Poetry Facts

Poetry is the Criticism of Life: Explanation and Discussion

Last Updated: December 2, 2022

I believe in the power of poetry, which gives me reasons to look ahead and identify a glint of light.

Mahmoud Darwish

One of the most prestigious forms of writing is poetry. It is an art form that has survived for thousands and thousands of years. Its power lies in the ability to show deep emotions of grace and beauty.

However, many people believe that poetry must uphold a high ideal in addition to providing enjoyment and creating beauty. “Poetry is the criticism of life,” that’s what they say. We will elucidate and discuss this opinion in this post to give you a comprehensive view.

Who said that “Poetry is the criticism of life?”

In his essay named “The Study of Poetry,” Matthew Arnold introduced poetry as a criticism of life. At the beginning of his essay, he states: “In poetry as criticism of life, under conditions fixed for such criticism by the laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty, the spirit of our race will find, as time goes by and as other helps fail, its consolation and stay.

As a Victorian-era poet and critic, Matthew Arnold has an extremely high understanding of poetry. He is well aware of the nature, character, and function of poetry. His importance in the history of English literary criticism is publicly acknowledged by all, even by his detractors.

Prior to Matthew Arnold, English criticism was in its adolescent stage and was raised to a high pedestal. While some critics like Dr. Johnson and John Dryden tried their best to add new color and grandeur to English literature, Matthew Arnold is credited for bringing literary criticism to a new level.

Arnold craved purity and morality in literary criticism. He argued that literature should be used as a tool to spread moral values. That’s how Arnold established a set of standards for judging a piece of art.

In fact, the conflict between science and religion led to a severe crisis in Victorian civilization. The supremacy of religion was contested by science. The choice of whether to make science or religion the foundation of society was a conundrum faced by the populace at the time.

poetry is the criticism of life

At that juncture, Arnold came forward to rescue those suffering and believed that literature should come forward to find a way out of the complete mess. He thought that’s a difficult task had to be performed by literature. It must spread moral principles in order to carry the torch for society.

Arnold also insisted that criticism should work as a watchdog to see whether literature has carried out its responsibility properly or not. He advocated that literary critics make a substantial contribution to society by utilizing the works of literary greats like Shakespeare and Milton. This initiative actually helps critics assess the work of art and treat it properly.

Arnold referred to the method of comparing a piece of art to the works of great masters as “touchstone theory.” Later, F. R. Leavis agreed with Arnold’s position on criticism, noting that it is the responsibility of critics to see to it that morals and ideals are communicated via literature. He put emphasis on purity of criticism, which he might have inherited from Arnold.

How poetry is the criticism of life

To Arnold, poetry is “the criticism of life under the conditions fixed for such a criticism by the laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty.” He insisted that the core of poetry is administered by poetic truth and poetic beauty. These rules are based on how the poet perceives life. Besides, high seriousness is an essential element of poetry.

poetry is the criticism of life

The “Criticism of Life”

The criticism of life is how Arnold defines poetry. In other words, poetry deals with life and portraits life.

He had the opinion that only poets possess the potent ability to transform their ideas into the forms of poetry. They write about many human life prospects and issues, human nature’s defects and follies, as well as the ups and downs of a race, and as a result, a race or culture endures for centuries via their own criticism expressed in the form of poetry.

For Arnold, life discussion is the main topic of poetry. Poetry depicts the theme of life as if all the views and aspects of life reflect through a mirror. In poetry, the theme, concept, and subject matter are all intrinsically related.

Arnold further elaborated the term “criticism of life” by the meaning of “noble and profound application of ideas to life.” In fact, a poet’s genius is found in the elegant and potent way he brings ideas to life. The finer the ideas, the greater the poetry. But in order to be considered a worthy work of poetry, those requirements must be met, as well as the laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty.

The “criticism of life” requirement is mostly met by Arnold’s own poems. His poem titled “Dover Beach” appears like a fitting example. Two major themes is illustrated by Arnold:

  • The poet’s pessimism and desperation in the face of both his own spiritual crises and his society are expressed in this poem
  • Then, in an effort to counter this decline in faith, it offers true love as a consolation.

Similarly, in his other poems, like “Resignation,” “To Marguerite,” “A Southern Night,” and “The Scholar-Gipsy,” he made judgments on the lives of men in his generation, the lives of his nation, and the lives of particular men. Since they all deal with matters that are essential to people, they are all criticisms of life.

truth and poetic beauty, criticism of life

In addition, according to Arnold, poetry has a noble destiny as a criticism of life. He claimed that poetry is superior to science, religion, and philosophy.

