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Thumbs up Mathew Arnold on study of Poetry

Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), the greatest name among the Victorian critics, was a poet turned critic. He started his literary career by writing poetry. It was only at the age of thirty-one that he published his first piece of criticism, Preface to the Poems, and then for the rest of his life, for full thirty-five years, he hardly wrote anything but criticism.
His literary criticism may itself be divided into two categories:
(a) Theoretical criticism or literary aesthetics
(b) Practical criticism
His theoretical criticism is contained largely in his Preface to the Poems and The Function of Criticism at the Present Time, standing at the head of the first series of his Essays in Criticism, and The Study of Poetry with which opens the second series of his Essays in Criticism. His practical criticism largely consists of his estimates of English and Continental poets contained in both the series of Essays in Criticism.
A number of influences operated upon Arnold from the earliest days and determined his views and attitudes.
First, Arnold owes much of his knowledge of Greek and Latin masters to his great father. His classicism was inspired by him, and it is to this fact that George Watson attributes the quality in his writing, the incongruity between the head and the heart.

The second powerful influence on him was that of the age in which he lived and created. Disgusted with the degenerate and decadent romanticism of the day, its mammon worship and false money-values, its cultural anarchy, its historicism, its provincialism, and its philistinism, he was critical of it and sought to bring about a cultural revolution.

Thirdly, Arnold was a man who read avidly, both the ancient and the moderns, and quite naturally, his reading influenced him profoundly. Love for the classics of ancient Greece and Rome was inculcated in him by his father, and he drank deep at the foundation of Homer, Sophocles, Virgil, Aristotle and many others. This passion of reading the Greek and Roman literature is reflected in all his works.

Fourthly, it was the critical method of Sainte-Beuve which appealed to him and which in the main, he made his own.

And lastly, professorship of poetry at Oxford gave him power to present his ideas.
All these factors mixed up and he formed his criticism in which the most important work is The Study of Poetry.
The purpose of this paper is to delineate the several myriad arguments of Arnold’s critique. From Chaucer to Burns, this paper attempts to explain Arnold’s views on many famous classics of English literature. Not only does Arnold present a commentary on different poets, but in doing so presents a way of critique and criticism which, according to him, is the most appropriate and effective one. The “touchstone method”, for Arnold, was the only way of valorization and evaluation that is free from all fallacies and subjective prejudices. After presenting his conception of the best kind of poetry, he presents his case on how one can recognize this “best kind of poetry” and then goes on to give practical examples of such a system of criticism. All of this makes Arnold’s work complete, comprehensive and exemplary, such that could be read from time to time as an instruction manual on recognizing great poetry and distinguishing it from the mediocre kind.
The Study of Poetry:
He starts with asserting that the future of poetry is immense. All our creed and religion have been shaken. They have grown too much tied down to facts. But for poetry the idea is everything. The strongest part of our religion today is its unconscious poetry. We should study poetry more and more, for poetry is capable of higher uses. We have to turn to poetry “to interpret life for us, to console us, and to sustain us.” Without poetry science will remain incomplete and much that passes with us for religion and philosophy will be replaced by poetry.
Poetry can fulfill its high function only if we keep a high standard for it. No charlatanism should be allowed to enter poetry. Arnold then defines poetry as:
“A criticism of life under the conditions fixed for that criticism by the laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty.”
Only the best poetry is capable of performing this task. Only that poetry which is the criticism of life can be our support and stay, when other helps fail us. So, it is important that readers should learn to choose the best. In choosing the best, the readers are warned against two kinds of fallacious judgments:
The historic estimate and the personal estimate.
The readers should learn to value poetry as it really is in itself. The historic estimate is likely to affect our judgment when we are dealing with ancient poets, the personal estimate when we are dealing with our contemporary poets. Readers should insist on the real estimate, which means a recognition and discovery of the highest qualities which produce the best poetry. It should be a real classic and not a false classic. A true classic is one which belongs to the class of the very best and such poetry we must feel and enjoy as deeply as we can.
It is not necessary to lay down what in the abstract constitute the features of high quality of poetry. It is much better to study concrete examples, to take specimens of poetry of the high, the very highest qualities, and to say, the features of highest poetry are what we find here. Short passages and single lines from Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton and others may be memorized and applied as touchstones to test the worth of the poems we want to read. This other poetry must not be required to resemble them; but if the touchstone-quotations are used with tact, they will enable the reader to detect the presence or absence of the highest poetic quality.
However, in order to satisfy those who insist that some criteria of excellence should be laid down, Arnold points out that excellence of poetry lies “both in its matter or its substance and in its manner or style.” But matter and style must have the accent of high beauty, worth and power. But Arnold does not define what this mark or accent is. He says we would ourselves feel it, for it is the mark or accent of all high poetry. If the matter of a poet has truth and high seriousness, the manner and diction would also acquire the accent of superiority. The two are vitally connected together.
