English literature Books PDF Free download 2020

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English Meaning

If we want to understand English and American thinking about literature in the twentieth century we must begin with the nineteenth-century figure of Matthew Arnold (1822–1888), English educator, poet (once famous for his rather depressing but much anthologized ‘Dover Beach’), and professor of poetry at Oxford University.

Arnold’s views, which enormously enhanced the prestige of literature, were not wholly new. In fact, his central idea that, apart from its aesthetic and pleasing qualities, literature also had important things to teach us, was already familiar in antiquity and we see it repeated time and again over the ages.

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English literature Books PDF

So we find Thomas Jefferson, future president of the future United States of America, observing in a 1771 letter that ‘a lively and lasting sense of filial duty is more effectually impressed on the mind of a son or daughter by reading “King Lear” than by all the dry volumes of ethics and divinity that were ever written’. (English literature Books PDF)

However, Arnold is not interested in the more practical aspects of the idea that literature is a source of instruction – literature as a set of how-to books – but places it in a spiritual context. Writing in the second half of the nineteenth century, Arnold saw English culture as seriously threatened by a process of secularization that had its origins in the growing persuasiveness of scientific thinking and by a ‘Philistinism’ that was loosened upon the world by the social rise of a self-important, money-oriented, and utterly conventional middle class.(English literature Books PDF)

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English literature Books PDF

With the spiritual comforts of religion increasingly questionable now that the sciences – in particular Darwin’s theory of evolution – had thoroughly undermined the authority of Bible and Church, Arnold foresaw a crucial, semi-religious role for poetry especially:

More and more mankind will discover that we have to turn to poetry to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us. Without poetry, our science will appear incomplete; and most of what now passes with us for religion and philosophy will be replaced by poetry.

English literature Books PDF

(Arnold [1880] 1970: 340)

‘The future of poetry’, Arnold tells his readers, ‘is immense, because in poetry … our race, as time goes on, will find an ever surer and surer stay’. This radical claim for poetry – made in an 1880 essay called ‘The Study of Poetry’ – is, in fact, the culmination of claims that Arnold had for decades been making on behalf of what he called ‘culture’ and which is a book called Culture and Anarchy (1869) he had defined as ‘the best that has been thought and said in the world’ (Arnold [1869] 1971: 6). As this makes clear, that ‘best’ is not necessarily confined to poems, but there is no doubt that he saw poetry as its major repository. The special importance that he accords to poetry is not as surprising as it may now seem. It accurately reflects the status of the pre-eminent literary genre that it enjoyed in Arnold’s time.

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English literature Books PDF

Moreover, in giving poetry this illustrious, almost sacred, function Arnold builds on ideas that earlier in the nineteenth century had been formulated by Romantic poets like Percy Bysshe (English literature Books PDF)


Shelley (1792–1822), who had attributed a special, visionary status to poetry, and on a long tradition, going back to the classics, that likewise gives literature, and especially poetry, special powers. It was only natural, then, for Arnold to put forward poetry as the major embodiment of ‘culture’.

English literature Books PDF

What does Arnold have in mind with ‘the best that has been thought and said in the world’? Strangely enough, Culture and Anarchy is very outspoken, but not very clear on this point. Arnold has no trouble making clear by what forces and in which ways that ‘best’ is threatened: the evil is summarized by the ‘anarchy’ of his title, which includes the self-centered unruliness of the working class and ‘the hideous and grotesque illusions of middle-class Protestantism’ (63). (English literature Books PDF)

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He is, however, not very precise in his definitions of ‘the best’. This is partly because he assumes that his readers already know: he does not have to tell them because they share his educational background and his beliefs (‘When I insist on this, I am all in the faith and tradition of Oxford’ (61)).

English literature Books PDF

But it is also due to its elusiveness. Arnold can tell us where to find it, for instance in Hellenism – the Greek culture of antiquity, with its ‘aerial ease, clearness, and radiancy’ (134) but can only describe what it expresses: an attitude towards life, a way of being in the world. (English literature Books PDF)

Included in this attitude we find ‘freedom from fanaticism’, ‘delicacy of perception’, the ‘disinterested play of consciousness’, and an ‘inward spiritual activity’ that has ‘for its characters increased sweetness, increased light, increased life, increased sympathy’ (60–64).

What culture would seem to amount to is a deeply sympathetic and self-effacing interest in, and contemplation of, the endless variety that the world presents. For Arnold, poetry probes life more deeply is more sympathetic towards its immensely various manifestations and is less self-serving than anything else, and so we must turn to poetry ‘to interpret life for us’. Because poetry has the power to interpret life, we can also turn to it if we want to be consoled or to seek sustenance.

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