Matthew Arnold Theory of Criticism in Poetry

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      Matthew Arnold, while he lived, was known more as a critic or as an innovative School Inspector than as a poet. Though there is a revival of interest in his poems in the modern age, he is still known as a critic who championed the cause of poetry of high seriousness, and as one who fought an incessant war against philistinism in poetry and culture. He hasn't left a neat and coherent theory of poetry, but one can form together from hints in his several critical essays and prefaces, a theory of poetry he wanted to put before his contemporaries. Poetry to Matthew Arnold is criticism of life under conditions fixed by poetic truth and poetic beauty. This definition of poetry is certainly circumlocutory and begs the question. Howeve, in the light of his other illuminating remarks elsewhere and his own practice, one may be able to arrive at a fair idea of what he considered as good poetry. Arnold has not clearly and precisely defined anywhere, not least in his oft-quoted criticism of life theory, his idea on poetry. In his essay The Study of Poetry (Published as a General Introduction to T.H. Ward edition of The English Poets) he assigns a novel role to poetry and tells. "In poetry, our race will find, we have said, as time goes on and as other helps fail, its consolation and say." However he fails to clarify what exactly he means by criticism of life. Further by modifying criticism of life by adding "under conditions fixed for such criticism by laws of poetic truth under poetic beauty" he is naively becoming circumlocutory. But to alleviate our difficulty in realizing what he means, there are several hints in his writings elsewhere. The qualities of great poetry are to be found in the matter and substance of poetry as well as in its manner and style. Excellence in matter and form, is the high watermark of great poetry. Homer had it in abundance. Shakespeare and many others had it. Great poetry acquires its unique qualities from diction and movement. The superiority in matters of poetical truth and high seriousness is inseparable from the superiority in diction and movement. "The best poetry", Arnold defines "will be found to have a power of forming, sustaining and delighting us, as nothing else can".

      'Criticism of Life' and 'Application of Powerful Ideas': Arnold's statement that Poetry is criticism of life is further elaborated by introducing another phrase "application of ideas to life". When the application of ideas to life is powerful, the resulting poetry, rises to great heights. But the powerful application of ideas must be "under the conditions fixed by the laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty" What those laws are, is not categorically stated by Arnold. However, what he means appears to be the need of high seriousness born out of absolute sincerity in the treatment of life. The importance of poetry as art is emphasised by the words poetic beauty. Such an accent of high seriousness born out of sincerity makes the poetry of Homer, Dante and Milton really great. A great poet, according to Arnold should have formed powerful, or noble ideas about life. He should sincerely feel the necessity of practising those ideas in life, of his own and that of others around him. With that intense desire, he should compose poetry and then it will be criticism of life, or application of powerful ideas to life; and the result will be great poetry.

      Importance of Moral Ideas: Arnold says that Voltaire found the moral strength of English poetry its greatest merit. In English poetry moral ideas are profoundly and energetically dealt with. However, Arnold does not mean "moral ideas" in poetry as the same as didactic poetry. To him "treatment of moral ideas" are the same as "powerful application of ideas". However, they are applied under conditions that guarantee the artistic merit of the poem. Mere didacticism cannot exist under those conditions. The word "moral" is not used in its narrow religio-didactic sense, but with much wider connotation. "How to live?" is a moral idea to Arnold, and in answering this question the moral idea get a meaning as great as ideals of living. Every idea associated with life is a moral idea. He quotes Milton to prove this

Nor love thy life nor hate it, but what thou livs't
Live well; how long or short permit to heaven.

      What is expressed in these lines is a moral idea, to Arnold. True there is an element of didacticism in it. But he brings in lines from Shakespeare and Keats, lines without any didactic tone also, to illustrate moral ideas. The words of Keats to the eternal lover depicted on the Grecian Urn

Forever wilt thou love and she be fair

      Is moral for there is powerful application of idea to life there. So also we find Prospero's words containing moral strength when he says

We are such stiff
As dreams are made on and our little life Is rounded with a sleep.

      Here we find moral ideas treated in poetry, or we find application of ideas to life. There is less of didacticism and more of poetical beauty there. One can bring in examples from Arnold's own poetry to show what he means by the treatment of moral ideas in poetry. Morals are treated profoundly in Grande Chartreuse when Arnold talks of the wandering of his soul.

