Theory or definition of poetry by Matthew Arnold

Theory or definition of poetry by Matthew Arnold

Question: Discuss poetry is the criticism of life.

Or, evaluate Arnold’s theory or definition of poetry.


One of the most prestigious forms of writing is poetry. It is an art that is embedded in the soul and spirit of the people. The ‘first modern critic’ Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) shows a high conception of poetry. He asserts that the best poetry is the “criticism of life by the laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty”.

Arnold’s concept of poetry

According to Matthew Arnold, “poetry is simply the most delightful and perfect form of utterance that human words can reach; it is a criticism of life under the conditions fixed for such a criticism by the laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty”.

The “Criticism of Life”

The phrase “Criticism of life” means proper interpretation of life. Poetry accurately explains life. Here we discover and analyze how poetry is the criticism of life.

Integrity between poetry and human life

Arnold defines poetry as a critique of life. To put it differently, poetry must concern itself with life and the problems of life. The idea, the subject matter, and the theme of poetry should be relevant to people’s lives. It should not be remote in a way that does not directly connect to our lives. The phrase “criticism of life” is further explained by Arnold as a “noble and profound application of ideas.” The greatness of a poet lies in his powerful and beautiful application of ideas to life. Here we can cite from “The Scholar Gipsy”:

“Still nursing the unconquerable hope,

Still clutching the inviolable shade,

With a free, onward impulse brushing through,”

Source of ingredients of life

By the phrase “Criticism of Life” Arnold means to say that the readers can identify their faults and mistakes for the purpose of rectification by going through poems. They must apply the powerful ideas which they pick up through reading poetry. Matthew Arnold’s poems such as “Dover Beach, The Scholar Gipsy, Thyrsis, To Marguerite, Resignation and A Southern Night” are packed with the “Criticism of Life” to a great extent. In a nutshell, poetry is the catalyst for the readers.

“Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! for the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,”

The profound idea makes us aware of the mystery of the world and teaches us how to be happy in this materialistic world.

The ways of the leading life

Arnold claims that poetry teaches us how to lead life since it is filled with moral ideas. By emphasizing the moral system, Arnold does not mean the composing of moral or didactic poems. Rather, according to Arnold, it is the question of how to live and whatever comes under it, that is moral. Arnold says in the poem “Thyrsis”:

“Let in thy voice a whisper often come,

To chase fatigue and fear:”

In these lines, the moral idea is easily perceived. It teaches us to lead a life with full force whatever situation prevails in our life must be made the best of times not the worst of times.

Click here: for all the notes of poetry

Shelter and consolation in crisis

According to Arnold, poetry has high destinations as a criticism of life. His claim is that poetry is superior to philosophy, science, and religion. Therefore, Arnold is of the view that poetry can be our sustenance. The best poetry has the power to create, sustain, and delight us that nothing else can. Over time, mankind will discover that they have to go back to poetry to interpret their lives and to comfort and sustain themselves because science, religion, and philosophy will eventually prove to be fragile and unstable.


To sum up, we can say that poetry is the criticism of life. It is the responsibility of the reviewer to examine both poetry and life at the same time. Arnold performs his duty as a father of modern criticism, although his theory of poetry has extended the hornet’s nest or numerous reactions.

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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