Literary Criticism is, as Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), the Victorian poet and critic points out, a “disinterested endeavor to learn and propagate” the best that is known and thought in the world. And he strove hard to fulfill this aim in his critical writings. Attaching paramount importance to poetry in his essay “The Study of Poetry”, he regards the poet as seer. Without poetry, science is incomplete, and much of religion and philosophy would in future be replaced by poetry. Such, in his estimate, are the high destinies of poetry.
Arnold asserts that literature, and especially poetry, is “Criticism of Life”. In poetry, this criticism of life must conform to the laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty. Truth and seriousness of matter, felicity and perfection of diction and manner, as are exhibited in the best poets, are what constitutes a criticism of life.
Poetry, says Arnold, interprets life in two ways: “Poetry is interpretative by having natural magic in it, and moral profundity”. And to achieve this the poet must aim at high and excellent seriousness in all that he writes.This demand has two essential qualities. The first is the choice of excellent actions. The poet must choose those which most powerfully appeal to the great primary human feelings which subsist permanently in the race. The second essential is what Arnold calls the Grand Style – the perfection of form, choice of words, drawing its force directly from the pregnancy of matter which it conveys.
This, then, is Arnold’s conception of the nature and mission of true poetry. And by his general principles – the” Touchstone Method” – introduced scientific objectivity to critical evaluation by providing comparison and analysis as the two primary tools for judging individual poets. Thus, Chaucer, Dryden, Pope, and Shelley fall short of the best, because they lack “high seriousness”. Even Shakespeare thinks too much of expression and too little of conception. Arnold’s ideal poets are Homer and Sophocles in the ancient world, Dante and Milton, and among moderns, Goethe and Wordsworth. Arnold puts Wordsworth in the front rank not for his poetry but for his “criticism of life”. It is curious that Byron is placed above Shelley. Arnold’s inordinate love of classicism made him blind to the beauty of lyricism, and we cannot accept Arnold’s view that Shelley’s poetry is less satisfactory than his prose writings.
Arnold’s criticism of life is often marred by his naive moralizing, by his inadequate perception of the relation between art and morality, and by his uncritical admiration of what he regarded as the golden sanity of the ancient Greeks. For all his championing of disinterestedness, Arnold was unable to practise disinterestedness in all his essays. In his essay on Shelley particularly, he displayed a lamentable lack of disinterestedness. Shelley’s moral views were too much for the Victorian Arnold. In his essay on Keats too Arnold failed to be disinterested. The sentimental letters of Keats to Fanny Brawne were too much for him. But Arnold’s insistence on the standards and his concern over the relation between poetry and life make him one of the great modern critics.