The Study of Poety: Mathew Arnold
The criticism in the Victorian Era:
1. Art and Morality: Art for Life’s sake
a. Carlyle and Ruskin: Moral view point should be the benchmark to judge the work of literature. Art should be for the betterment of life.
2. Art and Aesthetic pleasure: art for Art’s sake
a. Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde: Aesthetic and artistic delight should be the benchmark to judge the work of literature: Art should be for delight and pleasure of mankind.
3. Golden Mean: Mathew Arnold (1822-1888),:
a. His ‘Essays in Criticism’ (1865-1888): A series of Lectures, he delivered as professor of poetry. The first place among Arnold’s prose works must be given to it, which raised the author to the front rank of living critics. His fundamental idea of criticism appeals to us strongly. The business of criticism, he says, is neither to find fault nor to display the critic’s own learning or influence; it is to know ‘the best which has been thought and said in the world’ and by using this knowledge to create a current of fresh and free thought. (W.J.Long). ‘The Study of Poetry’ is among the best essays in criticism.
b. The Study of poetry: The first essay in the 1888 volume was originally published as the general introduction to T.H. Ward’s anthology, The English Poets (1880). It contains many of the ideas for which Arnold is best remembered.
c. His classicism: He did not like the spasmodic expression of Romanticism. He advocated discipline in writing and recommended the classical writers.
d. As a prose writer the cold intellectual quality, which mars his poetry by restraining romantic feeling, is of first importance, since it leads him to approach literature with an open mind and with the single desire to find ‘the best which has been thought and said in the world’. W.J.Long: “We cannot speak with confidence of his rank in literature; but by his crystal-clear style, his scientific spirit of inquiry and comparison, illumined here and there by the play of humour, and especially by his broad sympathy and intellectual culture, he seems destined to occupy a very high place among the masters of literary criticism.”
e. Literary Criticism is, as Matthew Arnold points out, a "disinterested endeavor to learn and propagate" the best that is known and thought in the world. And he strove hard to fulfill this aim in his critical writings.
f. The first great principle of criticism enunciated by Arnold is that of disinterestedness or detachment. Disinterestedness on the part of the critic implies freedom from all prejudices, personal or historical.
g. Attaching paramount importance to poetry in his essay "The Study of Poetry", he regards the poet as seer. Without poetry, science is incomplete, and much of religion and philosophy would in future be replaced by poetry. Such, in his estimate, are the high destinies of poetry.
h. Arnold asserts that literature, and especially poetry, is "Criticism of Life". In poetry, this criticism of life must conform to the laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty. Truth and seriousness of matter, felicity and perfection of diction and manner, as are exhibited in the best poets, are what constitutes a criticism of life.
i. Poetry, says Arnold, interprets life in two ways: "Poetry is interpretative by having natural magic in it, and moral profundity". And to achieve this the poet must aim at high and excellent seriousness in all that he writes. This demand has two essential qualities. The first is the choice of excellent actions. The poet must choose those which most powerfully appeal to the great primary human feelings which subsist permanently in the race. The second essential is what Arnold calls the Grand Style - the perfection of form, choice of words, drawing its force directly from the matter which it conveys.
j. This, then, is Arnold's conception of the nature and mission of true poetry. And by his general principles - the" Touchstone Method" - introduced scientific objectivity to critical evaluation by providing comparison and analysis as the two primary tools for judging individual poets. Thus, Chaucer, Dryden, Pope, and Shelley fall short of the best, because they lack "high seriousness". Arnold's ideal poets are Homer and Sophocles in the ancient world, Dante and Milton, and among moderns, Goethe and Wordsworth. Arnold puts Wordsworth in the front rank not for his poetry but for his "criticism of life".
k. Arnold while giving his touchstone method makes reader aware about the fallacy in judgment. He is of the view that historical fallacy and personal fallacy mars the real estimate of poetry. While expressing his views of the historic, the Personal, the Real he writes that ‘… in reading poetry, a sense for the best, the really excellent, and of the strength and joy to be drawn from it, should be present in our minds and should govern our estimate of what we read. 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’.