Wandering between two worlds, one dead,
The other powerless to be born,
With nowhere yet to rest my head,
Like these, on earth I wait forlorn.
Their faith, my tears, the world deride;
I came to shed them at their side.

      Again we find them in the tributes he pays to his illustrious father through the lines of Rugby Chapel. Lesser people can only say,

...We bring
Only ourselves; we lost
Sight of the rest in the storm.
Hardly ourselves we fought through
Stripp'd, without friends, as we are.
Friends, companions and train.
The avalanche swept from our side.

      Surely Arnold is talking of the onslaught of reason devastating older values in Victorian England, but there is universality in the thoughts expressed. The ideas expressed will affect all, and at all times. The force, or accent of the application of ideas arise from seriousness born out of absolute sincerity.

      From the phrase application of ideas, Arnold proceeds further to say "If what distinguishes the greatest poets is their powerful application of ideas to life which surely no critic will deny, then to prefix to the term 'ideas' here the term 'moral' makes hardly any difference, because human life itself issues, in so preponderance degree, moral". Arnold's view appears to be the following:

      Poetry is a criticism of life; greatness of poetry arises out of powerful application of ideas to life truthfully and beautifully (Under conditions of poetic truth and poetic beauty). Those ideas are concerned with the moral question, "how to live".

      He cannot accept the narrow definition of moral, however. It is fallacious to think of morals in terms of a system of thought associated with orthodoxy, pedantry and obscurantism. If the word moral is taken in that narrow sense, poetry will prove so tedious that one may like to escape from it and seek resort in poetry of revolt, a poetry where sensual life is glorified, a poetry that is immoral. Or one may be tempted to seek shelter in amoral poetry where there is indifference to good and evil alike, a poetry where only the form is considered important. Arnold is clearly against poetry that is immoral or that is amoral. He says

A poetry of revolt against moral ideas is a poetry of revolt against life; a poetry of indifference towards morai ideas is poetry of indifference towards life.

      However, later, on one occasion, Arnold narrows the scope of the word "moral" by condemning the sensualist poetry, which advocates people to discard the mosques in favour of the taverns. If the question "How to live" is profoundly moral, why should he disparage Omar Khayyam for encouraging sensuousness. The Persian poet squarely dealt with life and human problems and suggested solutions he found apt. Why should Arnold condemn Omar's answer to the question How to live? Certainly in criticising Omar Khayyam's poetry he is trying to be moral in a narrow way.

      Arnold's Idea of Criticism of Life: An oft-reputed phrase in Arnold's writing that poetry is criticism of life is not that clearly defined. He is never explicit about it. In one of his essays he says that the aim of all literature is criticism of life. The qualifying words "under conditions of poetic truth and poetic beauty" are not illuminatory. He uses the adjective "poetic" liberally, forgetting the fact that his aim is to define poetry, to define what is poetic. But he adds in another place "the noble and powerful application of ideas to life is the most essential part of poetical greatness". Here Arnold, almost suggests a sermon, perhaps one for which his headmaster-father was famous. But Arnold says the ideas are to be discussed, truthfully, and beautifully, highlighted by emotion.

      Middleton Murray studies, Arnold and approves of the phrase poetry is criticism of life as a good enough definition of poetry. He says that poetry is criticism of life just as the beautiful is a criticism of the ugly". Perhaps he means that poetry through its excellence is able to show, in juxtaposition, the inferiority of real life to the ideal. But this appears to be an unworthy aim of poetry. When Wordsworth gives us a picture of nature's influence on man, or when Keats describes the Nightingale in the darkening bush, or Shelly the skylark, we do not find anything inferior in life. Rather the poets try to show us the ennobling side of life or reality. Perhaps these lead us to looking at criticism of life in another way. Criticism of life is appreciation of life in such a way as to show the greatness, the beauty and wonder of life. Poetry thereby heightens life. Indulging in the day-to-day freshness of life is lost. A poet with his imaginative interpretation gives a freshness to life. In the opinion of Elton what Arnold means is "something that would illuminate and inspire us for the business of living". But a poet does more than that. His is not only the job of appropriating and interpreting life, but also of creating or recreating life. The raw material of the poet, which is life itself, is rather crude, shapeless, rather amorphous. The poet handles it, selects, modifies and a shapely crystal is made out of it. That crystal is poetry. The method of selection and the manipulation necessary may vary from poet to poet. He selects a chunk of life, applies his ideals to it, finds the suitable diction to describe it, chooses an appropriate style, and arranges words according to certain metrical pattern, embellished with imageries, and poetry is born. It gives aesthetic pleasure. It will be found to have a power of forming, sustaining and delighting us as nothing else can". Arnold's own poetry by its diction and movement provides certainly an aesthetic pleasure, whether it provides the sense of wonder is a debatable question.

