Monday, 9 June 2014

An attempt to understand Arnold's "The Study of Poetry"

Matthew Arnold’s The Study of Poetry stands as a guide for the readers to understand the intricacies of poetry, and differentiating classic poetry and merely good poetry. He begins his essay by stating that it is poetry which has always stood the test of times and firmly. And as time goes on, poetry “will find an ever surer and surer stay”. When religion fails to instruct us, poetry continues to instruct us for poetry attaches its emotion to the idea; and the fact is the idea for poetry. According to Arnold, if religion exists today, then it is only because of its “unconscious poetry”.

Arnold then talks about the role of poetry - that poetry is there to interpret life for us and that is the anchor of lives, its primary and the most significant role is “to console us, to sustain us”. Science too does not exist without poetry, for the impassioned expression behind science has to be poetry. Wordsworth calls poetry “the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge”. It is not any other branch of science that can regard itself as the best knowledge provider, except for poetry which rightly plumes itself in this case.

Arnold comments on how poetry must be judged. Since, poetry itself is of high order and excellence, it is reasonable to have a high standard and strict judgment. This quality criticism will enable us, the readers, to conceive highly of the destinies of poetry than we ought to conceive of it on a surface level. In the stream of poetry where art and thought is one, there shall not be any entrance for charlatanism according to Arnold. A charlatan is someone who pretends to have more knowledge or skills than he actually possesses; and we may find such people in politics and in the government but definitely not in poetry. Charlatanism is for confusing, it differentiates between “excellent and inferior, sound and unsound or half-sound, true and untrue or only half-true” and this is not permitted in poetry because all the mentioned qualities are of supreme importance – which again is because of the high destinies of poetry.

Arnold calls poetry a “criticism of life” – this statement is based on an old Socratic principle where criticism of life is done by the laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty; this alone sustains the spiritual moorings of the human race. Poetry, here, is seen as a sustaining power because it is the reflection or the meaning of life and also that it conveys “excellent”, “sound” and “truth” out of the paramount qualities mentioned. The best poetry has the power of forming, sustaining and delighting us.

According to Arnold, when we judge any piece of poetry, we are constantly swayed by two fallacious estimates, the historical and the personal estimate. While Arnold wants us to judge the art work by using the real estimate. A historic estimate is one where the reader regards a poet’s work as a stage in the course of development, therefore, one tends to estimate highly of the work than the greatness it actually possesses. While a personal estimate is based on personal affinities and likings that the reader attributes to the poet and this has a great power to sway one’s estimate. Arnold emphasizes on making a real estimate where a sense for the best and excellent, which gives strength and joy, becomes the reader’s main gain. This should “govern” the reader’s estimate of what he reads.

Arnold speaks of the different types of poets and how they must be assessed – if the poet is a doubtful classic, then he must be separated from his coarse parts; if the poet is a false classic, then he must be exploded (his works must be ignored); and if the poet is a real classic, then one must feel and enjoy his work as deeply as ever. The use of a negative criticism must only be done in order to enable us to have a clearer sense and a deeper enjoyment of what is truly excellent.

According to Arnold, a work of poetry is termed classic when it has the power to delight, instruct, console and sustain us. And the poetic quality is assessed through imbibing the touchstone method. The touchstone refers to the deep study of classics and an “infallible touchstone (is required) for detecting the presence or absence of high poetic quality”. The superiority of poetry over history must and should possess a higher truth and higher seriousness; that these two come from absolute sincerity.

In conclusion, Arnold speaks of good literature as one which might lose its supremacy but not currency. This currency is not present through world’s deliberate conscious choice, but by something far deeper, sublime – “by the instinct of self-preservation in humanity”.

"POETRY IS SIMPLY THE MOST BEAUTIFUL, IMPRESSIVE, AND WIDELY EFFECTIVE MODE OF SAYING THINGS."
- MATTHEW ARNOLD

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