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Write notes on:
Write notes on:
1. Mathew Arnold’s touchstone method
2. Arnold’s views of Chaucer as a poet.
3. Arnold’s views on the age of Dryden and Pope
4. Arnold’s views on Robert Burns as a poet
5. Arnold as a critic: (His limitations and legacies)
The Touchstone Method:
The Study of Poetry: a shift in position - the Touchstone Method
He (also) condemns the French critic Vitet, who had eloquent words of praise for the epic poem Chanson de Roland by Turoldus, (which was sung by a jester, Taillefer, in William the Conqueror's army), saying that it was superior to Homer's Iliad. Arnold's view is that this poem can never be compared to Homer's work, and that we only have to compare the description of dying Roland to Helen's words about her wounded brothers Pollux and Castor and its inferiority will be clearly revealed.
Arnold's criticism of Vitet above illustrates his 'touchstone method'; his theory that in order to judge a poet's work properly, a critic should compare it to passages taken from works of great masters of poetry, and that these passages should be applied as touchstones to other poetry. Even a single line or selected quotation will serve the purpose.
From this we see that he has shifted his position from that expressed in the preface to his Poems of 1853. In The Study of Poetry he no longer uses the acid test of action and architectonics. He became an advocate of 'touchstones'. 'Short passages even single lines,' he said, 'will serve our turn quite sufficiently'.
Some of Arnold's touchstone passages are: Helen's words about her wounded brother, Zeus addressing the horses of Peleus, suppliant Achilles' words to Priam, and from Dante; Ugolino's brave words, and Beatrice's loving words to Virgil.
From non-Classical writers he selects from Henry IV Part II (III, i), Henry's expostulation with sleep - 'Wilt thou upon the high and giddy mast . . . '. From Hamlet (V, ii) 'Absent thee from felicity awhile . . . '. From Milton's Paradise Lost Book 1, 'Care sat on his faded cheek . . .', and 'What is else not to be overcome . . '
The Study of Poetry: on Chaucer: The French Romance poetry of the 13th century langue d'oc and langue d'oil was extremely popular in Europe and Italy, but soon lost its popularity and now it is important only in terms of historical study. But Chaucer, who was nourished by the romance poetry of the French, and influenced by the Italian Royal rhyme stanza, still holds enduring fascination. There is an excellence of style and subject in his poetry, which is the quality the French poetry lacks. Dryden says of Chaucer's Prologue 'Here is God's plenty!' and that 'he is a perpetual fountain of good sense'. There is largeness, benignity, freedom and spontaneity in Chaucer's writings. 'He is the well of English undefiled'. He has divine fluidity of movement, divine liquidness of diction. He has created an epoch and founded a tradition.
Some say that the fluidity of Chaucer's verse is due to license in the use of the language, a liberty which Burns enjoyed much later. But Arnold says that the excellence of Chaucer's poetry is due to his sheer poetic talent. This liberty in the use of language was enjoyed by many poets, but we do not find the same kind of fluidity in others. Only in Shakespeare and Keats do we find the same kind of fluidity, though they wrote without the same liberty in the use of language.
Arnold praises Chaucer's excellent style and manner, but says that Chaucer cannot be called a classic since, unlike Homer, Virgil and Shakespeare, his poetry does not have the high poetic seriousness which Aristotle regards as a mark of its superiority over the other arts.
On the Age of Dryden and Pope:
The Study of Poetry: on the age of Dryden and Pope
The age of Dryden is regarded as superior to that of the others for 'sweetness of poetry'. Arnold asks whether Dryden and Pope, poets of great merit, are truly the poetical classics of the 18th century. He says Dryden's post-script to the readers in his translation of The Aeneid reveals the fact that in prose writing he is even better than Milton and Chapman.
Just as the laxity in religious matters during the Restoration period was a direct outcome of the strict discipline of the Puritans, in the same way in order to control the dangerous sway of imagination found in the poetry of the Metaphysicals, to counteract 'the dangerous prevalence of imagination', the poets of the 18th century introduced certain regulations. The restrictions that were imposed on the poets were uniformity, regularity, precision, and balance. These restrictions curbed the growth of poetry, and encouraged the growth of prose.
Hence we can regard Dryden as the glorious founder, and Pope as the splendid high priest, of the age of prose and reason, our indispensable 18th century. Their poetry was that of the builders of an age of prose and reason. Arnold says that Pope and Dryden are not poet classics, but the 'prose classics' of the 18th century.