Arnold then undertakes a brief review of English poetry from Chaucer to Burns in order to apply practically the general principles laid down above and so to demonstrate their truth. The substance of Chaucer’s poetry--his view of things and his criticism of life--has “largeness, freedom, shrewdness, benignity.” He surveys the world from a truly human point of view. But his poetry is wanting in “high seriousness”. His language, no doubt, causes difficulty, but this difficulty can be easily overcome. Chaucer will be read more and more with the passing of time. But he is not a classic; his poetry lacks the accent of a real classic. This can be easily verified through a comparison of a passage from Chaucer with one from Dante, the first poetic classic of Christendom. This is so because he has the truth of substance but not “high seriousness”.
Shakespeare and Milton are our great poetical classics, but Dryden and Pope are not poetical classics.
“Dryden was the puissant and glorious founder; Pope was the splendid high priest of the age of reason and prose, of our excellent and indispensable 18th century.”
But theirs is not the verse of men whose criticism of life has a serious seriousness, has poetic largeness, freedom, insight, benignity. Their application of ideas to life is not poetic application, they are not classics of English poetry; they are classics of English prose.
The most singular and unique poet of the age of Pope and Dryden is Gray. Gray is a poetic classic, but lie is the scantiest of classics. He lived in the company of great classics of Greece, and he caught their manners, and their views of life. His work is slighter and less perfect than it would have been, had he lived in a congenial age. Elsewhere, Arnold tells us that the difference between genuine poetry and the poetry of Pope, Dryden, and other poets of their school, is briefly this:
“Their poetry is conceived and composed in their wits; genuine poetry is conceived and composed in the soul.”
Gray’s poetry was so composed.
Next coming to Burns, Arnold points out that his real merit is to be found in his Scottish poems. In his poetry, we do find the application of ideas to life, and also that his application is a powerful one, made by a man of vigorous understanding and master of language. He also has truth of substance. Burns is by far the greater force than Chaucer, though he has less charm. But we do not find in Burns that accent of high seriousness which is born out of absolute sincerity, and which characterizes the poetry of the great classics. The poetry of Burns has truth of matter and truth of manner, but not the accent of the poetic virtue of the highest masters. Even in the case of Burns, one is likely to be misguided by the personal estimate. This danger is even greater in the case of Byron, Shelley and Wordsworth. Estimates of their poetry are likely not only to be personal, but also “personal with passion”. So Arnold does not take them up for consideration.
Having illustrated practically his touchstone method, Arnold expresses the view that good literature will never lose its currency. There might be some vulgarization and cheapening of literary values, as a result of the increase in numbers of the common sort of readers, but the currency of good literature is ensured by “the instinct of self-preservation in humanity”.
So strong is Arnold’s faith in the value of poetry of the highest kind. Hence, he believes that only in the spirit of poetry our race will find its last source of consolation and stay.
Poetry as Superior to All Knowledge:
The Study of Poetry is Arnold’s most famous work of literary criticism as it is fundamentally concerned with poetry’s high destiny. He is of the view that poetry can be our sustenance and stay in an era where religious beliefs are fast losing their hold. As discussed above, Arnold lived in a materialistic world where advancement of science had led society in a strange darkness. Importance of religion was submerged. People were becoming fact seekers. A gap was being developed and he believed that poetry could fill that gap by noble and profound application of ideas to life which should be of moral nature. Therefore, he believes that with the passing of time mankind will discover that they have to turn to poetry in order to interpret life and to console and sustain themselves as science and philosophy will eventually prove flimsy and unstable. He demanded that poetry should serve a greater purpose instead of becoming a mere medium of gaining pleasure and appreciating beauty. He claims that poetry is superior to philosophy, science and religion because religion attaches its emotions to ideas and ideas are infallible and science in his view is incomplete without poetry.
One of the characteristic qualities of poetry mentioned by Arnold in this essay is a sound representation of life and ideas without any attempt to falsify the facts. He further points out that another characteristic of great poetry is the application of ideas to criticism of life. He endorses Wordsworth’s view that “poetry is the impassioned expression which is the countenance of all science” and calls poetry the breath and finer spirit of knowledge. According to Arnold, the greatness of Wordsworth lies in his powerful application of the subject of ideas to man, nature and human life. Another quality attributed to great poetry by him is that of high seriousness. Aristotle was of the view that poetry was superior to history due to the former’s qualities of higher truth and higher seriousness. What we judge from Arnold’s essay is that “high seriousness” is concerned with sad reality and this quality is possessed by the poetry which deals with the tragic aspects of life. Arnold further illustrates this view by giving examples of Dante, Shakespeare and Milton’s poetry.
Therefore we must know how to distinguish the best poetry from the inferior, the genuine from the counterfeit and to do this we must steep ourselves in the work of the acknowledged masters.
Charlatanism and the Fallacies:
Arnold, after apotheosizing poetry in his essay, suggests that poetry must be of high order of excellence to fulfill its high destinies. The Study of Poetry clearly enunciates that the people must accustom themselves with “high standards” and “strict judgments”, in order to avoid fallacies of highly regarding certain poems and poet. Poetry should not be valued on basis of the value of certain poets in history. It must not be evaluated on the basis of personal affinities or likings. It presents methods for discerning only the classical and the best poets and poetry.