      Higher Uses and Higher Destinies of Poetry: Arnold starts the essay "The Study of Poetry" with a quote from his own career writing praising the high destinies of poetry.

      The future of poetry is immense because in poetry, where it is worthy of its high destinies our race as time goes on, will find an ever surer and surer stay. There is not a creed which is not shaken, not an accredited dogma which is not shown to be questionable, not a received tradition which does not threaten to dissolve. Our religion has materialised itself in the supposed fact: it has attached its emotion to that fact, and now the fact is failing it. But for poetry the idea is everything; the rest is a world of illusion, of divine illusion. Poetry attaches it emotion to the idea: the idea is the fact. The strongest part of our religion today is its unconscious poetry.

      The best poetry has the power for "forming, sustaining and delighting us as nothing else can". Religion as it was conceived earlier has declined. If at all religion is to live, it will live because of the "poetry" found in it. Poetry will be the force to console us and sustain us in the long run. Arnold is with Wordsworth in considering poetry as "the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all science" and "the breath and final spirit of all knowledge". Science is incomplete without poetry, Arnold says, and adds that philosophy and religion will be replaced by poetry in future. But to live up to that great roles, poetry should be of "a high order of excellence". And one should have a high standard of poetry in mind when we pass judgement on poetry, because of the high destinies of poetry.

      Preface to the Poems 1853: Arnold prefixed a fairly long preface to the volume of his poetry published in the year 1853. It contains his ideas on poetry and illustrates his easy and graceful prose style. We learn from the essay that he is a classicist by conviction. On the whole Arnold practiced what he preached. The excesses and vagaries of the romantic poetry, especially English romantic poetry, are to his dislike. He denounces the views of those who wanted poets to leave the subject matter of the exhausted past and to choose subjects from present day world. He started, in the preface, the life-long war he waged against the philistines, not only in poetry, but in all walks of life. As for his own poetic composition is concerned we find them wanting in certain ways. On being measured by his own standards. In Empedocles on Etna and Merope, two of his long poems, where the subject matter was chosen in the classical manner, the poetic achievement is nothing remarkable. He himself confessed that, Empedocles was an unsatisfying achievement. Merope remains only as an academic exercise, though some admirers found real grace in it. Probably the people that come nearer to his own theory is Sohrab and Rustum.

      The Quintessence of The Preface: Arnold says that poetry should create interest among the readers. Further it should be able to give inspiration to them enabling them to rejoice in poetry. Poetry is an imitation of life, which gives the readers an opportunity to derive joy out of it. Even in a work of art dealing with tragic circumstances, there will be this artistic opportunity to rejoice. Often the intenser the tragic feeling shown, the greater will be the joy of the reader or the beholder, except in situations where suffering do not get an outlet through tragic incidents.

      Then Arnold tells of the subjects fit for treatment in poetry. Poetical subjects are those which contains subjects with an inherent interest. This interest inherent in the subject may be communicated to the readers in an interesting manner. The first duty of the poet, then is to select an interesting action. It must be excellent action having a powerful appeal to the primary emotions and elementary feelings of human beings, which are permanent in nature. It follows that the modernity or antiquity of an incident has little to do with its suitability as a subject for poetry. An incident having a basic appeal a few centuries ago will have the same appeal in the present and also in the years to come. What matters is whether an action chosen has a basic appeal, to the emotions or not. If the right essentials are there, the chosen action will be one of perennial interest. The date or locality of the incident is unimportant.

      Then Arnold goes on to juxtapose the classical Greek theory of poetry with that of the modern times. The poetical nature of the action and the conduct of it was of utmost importance to the ancients. Modern poets view the action in parts such as thought, style, images etc. separately. The ancients gave predominance to action and the moderns to expression. The Greeks dealt with a narrow range of topics just because only few actions have excellence, for they only have universal and powerful appeal to basic emotions. Therefore we do find only limited number of topics treated in the great tragedies of the ancient Greeks.