As for poetry, he considers Gray to be the only classic of the 18th century. Gray constantly studied and enjoyed Greek poetry and thus inherited their poetic point of view and their application of poetry to life. But he is the 'scantiest, frailest classic' since his output was small.
The Study of Poetry: on Burns
Although Burns lived close to the 19th century his poetry breathes the spirit of 18th Century life. Burns is most at home in his native language. His poems deal with Scottish dress, Scottish manner, and Scottish religion. This Scottish world is not a beautiful one, and it is an advantage if a poet deals with a beautiful world. But Burns shines whenever he triumphs over his sordid, repulsive and dull world with his poetry.
Perhaps we find the true Burns only in his bacchanalian poetry, though occasionally his bacchanalian attitude was affected. For example in his Holy Fair, the lines 'Leeze me on drink! it gies us mair/ Than either school or college', may represent the bacchanalian attitude, but they are not truly bacchanalian in spirit. There is something insincere about it, smacking of bravado.
When Burns moralises in some of his poems it also sounds insincere, coming from a man who disregarded morality in actual life. And sometimes his pathos is intolerable, as in Auld Lang Syne.
We see the real Burns (wherein he is unsurpassable) in lines such as, 'To make a happy fire-side clime/ to weans and wife/ That's the true pathos and sublime/ Of human life' (Ae Fond Kiss). Here we see the genius of Burns.
But, like Chaucer, Burns lacks high poetic seriousness, though his poems have poetic truth in diction and movement. Sometimes his poems are profound and heart-rending, such as in the lines, 'Had we never loved sae kindly/ had we never loved sae blindly/ never met or never parted/ we had ne'er been broken-hearted'.
Also like Chaucer, Burns possesses largeness, benignity, freedom and spontaneity. But instead of Chaucer's fluidity, we find in Burns a springing bounding energy. Chaucer's benignity deepens in Burns into a sense of sympathy for both human as well as non-human things, but Chaucer's world is richer and fairer than that of Burns.
Sometimes Burns's poetic genius is unmatched by anyone. He is even better than Goethe at times and he is unrivalled by anyone except Shakespeare. He has written excellent poems such as Tam O'Shanter, Whistle and I'll come to you my Lad, and Auld Lang Syne.
When we compare Shelley's 'Pinnacled dim in the of intense inane' (Prometheus Unbound III, iv) with Burns's, 'They flatter, she says, to deceive me' (Tam Glen), the latter is salutary.
Arnold on Shakespeare
Praising Shakespeare, Arnold says 'In England there needs a miracle of genius like Shakespeare's to produce a balance of mind'. This is praise tempered by a critical sense. In a letter he writes. 'I keep saying Shakespeare, you are as obscure as life is'.
In his sonnet On Shakespeare he says;
Others abide our question. Thou art free.
We ask and ask—Thou smilest and art still,
Out-topping knowledge. For the loftiest hill,
Who to the stars uncrowns his majesty,
Planting his steadfast footsteps in the sea,
Making the heaven of heavens his dwelling-place,
Spares but the cloudy border of his base
To the foil'd searching of mortality;
And thou, who didst the stars and sunbeams know,
Self-school'd, self-scann'd, self-honour'd, self-secure,
Didst tread on earth unguess'd at.—Better so!
All pains the immortal spirit must endure,
All weakness which impairs, all griefs which bow,
Find their sole speech in that victorious brow.
For all his championing of disinterestedness, Arnold was unable to practice disinterestedness in all his essays. In his essay on Shelley particularly he displayed a lamentable lack of disinterestedness. Shelley's moral views were too much for the Victorian Arnold. In his essay on Keats too Arnold failed to be disinterested. The sentimental letters of Keats to Fanny Brawne were too much for him.
Arnold sometimes became a satirist, and as a satirical critic saw things too quickly, too summarily. In spite of their charm, the essays are characterised by egotism and, as Tilotson says, 'the attention is directed, not on his object but on himself and his objects together'.
Arnold makes clear his disapproval of the vagaries of some of the Romantic poets. Perhaps he would have agreed with Goethe, who saw Romanticism as disease and Classicism as health. But Arnold occasionally looked at things with jaundiced eyes, and he overlooked the positive features of Romanticism which posterity will not willingly let die, such as its humanitarianism, love of nature, love of childhood, a sense of mysticism, faith in man with all his imperfections, and faith in man's unconquerable mind.
