Question: Discuss the Touchstone Method. Or, discuss the merits and demerits of the “Touchstone Method”.


Matthew Arnold  (1822-1888) was the critic and poet of the Victorian Period. He is considered to be the father of Modern Criticism. The method which is advocated by Arnold is known as the touch-stone method. According to Arnold, the term touchstone must be applicable for the purpose of judging and evaluating the standard of poets’ literary works whether they are classic or not. This method is recognized as the masterpiece of the critical essay “The Study of Poetry” (1880).

The scientific process of evaluation

Aristotle assigns excellent and high seriousness as one of the grand virtues of poetry. Here in the essay “The Study of Poetry”, Arnold has cited some lines of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and Milton as touchstones for testing the high poetic quality. As the “Touchstone Method” introduces a scientific process for critical evaluation and judgment of individual poets, Chaucer, Dryden, Pope and Shelley fail to be the best poet or classic because they have lack ‘high seriousness’. Even Shakespeare thinks too much for expression and little conception that is a slight flaw of Shakespeare but he is classic in accordance with Arnold. Actually, Arnold means to say that Chaucer, Dryden, Pope, and Shelley are geniuses but not classic.

The yardstick of finding ideal poets

As a result of the application of this method in his essay, the critic finds his ideal poets too. Homer and Sophocles are his ideal poets of ancient times. Dante and Milton have also been classics and he finds Goethe and Wordsworth as an ideal among the modernists. Arnold gives Wordsworth high rank not for his poetry but for his “Criticism of Life”.

The method of evaluation, not the rejection

Arnold asserts that in order to judge a poet’s work properly a critic should compare it, poet’s literary work, to the passages of the classics. If the work has high seriousness or criticism of life, it will be recognized as a classical piece of writing and the poet must be included in the line of the classics. But it is also remembered that the literary work will not be rejected completely as we can not reject Dryden, pope, and Shelley. To prove Arnold’s touchstone method, few lines can be cited:

From Milton’s “Paradise Lost: Book-1”:

“And courage never to submit or yield

And what is else not to be overcome………..”

According to Arnold if we tact these few lines, they are enough even to save us from a fallacious estimate of poetry and to conduct us to real estimate.

Categorization of the poets

Arnold surveys the entire track of English poetry by comparing the passages of Homer and Shakespeare and divides the poets into sundry categories of the good and great and not so good and so great. We can summarize Arnold’s view that is recommended for the critic by him in the following sentences:

“It is important, therefore, to hold fast to this: that is at bottom a criticism of life: that a greatness of a poet lies in his powerful and beautiful application of ideas to life, and to the question, how to live.”

Criticism or demerits

The touch-stone method introduced and proved by Matthew Arnold is neither very safe nor very sane. There are a number of disagreements as to the method. According to the critics, this comparative method is not perfect to determine the proper estimate of poetry because the personal and historical estimates are neglected in the method. Besides contemporary presentation of poetic writing is also neglected by the touch-stone method. According to Van Doren, most of the touch-stone of Arnold deals with pain and sad memories.


To sum up, it is asserted that “Touchstone Method” is a landmark in the history of English Literature as it makes the poet thoughtful about the far-reaching effects of poetry, and as a result of this method the acceptance of poetry has been enhanced to the readers.

Click here: For all the notes of Literary Criticism

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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