Arnold analyses the role of the critic while judging any poetry. Before Mathew Arnold, the critics valued poetry based on the beauties and defects in it. While Mathew Arnold sees the critic as the social benefactor who strictly judges the poetry of higher order of excellence. Aristotle analyzes the work of art, but Mathew Arnold in study of poetry analyzes the role of critic. Aristotle gives us the principles which govern the making of the poem, the other gives principles by which poems should be selected as superior or inferior and made known to the world. Aristotle’s critics own allegiance to the artist but Arnold’s critic own allegiance to the art (poetry) and the society. Art should be given value which it possesses in itself. Arnold views poetry as the criticism of life.
According to Arnold, there is no place for charlatanism in poetry. A charlatan is defined as the flamboyant deceiver who attracts others with tricks or jokes. Charlatanism in poetry confuses or removes the distinction between excellent and inferior, sound and unsound, true and untrue or only half true. In this essay, Arnold clearly rejects charlatanism in poetry in following words:
“In poetry, which is thought and art in one, it is the glory, the eternal honor that charlatanism finds no entrance that this noble sphere be kept inviolate and inviolable.”
Arnold supports his idea for the nobility in poetry by recalling the Saint Beuve’s reply to napoleon, Arnold states the Saint Beuve’s reply to Napoleon when he said him that charlatanism is found in everything. Saint Beuve replied to this that charlatanism might be found in everything except poetry, because in poetry the distinction between the superior and inferior and noble and ignoble is of paramount importance. Arnold regards poetry as criticism of life in true sense. Poetry can reflect the true spirits of life when it will be free of any kind of corruption or ignobility. He regards poetry as “the criticism of life governed by poetic truth and poetic beauty”. According to him the spirits of our age will find stay and consolation by this true criticism of life. The extent to which the consolation, comfort, solace in poetry is obtained is proportional to the power of poem’s criticism of life. It means that the measure to which a poem is genuine and noble, and free from charlatanism.
Arnold than defines the true canons for the best poetry. The best poetry is that which is according to the reader’s desire or wish. Arnold illustrates this in following words:
“The best poetry is what we want, the best poetry will be found to have power of forming, sustaining and delighting us and nothing else can.”
Arnold states three different kinds of estimates that govern the reader’s mind while evaluating any piece of literature, especially poetry. These are:
Real estimate
Historical estimate
Personal estimate
According to him the most precious benefit to be collected from best poetry is “clearer and deeper sense of best” and “the strength and joy to be drawn from it”. This sense must be present in every reader’s mind while searching for the best in poetry, and to enjoy it. This sense should govern our estimate that what should we read. This estimate is called the real estimate of poetry.
Arnold contrasts the real estimate to “two other kinds of estimate”, the historic estimate and the personal estimate. The real estimate of the poetry can be superseded by these two “fallacious” estimates. He says that these two estimates should be discarded while evaluating poetry; he cautions the critic that in forming a genuine and disinterested estimate of the poet under consideration, he should not be influenced by historical or personal judgments.
Historical estimate is regarded fallacious, because we regard ancient poet excessive veneration. It calculates the poet’s merit on “historical grounds’, that is, by regarding a poets work as a stage in the course of development of nation’s language, thought and poetry. The historical estimate is likely to affect our judgments and language when we are analyzing ancient poets. Arnold states this in essay, in following words:
“The course of development of nation’s language, thought and poetry, is profoundly interesting, and by regarding a poet’s work as a stage in this course of development, we may easily bring to ourselves to make it of more importance as poetry than in itself it really is, we may come to use a language of quite exaggerated praise in criticizing it; in short, to over rate it.”
Personal estimate is another fallacy while criticizing poetry. It calculates a poet’s merit on the basis of personal affinities, liking or circumstances, which may make us over-rate the object of personal interest because the work in question “is, or has been of high importance to us personally”. We may over-rate the object of our interest, and can praise it in quite exaggerated language and grant it more value or importance than it really possess. Personal estimate is regarded fallacious, because it makes people biased towards their contemporary poets.
As example of erroneous judgments, he says that the 17th century French court tragedies were spoken with exaggerated praise, until Pellison reproached them for want of free poetic stamp, and another critic Charles d’ Hericault, said that the 17th century French poetry had received excessive veneration. Arnold says that the critic seems to substitute, a halo for physiognomy, and a statue in place, where there was once a man.
Many people, Arnold argues, skip in obedience to mere tradition and habit , from one famous name or work in its national poetry to another, ignorant of what it misses, and of the reason for keeping what it keeps, and of the whole process of growth in poetry. All this misses, however the indispensability of recognizing the “reality of poet’s classical character” that is’ the test whether it belongs to the class of very best and that appreciation of the wide difference between it and all the works which has not the same character. Arnold points out that tracing historical origins in works of poetry is not totally unimportant and that to some degrees personal choice enters into any attempt to anthologize the works. However, the ‘real estimate’, from which derives the benefit of clearly feeling and deeply enjoying the very best, the true classic in poetry ought to be the literary historian’s objective.
