Arnold’s views on Poetry in Study of Poetry

Stress on Action: He begins his ‘Preface to Poems’ 1853, by saying that he dropped his poem Empedocles on Etna from the new collection, because it had very little action. The hero suffered and brooded over his suffering and committed suicide. Mere subjectivity, the inner gloom or melancholy of the poet to the neglect of action, can never result in true poetry. Poetry of the highest order requires suitable action an action sufficiently serious and weighty. Poetry is dedicated to joy and this joy results from the magnificence of its action (reminds of Aristotle’s stress on action as the soul of tragedy)

Subject of Poetry: Only those should be taken as subjects of poetry which can impart the highest pleasure. Arnold points out that it is not necessary for modern poets to choose modern subjects as in the modern age there is too much of philistinism and vulgarization of values. The poets should choose ancient subjects, those which were chosen by Homer and the other Greek Masters .In short, poets should choose actions that please always and please all. Actions that are of this nature ‘most powerfully appeal to those elementary feelings which are independent of time’ and hence are the fittest subjects for poetry. It is immaterial whether such subjects are ancient or modern so long as they fulfill this principle. But an age wanting in moral grandeur, says Arnold with reference to his age, can hardly supply such subjects, and so the poets must turn to ancient themes.
Manner and Style: Highest poetry and highest poetic pleasure result from the whole and not from separate parts, from the harmony of matter and manner and not from manner alone. No unworthy subject can be made delightful by an excellent treatment. Arnold says that with the Greeks the action was the first consideration, with us, attention is fixed mainly on the value of individual thoughts and images. They regarded the whole, we regard the parts. Greeks were also the highest model of expression, the masters of the grand style. That was because they kept the expression simple and subordinated to the action, and because they expression drew its force directly from the action.

The Ancients as safe models: According to Arnold, the ancients are the perfect guides or models to be followed by the poets. Shakespeare is not a safe guide, for although he has excellence of subject, he is unable to say a thing plainly even when the action demands direct expression. From the ancients, the poet will learn how superior is the effect of one moral impression left by a great action treated as a whole to the effect produced by the most striking single thought.

The Grand style: Arnold says that the ancients were the masters of the ‘grand style’. The grand style arises in poetry when ‘a noble nature, poetically gifted treats with simplicity or severity, a serious subject’. So, for the grand style, there must be 1) nobility of soul 2) subject or action chosen must be serious enough 3) the treatment should be severe or simple. Homer, Dante and Milton were masters of it, but most English poets lacked it. Modern poets like Keats do not have the shaping power, they have short passages of excellence but not the beauty of the whole. In Arnold’s view, only poetry modeled on the Ancients can serve as an antidote to philistinism. Arnold’s theory of poetry is to be understood as a counterblast to romantic individualism, subjectivity, and contempt of authority.

Function/definition of poetry: Arnold is confident that poetry has a great future. It is in poetry that our race will find an ever surer stay. Poetry acc to Arnold, is capable of higher uses, interpreting life for us, consoling us, and sustaining us, that is, poetry will replace religion and philosophy.

Arnold further declares that ‘poetry is a criticism of life under conditions fixed for such a criticism by laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty, the spirit of our age will find…as time goes on, and other helps fail, its consolation and stay.’Poetry as a criticism of life: Arnold explains criticism of life as the application of noble and profound ideas to life, and ‘laws of poetic truth and beauty’ as ‘truth and seriousness of matter’ and ‘felicity and perfection of diction and manner’ Arnold believes that poetry does not represent life as it is, rather the poet adds something to it from his own noble nature and this contributes to his criticism of life. Poetry makes men moral, better and nobler, not by direct teaching but by appealing to the soul, to the whole of man.

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