Phyllis (Kamiel) Lehman
February 7, 2013
Mathew Arnold: “The Study of Poetry”
In his introduction to the book The English Poets published in 1880, Matthew Arnold laid out his views regarding the importance of high quality poetry and how essential poetry is for sustaining the world (Arnold, paragraph 2). He astonishingly asserted that poetry is to be prized above all else and should carry more weight than religion, history and philosophy. While this premise is in and of itself highly specious, Arnold went on to say that the poetry must be of a “high order of excellence” (Arnold, paragraph 3) in order to accomplish this lofty goal. Excellent poetry must supplant religion and philosophy because it is of “a higher truth and a higher seriousness” (Arnold, paragraph 12). This begs the following questions: why is poetry so important; what exactly constitutes excellent poetry, and who exactly decides on the criteria by which it is judged to be of this caliber?
Arnold asserted that poetry is paramount while philosophy and religion are not only incomplete without it, but are actually false. Arnold claimed that the “evidences” of religion and philosophy are “false shows of knowledge” (Arthur, paragraph 2). Arnold proved his claim with Wordsworth who said that poetry is “the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge“(Arthur, paragraph 2). While there might be truth in what Wordsworth seemed to say, poetry can embody a higher purpose and a deeper knowledge of life, this really should only be an adjunct to a fuller understanding of life in more concrete and measurable ways. Others disciplines such as philosophy, religion and history undergo a lot more rigorous constructs and observable evidences than does the field of poetry. With that understanding, what would compel us to trust it over and above proven disciplines of case and logic? What “evidences” does poetry provide that would convince us to prize it over religion, philosophy and history? Poetry is considered an art and, though poets may take themselves and their craft very seriously, it is not reasoned logic.
The next difficulty with Arnold’s premise comes with regard to gravitas. Man made poetry is open to interpretation by virtue of its flowery language and vague references. Religions, by definition, come from a higher order of being and, therefore, their associated texts are deemed worthy of analysis and interpretation. Poetry does not purport to come from a divine source and the craftings of even master poets cannot imaginably embody all the interpretations and attributions of the myriad of individual critics. Holding it in higher esteem than philosophy and religion is a mockery to the human experience that has brought us to this point in time.
Poetry is a fluid genre completely dependent on the musings of its individual authors. While poets individually and as a whole do have a unique point of view, even one essential to a truly thorough understanding of the total patchwork of the world, to hold it as the dominant element central to all others is actually a corruption of the art itself. Poets prize their individuality and culling universal themes from this highly democratic art form dilutes each artist’s unique message. In some ways, given the nuances of life and experience, all beings can be poets. Published poetry is a lens through which to consider varying alternatives and points of view, but only one lens.
Arnold spoke of excellent poetry and placed it at the cornerstone of his argument. He called for us to “set our standard for poetry high” (Arnold, paragraph 3) when we judge which poetry is to be considered as foundational to all facts. However, the high standard and criteria to be used to determine this excellent poetry was not revealed nor were the deciders of which poetry is truly excellent. Paradoxically, he cited masters of the past as models for such poetry while at the same time shunning historic context as a barometer. He eschewed the “historic estimate” (Arnold, paragraph 5) in deference to the “real estimate” (Arnold, paragraph 8), but he neglected to define these terms. Where exactly does that leave us in trying to determine which poetry is to be studied and emulated? Did these omission imply that we are just to trust his estimate for excellence or would that leave us open to Arnold’s other term used to invalidate various types of poetry, the “personal estimate” (Arnold, paragraph 5)?
There is also a logistical problem with Arnold’s argument. Poetry’s physical manifestation is language trading in the actual word as its currency to determine its value. We all know that language evolves and at the time of the writing of this piece in 1880, the English language had evolved to the degree that Arnold’s predecessors 400 years earlier would not have even understood the language he was writing let alone its intent. To some degree, the same is true today with respect to Arnold’s introduction and its esteemed poetry. Many of the ideas, intent and underlying meanings of the language in the poems that Arnold was endorsing are lost on many a reader today. We can also apply this logic to the way Arnold looked at poetry. Arnold’s view was constrained by his own language and he could not possibly fully understand what came before him, especially if he discounted the historic estimate. Thus, he could have misjudged the value of these past works. By that same standard, it might possibly mean that Arnold and the poetry of his day can no longer be considered excellent to our generation.
All in all, Arnold’s argument regarding the supremacy of poetry and his treatise on what consists of actual and excellent poetry, without clear and measurable parameters for determining what that is, places him as the arbiter of good and bad, of poor and excellent poetry. Given that he is endorsing a particular volume of poetry, his proposal appears to be quite self-serving.