The Study of Poetry by Matthew Arnold (1822-1888)
Published date: In the 1880s, the essay was first published as the general introduction to the anthology “The English Poets” edited by T. H. Ward. The second series of the essay “Essays on Criticism”, the essay was published in 1888.
The essay is divided into two parts:
- The First part is about the nature and function of poetry.
- The second part is about the Evaluation of English poets from Chaucer onwards.
The Study of Poetry Summary and Analysis:
Arnold started his essay with a declaration that the future of poetry is extensive since religion has been materialistic and corrupted. With the passage of time, people will understand that poetry will satisfy them and give them shelter in times of crisis. Besides poetry explains life properly. Without poetry, Science will be incomplete because poetry is the soul of all branches of knowledge. Arnold expresses logic by referring to William Wordsworth that basically poetry is the spirit of all branches of knowledge.
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Arnold claims that all branches of knowledge have been charlatans. Theology is a charlatan because people have doubts about the doctrines of theology so there is a conflict between religion and science. Philosophy is also a charlatan because philosophy is unable to answer all questions. Arnold does not directly declare that politics is charlatan but he labels politics as the art of governing mankind, not the best art of governing mankind.
Arnold then asserts that poetry cannot maintain its high status without upholding three basic rules.
- There must have criticism of life in poetry
- A poet must follow the rule of poetic truth and beauty to write poetry.
- And maintenance of grand style.
Here in this essay, Arnold wants to say that by reading poetry, the audience can identify their mistakes for correction and they must apply the powerful ideas they get from reading poetry. By the term poetic truth, Arnold is similar to Aristotle who defines poetic truth as “Poetic truth how something should happen or will happen”. This definition of poetic truth ensures that poets never lie which means that charlatanism has no place in poetry and that the message of the poem will be passed down from generation to generation.
In Grand Style, Arnold gives us a guideline that a poet should adhere to meter and figurative language in order to compose poetry that gives pleasure to the readers while reading the poem.
Now Arnold speaks of judging poetry with the aim of fixing classic and non-classic poets through his inventive and scientific touchstone method. For the correct judgment of the poet, Arnold provides guidance based on three assumptions.
i. Real estimate
ii. Personal estimate and
iii. Historical estimate
Personal estimate of a piece of poetry means giving importance to a poet because of personal affinities and likings. It is usually done in the cases of contemporary poets. It leads to wrong judgment as the reader is blinded by his personal attachment.
The historical estimate or judgment is made from the point of view of the poet’s importance in the course of literary history. The historical importance may make us rate the work as higher than it really deserves.
The real estimate is made by the reader without being influenced in any other way. He should judge the work by its inherent qualities. If it belongs to the genuine work of poetry, he should place it as the best.
Arnold believes in the real estimate for the judgment of poetry properly and completely because the real estimate of poetic evaluation focuses on the criticism of life and the high seriousness of poetry. Personal and historical estimates without the presence of real estimates create overrate and exaggeration.
Then Arnold judges all the poets of English literature from Chaucer onwards whether they are classic or not. He emphasizes that a single line of poets can make them classic if there is criticism of life and high seriousness which means grand style.
According to him, Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and Milton are classical poets because their poetry bears the universal criticism of life and high seriousness. But it is a matter of sorrow is that Chaucer is called a non-classic poet though Arnold provides a long and praiseworthy evaluation of Chaucer as the father of English poetry and having liquid diction like Milton, Keats, Wordsworth, and Byron. Chaucer’s poetry does not bear high seriousness or grand style.
Arnold calls John Dryden and Alexander Pope non-classic poets. According to him, Dryden is considered to be the puissant and glorious founder of prose writing and Pope is the priest of prose composition. Overall, they are the classic of prose, not poetry.
Arnold presents in his essay that the complete modernism of English literature began in the Romantic period of English literature. Therefore, the romantics have been called the first modern poets. All the romantics except Shelley have been considered to be classic poets because of Arnold’s less possession of lyricism.
Real Burns is an influential Scottish poet who is evaluated like Chaucer. Finally, Arnold claims that readers who can apply the touchstone method properly can read classical poems.
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