Poetry as the Criticism of Life
In his essay, ‘The Study of Poetry’ Matthew Arnold has presented poetry as a criticism of life. In the beginning of his essay he states: “In poetry as criticism of life, under conditions fixed for such criticism by the laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty, the spirit of our race will find, as time goes by and as other helps fail, its consolation and stay.” Thus, according to him poetry is governed by the laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty.
Poetic truth is a characteristic quality of the matter and substance of poetry. It means a sound representation of life. In other words, it is a true depiction of life without any attempt to falsify the facts. Poetic beauty is contained in the manner and style. It is marked by excellence of diction and flow of verse. While talking of Chaucer, Arnold mentions fluidity of diction and verse. Poetic beauty springs from right words in the right order.
Poetic truth and poetic beauty are inter-related and cannot be separated from one another.” The superior character of truth and seriousness in the matter and substance of best poetry, is inseparable from the superiority of diction and movement marking its manner and style”, says Arnold. If a poem is lacking in the qualities of poetic truth and high seriousness, it cannot possess the excellence of diction and movement, and vice-versa
In his estimate of Burns and Wordsworth, Arnold points out that another characteristic of great poetry is application of ideas to criticism of life. The greatness of Wordsworth lies in his powerful application of the subject of ideas to man, nature and human life. Ideas according to Arnold are moral ideas.
Another quality attributed to great poetry by Arnold is that of ‘high seriousness’. Although he does not fully explain the term, we gather quite a lot of information from his statement. Aristotle was of the view that poetry is superior to history due to the former’s qualities of higher truth and higher seriousness. What we judge from Arnold’s essay is that high-seriousness is concerned with the sad reality. This quality is possessed by poetry which deals with the tragic aspects of life. Even the examples given by Arnold from Dante, Shakespeare and Milton’s poetry illustrate this view. For instance, dying Hamlet’s request to Horatio:
“If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart
Absent thee from felicity awhile,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain
To tell my story…”
Regarding the concept of criticism of life, it needs to be understood what Arnold meant by the phrase – “criticism of life”. It does not mean carping at or unnecessarily finding faults with life. The suggestion itself is unsound that it means a criticism of society and its follies. Criticism of life means a healthy interpretation of life. It means an evaluation, sympathetic sharing in and feeling for. The theory of poetry given Arnold has been challenged on many accounts. Arnold does not consider Burns a great poet because in his poetry Burns presents an ugly life. Arnold was of the view that a poet has the advantage of portraying a beautiful life in his poetry. Eliot attacked this opinion. He believed that the poet has not the advantage of describing a beautiful life but has rather an advantage of having the capacity to look beneath both ugliness and beauty. It is the power to look beyond boredom, horror and glory.
While teaching of the concept of poetic beauty, Arnold mentions excellence of diction but does not explain what it is. As regards the flow in verse or the fluidity in movement, Arnold probably does not realize that the use of coarseness is sometimes intentional to create a specific effect. Smoothness need not be the only one; harshness and ruggedness are equally great qualities, when used to create special effects.
Matthew Arnold does not fully explain the term ‘high seriousness’. It should also be remembered here that seriousness should not at all be considered synonymous with solemnity. The serious and humorous can exist together.
Another view put forward by Arnold that has been under the shadow of criticism is that of ‘ideas’. We might very well like to believe that what Arnold wants to say is that an author, while interpreting life for us, might also use a moral idea to convey a moral lesson. But what Arnold believes is that there is a pre-conceived idea on which the poet bases his evaluation.
Eliot also criticizes Arnold on the latter’s occupation with only great poetry. Adhering to this principle, we might end up dealing with only a small part of the total poetry.
Matthew Arnold talks of deriving pleasure from poetry. But according to critics he is actually biased towards morality – a fact that is evident from his view that poetry would replace religion. “More and more mankind will discover that we have to turn to poetry to interpret life for us”, he writes. Apart from all the negative criticism directed against Arnold we cannot deny that he has very beautifully related literature to life. As Douglas Bush rightly points out that literature is not an end in itself for Arnold. It only adds to the beauty of life and answers the question ‘How to live?’ Arnold is such a person, who does not live to read, but reads to live.
The Touchstone Method:
“Poetry is interpretative by having natural magic in it, and moral profundity.”
Arnold’s touchstone method is a comparative method of criticism. According to this method, in order to judge a poet's work properly, a critic should compare it to passages taken from works of great masters of poetry, and that these passages should be applied as touchstones to other poetry. Even a single line or selected quotation will serve the purpose. If the other work moves us in the same way as these lines and expressions do, then it is really a great work, otherwise not. This method was recommended by Arnold to overcome the shortcomings of the personal and historical estimates of a poem. Both historical and personal estimate go in vain. In personal estimate, we cannot wholly leave out the personal and subjective factors. In historical estimate, historical importance often makes us rate a work as higher than it really deserves. In order to form a real estimate, one should have the ability to distinguish a real classic. At this point, Arnold offers his theory of Touchstone Method. A real classic, says Arnold, is a work, which belongs to the class of the very best. It can be recognized by placing it beside the known classics of the world. Those known classics can serve as the touchstone by which the merit of contemporary poetic work can be tested.
