Arnold study poetry
1. Discuss Mathew Arnold’s views on characteristics of good poetry.
2. “Poetry is the criticism of life, governed by the laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty”: Discuss.
3. “… real estimate, the only true one, is liable to be superseded, if we are not watchful, by two other kinds of estimate, the historic estimate and the personal estimate, both of which are fallacious.” Discuss Arnold’s views of the historic, the Personal, the Real.
4. Elucidate Arnold’s views on good poetry as “the superior character of truth and seriousness, in the matter and substance of the best poetry, is inseparable from the superiority of diction and movement marking its style and manner” with reference his essay The Study of Poetry.
Introduction: Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), the Victorian poet and critic, was 'the first modern critic' , and could be called 'the critic's critic', being a champion not only of great poetry, but of literary criticism itself. The purpose of literary criticism, in his view, was 'to know the best that is known and thought in the world, and by in its turn making this known, to create a current of true and fresh ideas', and he has influenced a whole school of critics including new critics such as T. S. Eliot, F. R. Leavis, and Allen Tate. He was the founder of the sociological school of criticism, and through his touchstone method introduced scientific objectivity to critical evaluation by providing comparison and analysis as the two primary tools of criticism. Arnold's evaluations of the Romantic poets such as Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, and Keats are landmarks in descriptive criticism, and as a poet-critic he occupies an eminent position in the rich galaxy of poet-critics of English literature. T. S. Eliot praised Arnold's objective approach to critical evaluation, particularly his tools of comparison and analysis, and Allen Tate in his essay Tension in Poetry imitates Arnold's touchstone method to discover 'tension', or the proper balance between connotation and denotation, in poetry. These new critics have come a long way from the Romantic approach to poetry, and this change in attitude could be attributed to Arnold, who comes midway between the two schools.
The Future of Poetry
In The Study of Poetry, (1888) which opens his Essays in Criticism: Second series, in support of the future of poetry. He writes, “THE FUTURE of poetry is immense, because in poetry, our race, as time goes on, will find an ever surer and surer stay. There is not a creed which is not shaken. 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 to-day is its unconscious poetry.”
We have to turn to poetry to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us. Without poetry, our science will appear incomplete; and most of what now passes with us for religion and philosophy will be replaced by poetry. Science is incomplete without poetry.
Wordsworth truly calls poetry ‘the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge’; poetry ‘the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all science’
After giving this importance to poetry, he moves ahead to define canon for good poetry. To say in his own words, “But if we conceive thus highly of the destinies of poetry, we must also set our standard for poetry high, since poetry, to be capable of fulfilling such high destinies, must be poetry of a high order of excellence.”
Quoting from an anecdote (Napolean and Sainte-Beuve) he writes, “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”. For Arnold there is no place for charlatanism in poetry. To him “poetry is the criticism of life, governed by the laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty”. It is in the criticism of life that the spirit of our race will find its stay and consolation. The extent to which the spirit of mankind finds its stay and consolation is proportional to the power of a poem's criticism of life, and the power of the criticism of life is in direct proportion to the extent to which the poem is genuine and free from charlatanism.
Thus he is of the view that, “the best poetry is what we want; the best poetry will be found to have a power of forming, sustaining, and delighting us, as nothing else can”.
In this essay he also 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 judgements, historical judgements being fallacious because we regard ancient poets with excessive veneration, and personal judgements being fallacious when we are biased towards a contemporary poet. If a poet is a 'dubious classic, let us sift him; if he is a false classic, let us explode him. But if he is a real classic, if his work belongs to the class of the very best . . . enjoy his work'. He observes: “But this real estimate, the only true one, is liable to be superseded, if we are not watchful, by two other kinds of estimate, the historic estimate and the personal estimate, both of which are fallacious.
Arnold explains these fallacies in detail. He writes, “a poet or a poem may count to us historically, they may count to us on grounds personal to ourselves, and they may count to us really. The course of development of a 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 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 overrate it.
So arises in our poetic judgments the fallacy caused by the estimate which we may call historic.” He quotes words of M.Charles, editor of magazine, to prove his point. M.Charles wrote, ‘the cloud of glory playing round a classic is a mist as dangerous to the future of a literature as it is intolerable for the purposes of history’. 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.'
He further writes, “then, again, a poet or poem may count to us on grounds personal to ourselves. Our personal affinities, likings and circumstances, have great power to sway our estimate of this or that poet’s work, and to make us attach more importance to it as poetry than in itself it really possesses, because to us it is, or has been, of high importance. Here also we overrate the object of our interest, and apply to it a language of praise which is quite exaggerated. And thus we get the source of a second fallacy in our poetic judgments—the fallacy caused by an estimate which we may call personal”.
So to judge a good poetry wherein our estimate is not affected by fallacies, we should look for following attributes in the poetry:
1. The matter and substance of the poetry, and its manner and style. Both of these, the substance and matter on the one hand, the style and manner on the other, have a mark, an accent, of high beauty, worth, and power.
2. Only one thing we may add as to the substance and matter of poetry, guiding ourselves by Aristotle’s profound observation that the superiority of poetry over history consists in its possessing a higher truth and a higher seriousness . Let us add, therefore, to what we have said, this: that the substances and matter of the best poetry acquire their special character from possessing, in an eminent degree, truth and seriousness.
Thus, the superior character of truth and seriousness, in the matter and substance of the best poetry, is inseparable from the superiority of diction and movement marking its style and manner.
So, a poet’s criticism of life may have such truth and power that it triumphs over its world and delights us.
Later in the essay he adds, for supreme poetical success more is required than the powerful application of ideas to life; it must be an application under the conditions fixed by the laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty. Those laws fix as an essential condition, in the poet’s treatment of such matters as are here in question, high seriousness;—the high seriousness which comes from absolute sincerity.