics of professorsnwho are paid to go about the world “deconstructing”neerything except their own inflated prose.nThe older generation of critics is understandably disturbednby literary hooligans who make smug pronouncementsnon texts and subtexts and airily dismiss all considerationsnof genre and tradition while at the same timendestroying the distinction between writing and reading. Innprinciple, “deconstruction” is an attack on the professionalnprivileges of critics and professors: if every interpretation isnvalid, if every reading constitutes a “text,” what do we needncritics and teachers for? In practice, however, it doesn’tnwork that way. As Michel de Certeau points out:nBy its very nature available to a plural reading, thentext becomes a cultural weapon, a private huntingnreserve, the pretext for a law that legitimizes asn”literal” the interpretation given by sociallyn