The best way to know the class, to which a work belongs in terms of the excellence of art, Arnold recommends, is:
“… to have always in one’s mind lines and expression of the great masters, and to apply them as a touchstone to the poetry.”
This is the central idea of Arnold’s Touchstone Method.
Matthew Arnold's Touchstone Method of Criticism was really a comparative system of criticism. Arnold was basically a classicist. He admired the ancient Greek, Roman and French authors as the models to be followed by the modern English authors. The old English like Shakespeare, Spenser or Milton were also to be taken as models. Arnold took selected passages from the modern authors and compared them with selected passages from the ancient authors and thus decided their merits. This method was called Arnold's Touchstone Method.
However, this system of judgment has its own limitations. The method of comparing passage with a passage is not a sufficient test for determining the value of a work as a whole. Arnold himself insisted that we must judge a poem by the 'total impression' and not by its fragments. But we can further extend this method of comparison from passages to the poems as whole units. The comparative method is an invaluable aid to appreciation of any kind of art. It is helpful not merely thus to compare the masterpiece and the lesser work, but the good with the not so good, the sincere with the not quite sincere, and so on.
Those who do not agree with this theory of comparative criticism say that Arnold is too austere, too exacting in comparing a simple modern poet with the ancient master poet. It is not fair to expect that all hills may be Alps. The mass of current literature is much better disregarded. By this method we can set apart the alive, the vital, the sincere from the shoddy, the showy and the insincere.
Arnold’s view of greatness in poetry and what a literary critic should look for are summed up as follows:
“… it is important, therefore, to hold fast to this: that poetry is at bottom a criticism of life; that the greatness of a poet lies in his powerful and beautiful application of ideas to life, to the question: how to live.”
On Chaucer:
Matthew Arnold is an admirer of Chaucer’s poetry. He remarks that Chaucer’s power of fascination is enduring.
“He will be read far more generally than he is read now.”
The only problem that we come across is the difficulty of following his language. Chaucer’s superiority lies in the fact that “we suddenly feel ourselves to be in another world”. His superiority is both in the substance of his poetry and in the style of his poetry.
“His view of life [weltanschauung] is large, free, simple, clear and kindly. He has shown the power to survey the world from a central, a human point of view.”
The best example is his Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. Matthew Arnold quotes here the words of Dryden who remarked about it; “Here is God’s plenty”. Arnold continues to remark that Chaucer is a perpetual fountain of good sense. Chaucer’s poetry has truth of substance; “Chaucer is the father of our splendid English poetry.” By the lovely charm of his diction, the lovely charm of his movement, he makes an epoch and founds a tradition. We follow this tradition in Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton and Keats. “In these poets we feel the virtue.” And the virtue is irresistible.
In spite of all these merits, Arnold says that Chaucer is not one of greatest classics. He has not their accent. To strengthen his argument Arnold compares Chaucer with the Italian classic Dante. Arnold says that Chaucer lacks not only the accent of Dante but also the high seriousness.
“Homer’s criticism of life has it, Shakespeare’s has it, Dante’s has it. But Chaucer’s has not.”
Thus in his critical essay The Study of Poetry Matthew Arnold comments not only on the merits of Chaucer’s poetry, but also on the short-comings. He glorifies Chaucer with the remark, “With him is born our real poetry.” According to Matthew Arnold, Chaucer’s criticism of life has “largeness, freedom, shrewdness and benignity”, but it lacks “high seriousness”. The term “high seriousness” which Arnold says marks the works of Homer. Also, Dante and Milton and Wordsworth, apparently employed this “high seriousness” which entails a sustained magnificence of artistic conception and execution accompanied by deep morality and spiritual values.
It must be remembered that Arnold laid a great deal of importance on the “human actions” as the proper subjects of poetry. His contention of “high seriousness” is inevitably bound up with this. His concept of poetry being a “criticism of life” is quite satisfied by Chaucer. Chaucer’s poetry is steeped with life, and yet there is basic sanity and order in his vision which Arnold should not have missed.
The fun and comedy in Chaucer’s writing often blinds one to his basic greatness. His vision is truly Christian in its broad and forgiving tolerance. His vision of the earth ranges from one of amused delight to one of grave compassion. His fresh goodwill and kindly common sense, his sense of joy and warmth are communicated through his poetry especially in The Canterbury Tales. But behind the fun and tolerance there is a sane moral view. Chaucer’s tolerance is not born of moral leniency or from a desire to excuse or mitigate the worldliness of the characters as he saw them. The Monk’s travesty of the cloister in the name of gracious living finds no exoneration from Chaucer, nor is Chaucer appreciative of the wickedness of the Summoner and the Pardoner. His tolerance is based on deep conviction of human frailty, and his medium of looking at it is irony, not inventive.
