« PreviousContinue »
In This Issue ...
with Victorian cartoons, parodies and commentary devoted to Arnold.
News Items: The Northeast Victorian Studies Association Conference
The Winter 1980 issue of The Victorian Studies Bulletin will contain a
Brahma Chaudhuri, Department of English, The University of Alberta,
27 SLAA2 013 XL
Matthew Arnold's “The Study of Poetry” in the Context of T. H. Wards's
The English Poets Much has been written about the efficacy of Matthew Arnold's "touchstones” as a "useful help for discovering what poetry belongs to the class of the truly excellent, and can therefore do us most good ...." Critics have argued that the touchstones themselves indicate Arnold's historical and personal estimates, forming a kind of impressionism that can hardly determine what kinds of poetry belong to the class of the very best. Although there is some truth to these objections, we should recall that “The Study of Poetry" is the introductory essay to a comprehensive, four-volume anthology of representative English poetry from Chaucer to Rossetti, under the general editorship of Thomas Humphry Ward, and to which there were over thirty contributors, Arnold himself included among them. Like so many of Arnold's other writings, the Introduction is occasional and deals with a specific issue and with what, to Arnold, was of paramount importance: how to determine the truly classic in English poetry. The underlying predisposition towards that end was the principle of selection based upon the analysis and discovery of poetic works more or less perfect. The analytic exercise was represented by the critical introductions, the “notices,” to the selections in the anthology.
Arnold excluded himself from Ward's anthology. Although he continued to write occasional verse, Arnold's career as a poet had ended. Arnold approved of the proposed anthology, but his initial response to Ward's request for his participation was forthright: “Plans in which I could join if I were a man of letters purely and simply, I cannot join in now that I am a school-inspector with a limited time at my disposal for letters. I am obliged to keep, for work which has suggested itself to my own mind, the little time which I have free.”? It was only after repeated overtures by his niece's husband, and after he had seen his way clear of his obligations in editing selections from Wordsworth and Byron (1879-80), that Arnold agreed to write the General Introduction and the two notices on Gray and Keats. His exclusion from the anthology seems to have been based upon both professional and personal reasons.
The extent of Arnold's contribution, then, suggests that he was
quite conscious of the significance of the critical introductions, insofar as they attempted to place each poet in the proper evolutionary perspective of English poetry. Note, for example, the conciliatory tone in Arnold's estimate of Gray: “Compared, not with the work of the great masters of the golden ages of poetry, but with the poetry of his own contemporaries in general, Gray may be said to have reached, in style, the excellence at which he aimed' (III, p. 316. Emphasis mine.) Mindful of Swinburne's unabashedly profuse praise of Collins (the preceding entry) over Gray, Arnold attempted to right an exaggerated estimate.” For Swinburne's “As an elegiac poet, Gray holds for all ages to come his unassailable and sovereign station; as a lyric poet, he is simply unworthy to sit at the feet of Collins” (III, p. 279), there is Arnold's "Still, with whatever drawbacks, he (Gray) is alone or almost alone (for Collins has something of the like merit) in his age” (III, p. 280). Again, Swinburne: “The muse gave birth to Collins; she did but give suck to Gray” (III, p. 280); side of the summit of fair fame, he (Collins) stands loftily alone between the sunset of Milton and the sunrise of Landor” (III, p. 281). For Arnold, it is enough to say that Gray “reached, in style, the excellence at which he aimed.”
I am suggesting here that a mini-drama was being played out in the critical pages of the anthology wherein exaggerated praise, based on historical as well as on personal considerations, was being meted out to deserving and undeserving poets alike. It is my contention, then, that the General Introduction was a subtle appeal for moderation in the critical estimates of the quick and the dead in the gallery of English poets. One of the unfortunate by-products of this appeal is Arnold's "touchstones,” but the theory must be regarded as a secondary concern of the Introduction. Having accepted the high honour of writing the General Introduction, Arnold could not conceivably accuse his contemporaries—Ward, Skeat, Dowden, Swinburne, and others among them-of Philistinism.
Arnold commences his essay with his famous statement regarding poetry's high destinies—“The future of poetry is immense . . statement which, with slight modifications, he had made in the concluding paragraph of his introduction on Poetry to The Hundred Greatest Men. Arnold's insistence upon “the very best,” “the greatest, "the truly classic," "the truly excellent," and other similar phrases, reflects a consuming devotion to the eradication of English provincialism and isolationism in the world of ideas. For Arnold, “much of the best that is known and thought in the world