Arnold's inordinate love of classicism made him blind to the beauty of lyricism. He ignored the importance of lyrical poems, which are subjective and which express the sentiments and the personality of the poet. Judged by Arnold's standards, a large number of poets both ancient and modern are dismissed because they sang with 'Profuse strains of unpremeditated art'.
It was also unfair of Arnold to compare the classical works in which figure the classical quartet, namely Achilles, Prometheus, Clytemnestra and Dido with Heamann and Dorothea, Childe Harold, Jocelyn, and 'The Excursion'. Even the strongest advocates of Arnold would agree that it is not always profitable for poets to draw upon the past. Literature expresses the zeitgeist, the spirit of the contemporary age. Writers must choose subjects from the world of their own experience. What is ancient Greece to many of us? Historians and archaeologists are familiar with it, but the common readers delight justifiably in modern themes. To be in the company of Achilles, Prometheus, Clytemnestra and Dido is not always a pleasant experience. What a reader wants is variety, which classical mythology with all its tradition and richness cannot provide. An excessive fondness for Greek and Latin classics produces a literary diet without variety, while modern poetry and drama have branched out in innumerable directions.
As we have seen, as a classicist Arnold upheld the supreme importance of the architectonic faculty, then later shifted his ground. In the lectures On Translating Homer, On the Study of Celtic Literature, and The Study of Poetry, he himself tested the greatness of poetry by single lines. Arnold the classicist presumably realised towards the end of his life that classicism was not the last word in literature.
Arnold's lack of historic sense was another major failing. While he spoke authoritatively on his own century, he was sometimes groping in the dark in his assessment of earlier centuries. He used to speak at times as if ex cathedra(with authority), and this pontifical (pompous) solemnity vitiated his criticism.
As we have seen, later critics praise Arnold, but it is only a qualified praise. Oliver Elton calls him a 'bad great critic'. T. S. Eliot said that Arnold is a 'Propagandist and not a creator of ideas'. According to Walter Raleigh, Arnold's method is like that of a man who took a brick to the market to give the buyers an impression of the building.
In spite of his faults, Arnold's position as an eminent critic is secure. Douglas Bush says that the breadth and depth of Arnold's influence cannot be measured or even guessed at because, from his own time onward, so much of his thought and outlook became part of the general educated consciousness. He was one of those critics who, as Eliot said, arrive from time to time to set the literary house in order. Eliot named Dryden, Johnson and Arnold as some of the greatest critics of the English language.
Arnold united active independent insight with the authority of the humanistic tradition. He carried on, in his more sophisticated way, the Renaissance humanistic faith in good letters as the teachers of wisdom, and in the virtue of great literature, and above all, great poetry. He saw poetry as a supremely illuminating, animating, and fortifying aid in the difficult endeavour to become or remain fully human.
Arnold's method of criticism is comparative. Steeped in classical poetry, and thoroughly acquainted with continental literature, he compares English literature to French and German literature, adopting the disinterested approach he had learned from Sainte-Beuve.
Arnold's objective approach to criticism and his view that historical and biographical study are unnecessary was very influential on the new criticism. His emphasis on the importance of tradition also influenced F. R. Leavis, and T. S. Eliot.
Eliot is also indebted to Arnold for his classicism, and for his objective approach which paved the way for Eliot to say that poetry is not an expression of personality but an escape from personality, because it is not an expression of emotions but an escape from emotions.
Although Arnold disapproved of the Romantics' approach to poetry, their propensity for allusiveness and symbolism, he also shows his appreciation the Romantics in his Essays in Criticism. He praises Wordsworth thus: 'Nature herself took the pen out of his hand and wrote with a bare, sheer penetrating power'. Arnold also valued poetry for its strong ideas, which he found to be the chief merit of Wordsworth's poetry. About Shelley he says that Shelley is 'A beautiful but ineffectual angel beating in a void his luminous wings in vain'.
In an age when cheap literature caters to the taste of the common man, one might fear that the classics will fade into insignificance. But Arnold is sure that the currency and the supremacy of the classics will be preserved in the modern age, not because of conscious effort on the part of the readers, but because of the human instinct of self-preservation.
In the present day with the literary tradition over-burdened with imagery, myth, symbol and abstract jargon, it is refreshing to come back to Arnold and his like to encounter central questions about literature and life as they are perceived by a mature and civilised mind.