When we read the pen portraits of the pilgrims, we can see how clearly Chaucer has suggested the values they live by and what they look for. In these values—the chivalry of the Knight, the Monk’s love for hunting, the Doctor’s love of gold, the poor Parson’s holy thought and work, the Clerk’s love for learning and teaching—lies Chaucer’s subtle moral judgment.
When Arnold quotes a line from Chaucer as truly classic, he chooses a line expressive of stoic resignation. “O martir seeded to virginitee” from the Prioress’s tale. Indeed, all the lines quoted by Arnold as “touchstones” have the ring of stoic resignation. Thus, Arnold’s own view seems biased in favor of the obviously solemn and didactic.
In fact, Arnold’s concept of poetry does not seem to include the genre of comedy. The term “high seriousness” has been interpreted to mean seriousness in the more obvious sense. The poet’s criticism of life is not only to be serious, but also seen to be serious. Arnold seems to demand solemn rhetoric. If we interpret “high seriousness” in this light, we can only say that Chaucer’s poetry lacks it, for Chaucer was anything but “solemn”. However, if we consider “high seriousness” in a broader light, Chaucer’s observation of life, his insight into its passions and weaknesses, its virtues and strength is truly great. If we strictly accept Matthew Arnold’s contention, then we will have to deny “high seriousness” to all comic writers, even to Moliere and Cervantes.
On the Age of Dryden:
“The difference between genuine poetry and the poetry of Dryden, Pope, and all their school, is briefly this; their poetry is conceived and composed in their wits, genuine poetry is conceived and composed in the soul.” – Matthew Arnold
John Dryden (1631–1700) was an English poet, literary critic, translator and playwright who was made Poet Laureate in 1668. He is seen as dominating the literary life of Restoration England to such a point that the period came to be known in literary circles as the “Age of Dryden”. Walter Scottish called him “Glorious John”. John Dryden was the greatest English poet of the seventeenth century. After William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, he was the greatest playwright. And he has no peer as a writer of prose, especially literary criticism, and as a translator. John Dryden was an English writer who was the dominant literary figure in Restoration England. Most of his contemporaries based their style of writing on innovations introduced by Dryden in poetry, drama, and literary criticism.
The age of Dryden is regarded as superior to that of the others for “sweetness of poetry”. Arnold asks whether Dryden and Pope, poets of great merit, are truly the poetical classics of the 18th century. He says Dryden's post-script to the readers in his translation of The Aeneid reveals the fact that in prose writing he is even better than Milton and Chapman.
Just as the laxity in religious matters during the Restoration period was a direct outcome of the strict discipline of the Puritans, in the same way in order to control the dangerous sway of imagination found in the poetry of the Metaphysicals, to counteract “the dangerous prevalence of imagination”, the poets of the 18th century introduced certain regulations. The restrictions that were imposed on the poets were “uniformity, regularity, precision, and balance”. These restrictions curbed the growth of poetry, and encouraged the growth of prose.
Hence we can regard Dryden “as the glorious founder, and Pope as the splendid high priest, of the age of prose and reason, our indispensable 18th century.” Their poetry was that of the builders of an age of prose and reason. Arnold says that Pope and Dryden are not poet classics, but the “prose classics” of the 18th century
On Thomas Gray:
“He is the scantiest and frailest of the classics in our poetry, but he is a classic.” – Matthew Arnold
Born in eighteenth-century London, Thomas Gray became one of those few names in English literature that despite a considerably short oeuvre are remembered and celebrated to this date. Often said to have been born in the wrong age and time, Gray led a highly troubled and dissatisfied life, and suffered from frequent bouts of melancholia and depression. But troubled as he was and the little which he wrote, he wrote incredibly well. Mostly remembered for his magnum opus, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, Gray wrote the kind of poetry where substance and form, thought and structure perfectly corroborate each other.
Often the subject of many critical evaluations, Arnold, in his Study of Poetry and in several other commentaries, argue that Thomas Gray, often misunderstood and wrongly judged, belonged to the rare species of writers who never “spoke out”.
“"He never spoke out." In these four words is contained the whole history of Gray, both as a man and as a poet.” ¬– Matthew Arnold
For Arnold, Gray never “spoke out” rather words fell naturally and spontaneously from his pen. During his evaluation of the eighteenth-century, Arnold argues that it was not Dryden and Pope who were the poetical classics representative of their age, rather Gray who could be called the ultimate poetical classic of his century. In another commentary, Arnold enumerates different opinions that critics over time have had about Gray:
“Cowper writes: "I have been reading Gray's works, and think him the only poet since Shakespeare entitled to the character of sublime. Perhaps you will remember that I once had a different opinion of him. I was prejudiced." Adam Smith says: "Gray joins to the sublimity of Milton the elegance and harmony of Pope; and nothing is wanting to render him, perhaps, the first poet in the English language, but to have written a little more." And, to come nearer to our own times, Sir James Mackintosh speaks of Gray thus: "Of all English poets he was the most finished artist. He attained the highest degree of splendor of which poetical style seemed to be capable."”
