Classical CriticismMathew Arnold

Analysis of “The Study of Poetry” by Matthew Arnold

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Matthew Arnold, the great poet-critic, was born at Laleham in Middlesex’s country on 24th December 1822. Arnold was the eldest son of his father, Dr. Arnold, the legendary schoolmaster and curator of the modern type of Public School. His mother, Mary Penrose, his mother, was also an intellectual person and a remarkable character lady.

Though one cannot say that Arnold as a poet was extraordinary or outstanding, he was a good representative of the age to which he belonged. His poems were mainly published between 1849 to 1867. His most anthologized poems are Sohrab and Rustom, Scholar Gipsy, Thyrsis, and Dover Beach.

While studying his works, one cannot miss his fastidiousness as a propagator of culture and missionary, paving the way for a more orderly society. His Culture and Anarchy and Friendship’s Garland reveal the tone of high intellectual sowing, the seeds for a new social culture. He was described as ‘Mr. Kid Glove Cocksure’ by Robert Bridges and Levis called him “Elegant Jeremiah.”

Arnold has a place of pride. He has a knack for making even the most controversial statements sound axiomatic. He chooses apt quotations, and his criticism is marked with flexibility and sanity. Criticism was a tool for promoting and conserving culture in the Victorian world. He saw that as a critic, he had to popularize and propagate noble ideas. However, his uniqueness in his critical works like culture and work was his “Preface to poems”.

Analysis of Arnold’s Essay “The Study of Poetry”

The Study of Poetry is a central critical text of the Post-Victorian era. It was published nearly twenty-five years after Arnold’s famous Preface to his poems. Perhaps the most acceptable writing method for the essay is, to begin with, the beginning of his famous essay.

“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 and even surer. No creed is not shaken, nor an accredited dogma that is not shown to be questionable, nor a received tradition that does not threaten to dissolve. Our religion has materialized itself; in the supposed fact, it has attached its emotions to the fact, and now the fact is as it is. 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 a fact.”

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The short paragraph’s tone refers to Arnold’s creed of liberalism and his stand-in literary criticism, and the importance of poetry itself. The “strongest part of our religion is its unconscious poetry.” Many critics have called this essay Arnold’s manifesto for his poetry and all that he did as a writer and critic. The first part of the essay deals with the importance of poetry and the significance he wants his readers to accord to poetry. The second part deals with a sort of a typically Arnoldian survey of British poetry Chaucer to Burns.

Arnold has immense faith in the feature of poetry. In a world where philosophy has become abstract dry and religion too materialistic, humankind’s only hope is an according to Arnold’s in poetry. Poetry says Arnold contains the most vital part of our faith, and our religion’s kernel is in its “unconscious poetry.” No more elaboration is needed for his definition of poetry to illustrate which; Arnold borrows Wordsworth’s statements. For Wordsworth, poetry is “The impassioned expression in the countenance of all science,” and Arnold approvingly recalls Wordsworth, who calls poetry the breath and more delicate spirit of all knowledge. In an age where faith in creeds was rudely shattered, Arnold had to accept poetry as the last refuge.

The next significant idea in this essay is his definition of poetry as “criticism of life” Arnold says,

“And the criticism of life will be powerful in proportion as the poetry conveying it is excellent rather than inferior, sound rather than unsound or half-sound, true than untrue or half-true.”

Some critics disagree with others who call this Arnold’s definition of poetry. They insist on calling it his indication of the function that poetry can and ought to discharge. The other related idea is his call for high standards of excellence in judging poetry.

Arnold warns his readers not to be victimized by personal estimates or historical estimates to arrive at critical conclusions. He warns critics against falling prey to tendencies where the role played by a writer in the history of the development of language and poetry of a nation weighs a great deal in rating the quality of his poetry. If one ignores the historical estimate, one can overcome the fallacy of glorifying one work or under-rating it for non-literary and non-critical reasons. Then Arnold says that a “dubious classic” must be ‘sifted,’ or ‘exploded’ and a genuine classic must be appreciated for its high character based on what he calls the “real estimate.” Arnold says,“….if he is a real classic, if his work belongs to the very best class, then the great thing for us is to feel and enjoy his work as deeply as ever. We can, and to appreciate the wide difference between it and all work which has not the same high character.” To arrive at the actual estimate, Arnold suggests comparison as a tool of criticism. The best and the most delicate lines of a classic are used as a touchstone to see whether they work in front of a critical measure or not. That is, “to take specimens of the poetry of the high, the very highest quality, and to say; the characters of high-quality poetry are what is expressed there.” and to look them in the work of an author before passing our judgment.

In the second part, we find Arnold’s survey of English poetry in which he begins with his praise of Chaucer’s excellence in poetry. “Chaucer’s poetry has the truth of substance, and it is a high criticism of life because in it we get a sizeable free sound representation of things.” But, says Arnold, his poetry “lacks high seriousness of the great classics.” Then Arnold gives him credit for style and manner and states.

“With him was born our real poetry.” Writing about the Elizabethan age and Milton, he says that opinion is unanimous regarding Shakespeare and Milton’s high quality of poetry. He declares, “The real estimate, here has universal currency.” Later in the age of Augustans, in an extended discussion of Dryden and Pope, Arnold concludes that they are admirable for purposes of “inaugurators of our age.” Asserts that neither Pope’s verse nor Dryden’s has high seriousness, and they are classics of English prose.

Here again, he stumbles with his criteria for evaluation when he elevates Gray and accords him a place of honor and calls his poetry ‘classic’ though he qualifies his statement. “He is the scantiest and faintest of classics in our poetry, but he is a classic.” Writing about Burns, he laments that though in Burn’s poetry, there is an application “of ideas of life.” His poetry still falls short of the high seriousness of classics. Coming to the poetry of Major romantic poets, he says that contemporaries are bound to come up with personal estimates “with passion.” After an extraordinary claim for the touchstone method as a decisive parameter for evaluating poetry and applying it, on some British poets from Chaucer to Burns, he concludes, hoping that this method will go a long way in evaluating works’ appreciation.

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