Question: Discuss Matthew Arnold as a critic with reference to “The Study of Poetry”.


Matthew Arnold was a Victorian poet and critic. He is considered to be the first modern critic and could be called the critic of critics because he became not only the champion of great poetry but also of literary criticism. As a critic, he talks about social issues, science, religion, and education. He was the first to pose questions in industrial Victorian society.

Influential critic

According to Matthew Arnold, the purpose of literary criticism is to know the best that is known and thought in the world and to generate a flow of genuine and fresh ideas that is why he has been able to influence the whole school of critics including T. S. Eliot and Allen Tate.

Founder of sociological school of criticism

The sociological school of criticism was founded by Matthew Arnold. His touchstone method introduced scientific objectivity to critical evaluation by providing comparison and analysis as the two primary tools of criticism. His touchstone method and objective approach to critical evaluation have been praised by Allen Tate and T. S. Eliot.

A critical view on the social role of poetry

As a critic, Arnold has presented the social role of poetry. He thinks a critic is a social benefactor. He asserts that a creative artist would cut the sorry figure and should only care for the beauties and defects of literary works. As cultural and social values are synonymous with Arnold, he suggests that a poet should be very careful while he writes poetry because cultural values give us principles and the best poems should be selected and made known by the principles. Besides, poetry is a criticism of life. In the seminal essay “The Study of Poetry”, 1888, he claims the elevated status of poetry that is that poetry is superior to philosophy, religion, science, and politics. He also claims that poetry can alone be our sustenance and succor. Thus, he calls poetry the breath and finer spirit of knowledge.

Moral critic

Arnold as a critic is essentially a moralist and he has very definite ideas about what poetry should and should not be. He says that poetry of revolt against moral ideas is a poetry of revolt against life and poetry of indifference to moral ideas is a poetry of indifference to life. He believes ‘high seriousness is impossible if poetry is devoid of moral ideas and replete with charlatanism. He mentions Aristotle’s reference “poetry is superior to history” as poetry bears high seriousness and truth. So, the field of poetry should be free from charlatanism and packed up with moral ideas.

Evaluator of classical values

In his essay “The Study of Poetry”, Arnold returns to the classical values. He believes that a modern writer should be aware that contemporary literature is built on the foundation of the past. He evaluates and judges the English poets from Chaucer to onwards, ancient Greek poet Homer, Latin poet Dante, southern and northern French poets, and Scottish poet Burns so that he can ensure the classical values of poetry because poetry has antiquity and universality that has been proved by Sir Philip Sidney in the essay “An Apology for Poetry”. He censors, by applying the scientific touchstone method, the poets like Chaucer, Dryden, Pope, Burns, and Shelley because of lacking high seriousness but on the other hand, he praises Dante, Milton, Gray, and Wordsworth because of their proper interpretation of life.

Arnold’s limitation as a critic

Though Arnold is given the title of the father of modern literary criticism, he has a number of limitations too. His first and foremost limitation is that he has even shown the significance of Keats’ sentimental letters to Fenny Browne. He is not a critic but a satirical critic and he has provided decisions too quickly. He can not see and even realize the beauty and significance of lyricism or lyrical poems due to his blindness and adoration of classicism. His lack of historical sense is another failing and his touchstone method is not out and out perfect.


From the light of the above discussion, it can be said that Arnold has fixed his position in the rich galaxy of English critic-poet particularly for his “The Study of Poetry”. The critics like T. S. Eliot have been influenced by him too and Scott James has compared him to Aristotle in spite of having criticism.

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Ruhul Huda
Ruhul Huda

You can call me Mr. Huda. I am a researcher and doing this work for years. I like to learn everywhere. So, feel free to share your experience with me.

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