Another reason for Gray not “speaking out” or writing enough is often said to be due to his being born in the wrong age. Eighteenth-century literature was gradually discovering the genre of prose and its possibilities. The greatest writers that the century produced were prose writers, as Arnold states in his discussion on the age of Dryden. In such an age, Gray, who was a born poet, could not blossom or flower the way he deserved to. Thus, Arnold writes:
“Gray, a born poet, fell upon an age of prose. He fell upon an age whose task was such as to call forth in general men's powers of understanding, wit and cleverness, rather than their deepest powers of mind and soul. As regards literary production, the task of the eighteenth century in England was not the poetic interpretation of the world; its task was to create a plain, clear, straightforward, efficient prose.”
And so:
“Coming when he did and endowed as he was, he was a man born out of date, a man whose full spiritual flowering was impossible.”
But despite the fact that Gray did not enjoy a satisfying and long literary career, he managed to leave the coming generations with a small treasure of some of the finest verse ever written in the English language. For Arnold, Gray remains the most representative poet of the early eighteenth-century before the Romantics. Thomas Gray never “spoke out” because he never had to and because he couldn’t bring himself to. His poetry flowed from him naturally, expectantly and inevitably. Arnold comments:
“Compared, not with the work of the great masters of the golden ages of poetry, but with the poetry of his own contemporaries in general, Gray may be said to have reached, in his style, the excellence at which he aimed.”
Passed away at the age of 54, Gray’s Elegy is the poet’s most loved work, and a poem that could be safely attributed to the poet and to the man himself.

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

On Burns:
Robert Burns, as Douglas Bush and R. H. Super observed, gets a surprising amount of attention in Arnold's discussion of poets in The Study of Poetry. There are three explanations of the prominence of Burns in Arnold's major essay on poetry. Firstly, Arnold is returning to the question that had interested him in exchanges with Clough, the connection between emotion and artistic form. In a letter in which Arnold touched on revolution and the relations between labor and capital, he breaks off abruptly to discuss Burns as an artist. Apparently in reply to Clough, Arnold says, “Burns is certainly an artist implicitly”. The “fiery, reckless energy” of Burns is noted in The Study of Poetry as well as his “sense of the pathos of things”.
Arnold's concern with the admirers of Burns, however, suggests a second explanation, that Arnold is responding to the work of his old friend John Campbell Shairp. Shairp, as the Oxford Professor of Poetry, had given an Oxford lecture on Burns, and in 1879 had published a monograph on Burns; in both, Shairp praised Burns as the Scottish national poet and the poet who celebrated the Scottish peasantry. Arnold's discussion of Burns in The Study of Poetry may be seen as a part of an argument connected with a larger question that had concerned Arnold in all of his criticism: the kind of poetry that was necessary for a democratic age. Shairp had indeed seen Burns as a poet sympathetic to the people and to the cause of democracy and equality. Arnold seizes the chance to talk about Burns because he wants to say, as he does at the end of the essay, that only the best poetry is adequate for a democratic age. Along with the names of Dryden and Pope, Matthew Arnold also mentions the name of Robert Burns. Burns’ English poems are simple to read. But the real Burns is of course in his Scottish poems.
“By his English poetry Burns in general belongs to the 18th century, and has little importance for us. Evidently this is not the real Burns, or his name and fame would have disappeared long ago. Nor in Clarinda’s love-poet, Sylvander, the real Burns either. The real Burns is of course in his Scottish poems. Let us boldly say that of much of this poetry, a poetry dealing perpetually with Scottish drink, Scottish religion and Scottish manners; he has a tenderness for it. Many of his admirers will tell us that we have Burns, convivial, genuine, delightful, here.”
Burns’ “real poems”, according to Arnold, are those that deal with “Scottish way of life, Scottish drinks, Scottish religion and Scottish manners.” A Scottish man may be familiar with such things, but for an outsider these may sound personal. For supreme practical success more is required. In the opinion of Arnold, Burns comes short of the high seriousness of the great classics, and something remains wanting in his poetry.
Leeze me on drink! It gies us mair Than either school or college; It kindles wit, it waukens lair, It pangs us fou’o knowledge Be’t whisky gill or penny wheep Or any stronger potion, It never fails, on drinking deep, To kittle up our notion
According to Arnold, there is an element of bacchanalianism in Burn’s poetry. He refers to many of Burns’ stanzas, and comments:
“There is a great deal of that sort of thing in Burns, and it is unsatisfactory, not because it is bacchanalian poetry, but because it has not that accent of sincerity which bacchanalian poetry, to do it justice, very often has. There is something in it of bravado, something which makes us feel that we have not the man speaking to us with his real voice; as in the famous song For a’ that and a’ that:
A prince can make a belted knight, A marquis, duke, and a’ that; But an honest man’s aboon his might, Guid faith he mauna fa’ that! For a’ that, and a’ that, Their dignities and a’ that, Are higher rank than a’ that.
To sum up Arnold’s views on Burns, Arnold does not see Burns as belonging to the rank of the ultimate classics in English literature, as, once again, Burns’ poetry lacks “high seriousness”. Burn’s poetry is frivolous, bacchanalian and passionate and is devoid of all the merits that characterize classic poetry. But despite his flaws, Burns remains one of those poets in whose work intensity of passion and spirit merge splendidly and whose work astounds as well as please.
