Friday, August 06, 2010

Sri Aurobindo’s critical ideas come from Matthew Arnold, Keats and Coleridge

Professor of English, University of Allahabad, India 

IRWLE VOL. 6 No. II, July 2010

Matthew Arnold is one of those rare English critics whose humanistic and cultural ideas have scarcely been surpassed. Fortunately, he has not been ignored by critics and theorists coming

after him. In the age of Derrida, Foucault and Lacan it may seem unfashionable and unnecessary to pay attention to such early critical ideas as Arnold’s, but it was the views represented by critics like Arnold along with Coleridge, Keats and Eliot that the post-structuralists largely stood against. The Western philosophical tradition that grew out of Rousseau, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Husserl, etc. and from which the English critical tradition emerged and to which it must have contributed, however indirectly, must be connected with or opposed to the humanistic strain of thought that Arnold upheld.
For Matthew Arnold the future of poetry was immense (Arnold 11) because it based everything on ideas rather than on facts (which are the bases of science). Hence poetry had a tremendous future for Arnold and would even serve as a substitute for religion (Arnold 11). In Sri Aurobindo’s criticism there is reference to “The Future Poetry” which is the title of his treatise on poetic theory. The bringing together of poetry and the future seems to be something Aurobindo learnt from Arnold. “Future” and “Poetry” are words that Arnold puts into the very first sentence of his essay, “The Study of Poetry”, quoting from his own earlier writing:

The future of poetry is immense, because in poetry, where it is worthy of its high destinies, our race, as time goes on, will find an ever surer and surer stay. There is not a creed which is not shaken, not an accredited dogma which is not shown to be questionable, nor a received tradition which does not threaten to dissolve. Our religion has materialised itself in the fact, in the supposed fact; it has attached its emotion to the fact, and now the fact is failing it. But for poetry the idea is everything; the rest is a world of illusion, of divine illusion. Poetry attaches its emotion to the idea; the idea is the fact. The strongest part of our religion today is its unconscious poetry (Arnold 11).
Sri Aurobindo’s critical ideas come not only from Matthew Arnold, to whom he owes much, but also from the British Romantics. He imbibed literary ideas from the British literary world, of the nineteenth and earlier centuries, to complement and complete his own theory of poetry and then gave back to it what he considered necessary to complement and complete the knowledge of the West.
A very significant feature of Sri Aurobindo’s criticism is that in it there is the co-existence of a spiritual and romantic strain. The influence of Matthew Arnold on Sri Aurobindo is obvious. But this influence can be traced back to writings of earlier romantic poet-critics like Keats and Coleridge. For Sri Aurobindo “beauty” and “truth” are criteria with great relevance. To scholars of our times, such criteria are somewhat vague.
But for Sri Aurobindo these are valid criteria deserving our serious attention. Coleridge-like, Sri Aurobindo also speaks about the relevance of the imagination in the creative process. He speaks with a sense of authority as though what he says is the final truth. This could be a result of his study of Sanskrit poetics and otherwise spiritual concerns which often grapple with a sense of right and wrong and sometimes deal in absolutes.
Sri Aurobindo seems to have taken certain literary concepts from Coleridge. The passage that follows contains echoes from Coleridge: [...] It could be a concern of the post-colonial critic today to investigate reasons for why the Western critic becomes well known and the Indian, who anticipates him, less known. It cannot be denied that Sri Aurobindo’s contribution to literary criticism was phenomenal and needs greater attention. One of the few Indians who worked hard in this direction is C. D. Narasimhaiah.

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