The Study of Poetry by Matthew Arnold

The Study of Poetry by Matthew Arnold

study of poetry

In his The Study of Poetry, Arnold gives a “Touchstone Method” to test the worth of poetic creations by new writers.


Matthew Arnold as a Critic

Study of Poetry

Matthew Arnold

Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) is the greatest name among the Victorian critics who was a poet-turned critic. He started his literary career as a poet. At an age of just thirty-one, he published his first piece of criticism, Preface to the Poems, followed by a number of other important critical pieces like On Translating Homer (1856), Culture and Anarchy (1869), Literature and Dogma (1873), God and the Bible (1875) and The Study of Poetry (1880). His literary criticism may be divided into two categories:

1. Theoretical Criticism or Literary Aesthetics
2. Practical Criticism


The Study of Poetry

Arnold’s The Study of Poetry presents his practical criticism. It is an important piece of criticism in which Arnold attempts to answer two fundamental questions:

1. What is poetry?
2. What is the function of poetry in human society?

Arnold begins the essay by asserting the significance of poetry with a claim that the future of poetry is immense. According to him:

poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all human knowledge”.

Everything other than poetry is changing and ephemeral. But the truth embodied in poetry is alone eternal. All our creed and religion have been shaken because they have grown too much tied down to facts. But for poetry the idea is everything. Even the strongest part of our religion is unconscious poetry. Poetry should be studied more and more because poetry is capable of higher uses. Poetry has the capacity to interpret life for us, to console us and to sustain us. Science, religion, philosophy will be incomplete without poetry.

However, Arnold views that poetry can fulfil its high function only if we keep a high standard for it. No charlatanism should be allowed to enter poetry. Arnold proposes his definition of poetry as:

A criticism of life under the conditions fixed for that criticism by the laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty”.

He claims that only the poetry which is the criticism of life can be our support and stay when other helps fail us. So it is important that the readers should learn to choose the best. However, while choosing the best, readers are warned against two kinds of fallacious judgements:

1. Historic Estimate
2. Personal Estimate

The readers are required to learn to value and judge poetry without any prejudice, as it really is in itself. The ‘historical estimate’ can influence our judgement while we are dealing with the ancient poets and the ‘personal estimate’ while dealing with our contemporary poets. So, the readers should insist on the ‘real estimate’ which means recognition and discovery of the highest qualities which produce the best poetry. He suggests that the shortcomings of the historical and personal estimates of a poem can be overcome with the help of his “Touchstone Method”.

Arnold’s Touchstone Method

Arnolds touchstone method is a comparative method of criticism. According to this method, to judge a modern poet, we require some lines and expressions of the great masters like Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton etc. and apply them as a touchstone to the other work. If it moves us in the same way as these lines and expressions do, then it is really a great work otherwise not. In this way, the known classics can serve as the touchstone by which the merit of contemporary poetic works can be tested in terms of excellence and art.

To illustrate his method, Arnold undertakes a brief review of English Poetry from Chaucer to Burns, and concludes that Chaucer does not have the accent of classics as he lacks high seriousness. He also demonstrates that Shakespeare and Milton are great poetical classics but Dryden and Pope are not poetical classics rather prose classics.


The greatest poets and philosophers of all ages have believed that the ethical view of life is the essential view of life and Arnold also believed the same. He wanted to renew the permanent ethical values of life and to construct art on its true basis. He also believed that art thus realised would help men in achieving the ethical values and therefore insisted on the union of best subjects and the highest expression in poetry. This type of good literature, as Arnold believes, can achieve its ultimate end and will never lose its currency.

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©2024. Md. Rustam Ansari []


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