Matthew Arnold, one of foremost critic of 19th century, is often regarded as father of modern English criticism. Arnold’s work as a literary critic started with Preface to Poems in 1853. It is a kind of manifesto of his critical creed. It reflects classicism as well his views on grand poetic style. His most famous piece of literary criticism is his essay The Study of Poetry. In this work he talks about poetry’s “high destiny”. He believes “mankind will discover that we have to turn poetry to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us”. Arnold lived in a materialistic world where advancement of science has had led society in a strange darkness. Importance of religion was submerged. People were becoming fact seekers. A gap was being developed and Arnold believed poetry could fill that gap. In his words:
“Our religion has materialized itself in the fact, and the fact is now failing it. But for poetry the idea is everything, the rest is world of illusion, of divine illusion.”
Arnold wrote:
“Without poetry our science will appear incomplete; and most of what now passes with religion and philosophy will be replaced by poetry.”
He had a definite aim in writing poetry. It was the “criticism of life”. By the “criticism of life”, he meant “noble and profound application of ideas of life”. He said poetry should serve a greater purpose instead of becoming a mere medium of gaining pleasure and appreciating beauty. According to him, the best poetry is criticism of life, abiding laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty. By poetic truth he meant representation of life in true way. By poetic beauty he meant manner and style of poetry. He said that a poet should be a man with enormous experience. His intellect should be highly developed by means of enormous reading and deep critical thinking. Arnold said that poetry is an “application of ideas to life”. If the application of ideas is powerful the poetry will become great. He also laid emphasis on the quality of “high seriousness”. It comes with sincerity which the poet feels for his subject. Many critics disagreed with Arnold on this point. T.S. Elliot, a great poet himself, disagreed with this view by saying that Arnold’s view is “frigid to anyone who has felt the full surprise and elevation of new experience in poetry”. Arnold’s classic poets include Dante, Milton, Homer and Shakespeare. He quotes the famous line of Milton:
Nor thy life nor hate; but what thou livest
Live well: how long or short, permit to heaven
Arnold said poetry should deal with ideas not facts. Ideas should be moral. He said morality should not be taken in narrow sense. He said “poetry of revolt against life; a poetry of indifference towards moral idea is a poetry of indifference towards life”.

Using metaphors concerning rivers in what would prove subsequently to be a very influential way; Arnold, furthermore, argued that the “stream of English poetry” is only one “contributory stream to the world river of poetry”. He argued that we should “conceive of poetry worthily, and more highly than it has been the custom”, that is, as “capable of higher uses, and called to higher destinies, than those in general which man has assigned to it hitherto”. He contends that we must “turn to poetry to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us” because, as Wordsworth put it, it is the ‘breath and finer spirit of all knowledge’ as a result of which it is superior to science, philosophy, and religion. To be “capable of fulfilling such high destinies”, however, poetry must be “of a high order of excellence”. In poetry, for this reason, the “distinction between excellent and inferior, sound and unsound or only half-sound, true and untrue or only half-true, is of paramount importance”.
It is in poetry that conveys the “criticism of life”. The criticism of life “will be of power in proportion as the poetry conveying it is excellent, rather than inferior, sound rather than unsound or half-sound, true rather than untrue or half-true”. The “best poetry” is that which has a “power of forming, sustaining, and delighting us, as nothing else can”. Its “most precious benefit” is a “clearer, deeper sense of the best in poetry, and of the strength and joy to be drawn from it”. This sense should “govern our estimate of what we read”. Arnold contrasts this, what he terms the “real estimate”, with two other kinds of estimate, the historic estimate and the personal estimate, which are both “fallacies”. The former calculates a poet’s merit on historical grounds, that is, by “regarding a poet’s work as a stage” in the “course and development of a nation’s language, thought, and poetry”. The latter calculates a poet’s merit on the basis of our “personal affinities, likings and circumstances” which may make us “overrate the object of our interest” because the work in question “is, or has been, of high importance” to us personally.
Arnold’s most important achievement in The Study of Poetry would have to be the establishment of his system of literary criticism—the touchstone method. It is a comparative analysis which entails the valorization of modern texts by comparing them to the works of such greats as Shakespeare, Milton etc. Though criticized by many critics for its rigidity, Arnold’s theory of proper criticism is one of the most important elements in his essay.
After giving an elaborate account of the function and nature of poetry and criticism, Arnold gives a critical account of many of the classics in English literature. He traverses through great names like that of Chaucer, Gray, Dryden, and Burns. About Chaucer, Arnold says that though he is one of the greatest classics of English poetry, he lacks the "high seriousness" that is found in the likes of Shakespeare and Milton. On Dryden, Arnold says that he is one of the finest prose writers of English language and proper prose began from him. Arnold complements Gray and Burns for their great poetry, but again he rejects them as classics as like Chaucer; their poetry lacks the "high seriousness" that must be present in great poetry.
Zarnab Naqvi
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