Without poetry, science is soulless, unnatural, and incomplete. While poetry connects its emotion to ideas and concepts that are infallible, religion, on the other hand, attaches its emotion to pretended truths, and the pretended facts are failing it. Lastly, philosophy is based upon reason, which is thought to be a synthetic demonstration of knowing.

Arnold insisted that poetry can be our emotional support. The best poetry has the ability to shape, sustain, and enchant us like nothing else. As time goes on, humans will come to realize that they must use poetry to make sense of existence, as well as to comfort and support themselves because science, religion, and philosophy will inevitably prove to be flimsy and unstable.

Poetic truth & poetic beauty

By the term “poetic truth,” Arnold implies the proper way of representing life. Meanwhile, by the term “poetic beauty,” he is referring to the type and style of poetry.

Poetic truth, or a good illustration of life, is regarded as a distinguishing attribute of the topic and substance of poetry. In other words, it accurately portrays life without making any attempt to embellish the truth.

The manner and style, which are characterized by the excellent diction and flow of the verse, include poetic beauty. Matthew Arnold highlights the flexibility of language and verse while discussing Chaucer. The appropriate words used in the perfect order create poetic beauty.

The truth and beauty of poetic are intertwined and inextricably linked. Arnold also emphasized that “the superior character of truth and seriousness within the matter and substance of finest poetry is inseparable from the prevalence of diction and movement making its manner and style.

Therefore, a poem cannot have excellent movement and diction if it lacks the traits of poetic truth and excessive seriousness, and vice versa.

High seriousness

truth and poetic beauty, criticism of life

Poetry must be “high seriousness” according to the standards of poetic truth and beauty. As a result of the poet’s utter sincerity for his subject, that trait is what gives poetry its power. A poet must speak directly from the bottom of his or her heart in order to be sincere.

It is important to note that Matthew Arnold didn’t explain thoroughly the term “high seriousness.” It’s to remember here that seriousness should never be confused with solemnity. It’s important to keep in mind that seriousness shouldn’t be equated with solemnity.

Arnold therefore favors Homer, Dante, and Milton as the ideal poets, while dismissing Chaucer and John Donne poets despite the fact that they meet the requirements for poetry.

In addition to earlier suggestions, Arnold also stated that poetry should never allow charlatanism to enter. So, no ostentatious or meaningless topic matter should be added as it may divert the central theme of poetry from its core purpose; criticism of life. The same is true of Alexander Pope’s mock-epic, a type of poetry that is ineffective because its theme is unimportant.

How others think of Arnold’s perspectives on poetry

Various critics have been widely divided on Arnold’s opinions on poetry.

Arnold unduly restricts the potential of poetry because, in the opinion of professional Saintsbury, the objects of poetry are not just deeds but include thoughts and feelings. He thinks that Matthew Arnold’s definition of poetry is actually too wide. “All literature is the application of ideas to life; and to say that poetry is the application of ideas to life, under the condition fixed for poetry, is simply a vain repetition.

Arnold thinks that for thoughts and ideas to have any lasting worth, they must be grounded in real-world experience. Though some poets may adhere to the belief that emotions and thoughts should not be included in the action, he does not.

Arnold’s opinions on poetry may be debatable, but overall, we can conclude that they are quite developed and consistent with contemporary concepts.

He was against romantic poetry in which the poets were expressing their sentiments and emotions without caring for general human nature. The poets were trying to create an imaginative arsenal of their own, which though fascinating, was of no use in impacting that self-realization.

The greatest poets and philosophers for ages have stated that the ethical view of life is the essential view of life, and Matthew Arnold also believed the same. It had become more important in his age when materialism dominated people’s lives and religious values were crushed because of the development of science. Arnold passionately rebelled against the disease of his age since he was very aware of it.

Arnold aimed to rediscover life’s enduring moral principles and rebuild art from the initial concept. He also insisted that art, thus realized, would help people in achieving ethical values. So, he believed in the gathering of poetry’s highest expression and best subjects. Only poetry of this kind can achieve its ultimate end.

Final thoughts

In conclusion, we may say that Matthew Arnold thoughtfully discussed the nature, purpose, and character of poetry in his analytical essay – “The Study of Poetry.” By emphasizing that “poetry is the criticism of life,” Arnold believed that it is the critic’s duty to examine both poetry and life at the same time.

Thoroughly analyzed, there are many practical things that can be found in Arnold’s perception of poetry. The fundamental requirements of excellent poetry are truth, a profound application of ideas to life, high seriousness, complete honesty, and excellence of movement and diction in style.

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