Matthew Arnold “the Study of Poetry” (1880)

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In his anthology of English poetry, Arnold illustrates the allegedly objective critical judgment of which he speaks in “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” in terms of his selection of those poets worthy in his view of being anthologised. In his preface to the anthology, he clarifies what he means by ‘judgment’ by turning his attention in particular to the questions of literary history and canons. The main criteria informing Arnold’s approach to literary history here are literature’s higher truth (i.e. the degree to which a work captures not the realities of this world but ideals, that is, the perfection found in the world beyond this and which is the standard by which we ought to organise life in the here and now) and its moral value (i.e the impact for good which literature has on the reader). Only works that meet these criteria ought to be part of that canon of works worthy of being studied. Using metaphors concerning rivers in what would prove subsequently to be a very influential way, Arnold begins by arguing that the “stream of English poetry” (603) is only one “contributory stream to the world river of poetry” (603). He argues that we should “conceive of poetry worthily, and more highly than it has been the custom” (603), that is, as “capable of higher uses, and called to higher destinies, than those in general which man has assigned to it hitherto” (604). He contends that we must “turn to poetry to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us” (604) because, as Wordsworth put it, it is the ‘breath and finer spirit of all knowledge’ as a result of which it is superior to science, philosophy, and religion. To be “capable of fulfilling such high destinies” (604), however, poetry must be “of a high order of excellence” (604). In poetry, for this reason, the “distinction between excellent and inferior, sound and unsound or only half-sound, true and untrue or only half-true, is of paramount...
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