Essay exploring the literary criticism of Matthew Arnold
Magill, Frank N., Critical Survey of Long Fiction, English Language Series, Revised Edition and Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Foreign Language Series
These two series have short biographical and in-depth critical essays on major authors and their works. Each essay also includes a brief annotated bibliography of further readings.
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The French Romance poetry of the 13th century langue d'oc and langue d'oil was extremely popular in Europe and Italy, but soon lost its popularity and now it is important only in terms of historical study. But Chaucer, who was nourished by the romance poetry of the French, and influenced by the Italian Royal rhyme stanza, still holds enduring fascination. There is an excellence of style and subject in his poetry, which is the quality the French poetry lacks. Dryden says of Chaucer's Prologue 'Here is God's plenty!' and that 'he is a perpetual fountain of good sense'. There is largeness, benignity, freedom and spontaneity in Chaucer's writings. 'He is the well of English undefiled'. He has divine fluidity of movement, divine liquidness of diction. He has created an epoch and founded a tradition.
Even Chaucer, in Arnold's view, in spite of his virtues such as benignity, largeness, and spontaneity, lacks seriousness. Burns too lacks sufficient seriousness, because he was hypocritical in that while he adopted a moral stance in some of his poems, in his private life he flouted morality.
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Mordecai Marcus’ critical essay on the novella makes some good points, such that Bartleby is a psychological double for the lawyer, he represents a subliminal death drive within himself, and the conflict between absolutism and free will....
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There are lots of series which include plot synopses and basic criticism of famous novels. Frank Magill's Masterplots and Critical Surveys are reasonably reliable and most articles are written by scholars. Other sources, like Cliff's Notes, are sometimes also written by scholars, but be sure and check to see that the author has good credentials (for example, a master's degree or PhD in literature).
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In The Study of Poetry, (1888) which opens his Essays in Criticism: Second series, in support of his plea for nobility in poetry, Arnold recalls Sainte-Beuve's reply to Napoleon, when latter said that charlatanism is found in everything. Sainte-Beuve replied that charlatanism might be found everywhere else, but not in the field of poetry, because in poetry the distinction between sound and unsound, or only half-sound, truth and untruth, or only half-truth, between the excellent and the inferior, is of paramount importance.
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As examples of erroneous judgements he says that the 17th century court tragedies of the French were spoken of with exaggerated praise, until Pellisson reproached them for want of the true poetic stamp, and another critic, Charles d' Hricault, said that 17th century French poetry had received undue and undeserving veneration. Arnold says the critics seem to substitute 'a halo for physiognomy and a statue in the place where there was once a man. They give us a human personage no larger than God seated amidst his perfect work, like Jupiter on Olympus.'
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To Arnold poetry itself was the criticism of life: 'The criticism of life under the conditions fixed for such criticism by the laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty', and in his seminal essay The Study of Poetry' 1888) he says that poetry alone can be our sustenance and stay in an era where religious beliefs are fast losing their hold. He claims that poetry is superior to philosophy, science, and religion. Religion attaches its emotion to supposed facts, and the supposed facts are failing it, but poetry attaches its emotion to ideas and ideas are infallible. And science, in his view is incomplete without poetry. He endorses Wordsworth's view that 'poetry is the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all Science', adding 'What is a countenance without its expression?' and calls poetry 'the breath and finer spirit of knowledge'.