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Thread: Henry Hazlitt and Matthew Arnold thought novels were lower than poetry?

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    Henry Hazlitt and Matthew Arnold thought novels were lower than poetry?

    I was listening to the In Our Time podcast about Victorian Realism and the host mentioned in passing how Hazlitt and Matthew Arnold felt the novel was too popular and not in the same category as poetry. He didn't explain any beyond that.

    Do I take this to mean that they felt the novel was a popular/populist art form and artistically lesser than poetry? Did they give any arguments or explain any why they felt that way?

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    Alea iacta est. mortalterror's Avatar
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    I haven't read their specific remarks on the topic but it was a common thought of the time. The modern novel was relatively new in the west, only becoming popular in the1700s or so. Guys like Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding, Samuel Richardson, Jonathan Swift, Laurence Sterne, Horace Walpole, were popular but not the leading lights of their time like Pope, Johnson, Burns, or Blake. You have a few things like Don Quixote or The Princess of Cleves being produced in the late Renaissance but poetry was still dominant. I think there was a perceived hierarchy that went poetry, plays, novels. Poetry was always the most highly esteemed genre since the classical period and since the education at this time was modeled on the ancient Greco-Roman classics, and they had very few novels, the Epic was naturally the most esteemed genre of literature. It took giants like Goethe, Dickens, Hugo, and Tolstoy utilizing the form to turn taste around to the way that it is today.

    It probably had something to do with literacy rates at the time too. Poetry is more upper class. You need high almost universal literacy rates in a society for the novel and prose to take over. It's easier to read and write, and the modern student is trained how to read prose to a higher degree than poetry. I certainly find reading and writing poetry more difficult.
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    You have the french "art for art sake"guys as well, helping to keep the status of poetry ahead of novel's status, even by someone who is probally the main responsable for the definitive status os novels, Flaubert. Baudelaire and those under his influences attacked any form of art that looked remotely "burgouise" and the novel was mostly like that. This not only caused poetry to became more hermetic with guys like Marllarme as the Novel search for more social thematics, avoiding to be "comercial" minded as they saw the productions aimed for the middle class, which lead to Zola. It is not different from today's reactions of Scorcese and Copolla when they say Marvel-Disney movies are not cinema.
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    Ecurb Ecurb's Avatar
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    Jane Austen chimes in, from Northanger Abbey, published posthumously in 1819 (or so), but written in the 1790s.

    .....if a rainy morning deprived them of other enjoyments, they were still resolute in meeting in defiance of wet and dirt, and shut themselves up, to read novels together. Yes, novels; for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel–writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding — joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers. And while the abilities of the nine–hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens — there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them. “I am no novel–reader — I seldom look into novels — Do not imagine that I often read novels — It is really very well for a novel.” Such is the common cant. “And what are you reading, Miss — ?” “Oh! It is only a novel!” replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. “It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda”; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best–chosen language. Now, had the same young lady been engaged with a volume of the Spectator, instead of such a work, how proudly would she have produced the book, and told its name; though the chances must be against her being occupied by any part of that voluminous publication, of which either the matter or manner would not disgust a young person of taste: the substance of its papers so often consisting in the statement of improbable circumstances, unnatural characters, and topics of conversation which no longer concern anyone living; and their language, too, frequently so coarse as to give no very favourable idea of the age that could endure it.

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    Registered User Jackson Richardson's Avatar
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    William Hazlitt, not Henry. He was a great enthusiast for painting and very knowledgeable on the subject. He was a leading literary critic of the time and wrote a lot about Shakespeare, often with relation to the interpretations he had seen on stage.
    Previously JonathanB

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