      Arnold develops the Greek preference for the whole and the modern liking for the parts. He says a modern critic gives credit to a poem for its brilliance in its parts. A single line here and another there, an imagery appropriately presented, or beautiful sound effects, reinforcing the meaning are all appreciated. But they may not make an artistic total impression. There are critics who concentrate on detached expressions, and on the language about the action instead of action itself. They do not give great importance to the total impression a poem makes. They approve of any action the poet chooses and allows it to take its own course, and appreciate occasional purple patches, and isolated thoughts and images. Such poems cater to the rhetorical sense and not to the truly poetical sense. Arnold as a classicist disapproves of such critics. Then he has a word of advice to younger writers. They should try to find an excellent model before them to follow. According to him Shakespeare will not fit as a model for young writers of talent. Shakespeare chose excellent topics for his great plays, for like all great poets, he knew what contributed to excellence in poetic action. To those actions he chose, excellent as they were in poetic qualities, he added his own unique contribution; a gift of happy, abundant, eminent and unrivalled expression. Shakespeare being a superb artist of genius, excelled in the architectonics of poetry, the power of executing the whole systematically, aesthetically binding the different parts of the composition into a unified whole. Lesser artists in imitating Shakespeare go for the excellence in parts, for style or diction or images, but fail in the architectonics. The result is an unsatisfactory work when viewed as a whole.

      Conclusion: In giving importance to an excellent action in poetry Arnold was following the footsteps of Aristotle, Goethe and Coleridge. All of them insisted on the need of an excellent action treated in a grand style or manner to give a pleasure of the highest order. This pleasure is derived not out of the excellence of individual parts but out of the organic unity of the composition. Perhaps Arnold repeated this opinion of his with a definite purpose. He was aware of the modern view of art, that is either impressionistic or expressionistic or both. Arnold could not appreciate this view. Arnold cannot conceive of great art as an allegorical representation of the poet's own mind. He believed along with Aristotle that the 'plot' is of primary importance. No poet can hope of raising an insignificant act to a level appropriate to great poetry by excellence in treatment. Arnold decided to withdraw his poem, Empedocles on Etna., just because he found the action wanting according to his own theory. The situation presented was painful without being tragic; however, the treatment of the poem has nothing wanting in it.

      While dealing with Homer, Arnold said the grand style "arises in poetry when a noble nature poetically gifted treats with simplicity or with severity a serious subject". Arnold is echoing what Aristotle meant by high seriousness and what Dante meant by weight of meaning. Grand words alone will not be sufficient to make the grand style. The greatness of subject is certainly needed an action that is excellent, permanent rather than short-lived. The simple themes of the old, that of perennial interest can be used again and again. However, by advocating to stick on to a narrow range of actions, Arnold is restricting the scope of writers. He discourages the life of our own times being explored for poetical subjects. He feels that the modern age is "an era of progress", in an age of "industrial development", a time "wanting in moral grandeur" and so topics appropriate for great poetry and great art are not found around us. Here Arnold appears to be very short-sighted and time has proved him to be in the wrong, Chekhov, Whitman and Pushkin, Flaubert and Hardy and many more like them chose subjects from contemporary life and created great dramas, great poems, great novels. But according to Arnoldian principles they cannot produce great works. It is an irony that Arnold who considers poetry as criticism of life should consider modern life and its criticism as an unfit subject for poetry. He is not able to give a convincing reason for avoiding modern life which has a complexity unknown to the ancients, a life which is becoming increasingly more complex as time goes on. Also his advocating the guidance of a few pre-eminent models, though worthy in its aim, has a constraining effect. It tends to hide the potential of the new and untried. Experimentation in unexplored fields and innovation are not at all finding a place in his theory of poetry. However in his emphasis on the importance of plot or action, following Aristotle, Goethe and Coleridge, his ideas are quite salutary. He also emphasises that unity or the total impression is that which gives a poem its essential characteristic. Poetry according to him is the representation of an excellent action seriously undertaken, with the object of creating the highest enjoyment. In this, at least, Matthew Arnold is acceptable to the modern mind.

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