Matthew Arnold reflects on the process of evaluating any work of poetry as well the mechanism employed to critique it.
Contrary to the Platonic prediction, Arnold believes that poetry has a significant use in the process of knowledge creation and progression of human beings. As an artistic endeavour, Poetry provides reflection and commentary on the finer aspects of survival and struggles. It is elemental to the investigations in Theology and Science. Arnold claims that the need for poetry and its faculties will help human beings harness purpose and tranquillity in the times and generations to come.
Arnold believes that the central thought of the poem matters more than any other concept in the poem so much so that it becomes the central fact of the poem. This idea is what links to the emotions of the reader and provides a vent to them.
He goes on to highlight different mechanisms by which people analysis and censor various works of poetry and poets. He enumerates three distinct methods of the same, naming those estimates:
- Real estimate: This refers to unbiased and unprejudiced evaluation with a fine balance between historical context and innovation and flair of the individual poet.
- Historical estimate: Here the historical background dominates the value judgement with innovation and creativity given less importance than historical context of the poem.
- Personal estimate: This is rife with personal and cognitive biases of the individual reader and dependent on their preferences and tastes.
Even though historic and personal estimates are less reliable and arbitrary, they are more commonly seen than real estimate. Arnold calls this a natural consequence of human choice. Often the context of the text dominates the reader’s perception and makes them overlook its manifest flaws. Historical significance can hide these shortcomings in plain sight as it tends to exalt the poem to an elvated status like classics or iconic.
An iconic poem acts as the barometer for other poems. It is held as the standard against which other works are compared. This comparison helps in arriving at the true value of a poem. Arnold exhorts people to devour such classic works of poetry to educate their sense of judgment and censure but still remain aware to their own flaws and errors.
Inspiration and Imitation
Arnold argues that poets are often so inspired or moved by the classical works of poetry that they often tend to borrow their content or ideas. It is often an issue for the poets who cannot detach themselves from their favourite classics and thus are prone to erroneous conclusions. Historic estimates in case of poets from earlier times and personal estimate in case of contemporaneous poets, creates difficulties in ascertaining the true value and significance of poetry.
Touchstone method for evaluating poetry
Borrowing the Longinus’s concept of true sublimity to say that the time tested classics act as the ‘touchstone’ to judge all other works of poetry. However, this does not warrant a need to have exact replica of such content and quality in the works under the scanner. He named a few touchstones like Homer, Milton, Shakespeare and Dante etc. These particular exponents of poetry were able to enhance the experience of reading poetry through their matter and style.
Arnold believes that best poems have a kernel of truth in their matter and a sense of singular flair in their construction or manner. For critics, it is imperative to apply such method judiciously and rigorously in order develop the ability to find real estimates of poetry. In case a reader is unable to find the high value while evaluating a classic than it is his/her shortcoming and not the poem’s.
Analysis of the English classics
Arnold then highlights the impact of French poets (especially from Northern France) on their English counterparts. However, their poetry was dominated by romance over serious and graver themes of human life.
Arnold is full of praise for Chaucer who he believes wrote in ‘liquid diction’ and was a great exponent of both content and style. According to Arnold, Chaucer scores high on the real estimate but does not come to the level of a classical poet lacking seriousness of someone like Dante, Milton and Shakespeare who all are classical poets.
He considers Pope and Dryden as classical prose of the restoration period. He calls Gray a classic but relegates Burns to the fortune of Chaucer. They both lacked seriousness in their content according to Arnold even though their works contain both truth and great skill.
Coming to his contemporaries he points to the influence of personal estimates when judging the likes of Byron, Shelley and Wordsworth and so demits any judgement of their works.
Continuity of the Classics
Arnold claims since the classics works have been able to the stand the test of time and longevity they have an indwelling ability of self-conservation. This ability is a function of the self-preserving and enduring nature of human beings.
According to Arnold, human nature remains consistent through various epochs and times and since the classics deal with the topics and issues highlighting and commenting on human suffering, emotions and nature. As long as they stimulate such emotions and thoughts in the readers that will remain alive in their hearts and minds.