Arnold’s views about poetry are elaborately stated in his “Study of Poetry”, which first appeared as an introduction to A.C. Ward’s Selections from English Poets. Arnold has a high conception of poetry. He is confident that poetry has immense future. “It is in poetry, where it is worthy of its high destinies, our race, as time goes on will find an ever surer and surer stay.” It is capable of higher uses, interpreting life for us, consoling us, and sustaining us; that is, it will replace what we understand by religion and philosophy dependent on reasonings, which are but false shows of knowledge. Poetry with such a high destiny must be of the highest standard.
It is in poetry which is a criticism of life that the spirit of our race will find its last source of consolation and stay. Arnold himself explains “criticism of life” as the noble and profound application of ideas to life; and, laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty as truth and seriousness to substance and matter, and felicity and perfection of diction and manner. Arnold belives that poetry does not present life as it is, rather the poet adds something to it from his own noble nature, and this something contributes to his criticism of life. Poetry makes men moral, better and nobler, but it does so not through direct teaching, or by appealing to reason, like science, but by appealing to the soul of man. The poet gives in his poetry what he really and seriously believes in, he speaks from the depth f his soul, and speaks it so beautifully, that he creates a thing of beauty, and so a perennial source of joy. Such high poetry makes life richer, and has the power of, “sustaining and delighting us, as nothing else can.” It answers the question, “How to live,” but it does so indirectly, by conforming to the ideals of truth and goodness and thus by uplifting and ennobling the soul. Arnold is against direct moral teaching; he regards didactic poetry as the lowest kind of poetry.
Poetry plays an eminent role in life. It is more important than religion. Poetry is “a criticism of life under the conditions fixed for that criticism by the laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty.” Poetry, therefore, should be a real classic. Poetry of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton and the like is a serious criticism of life, and therefore good poetry. Excellence of poetry lies both in its matter or substance and in its manner of style. But matter and style must have the accent of “high beauty, worth and power.” If the matter of a poet has truth and high seriousness, the manner and diction would also acquire the accent of superiority. The two are vitally connected together.
Arnold was very much dissastified with the kind of poetry written in his own time and he reacted against it. He felt that the poets paid more attention to the form and expression of the poem than to its subject and that they tried to attract readers by the purple patches in the poem and never paid attention to the total impressions of the work. Arnold’s own view is that poetic subject is the first consideration with a great poet, and poetic expression comes only afterwards. According to him, “human actions” are the best subject-matter of poetry. The ancients to him were better poets than the moderns because ‘they regarded the whole; we regard the parts.’ With them, the action predominated over the expression; with us, the expression predominates over the action.
Nevertheless, poetry is to Arnold what it was to Wordsworth, ‘the breath and spirit of all knowledge.’ the impassioned expression of what is in the countenance of all science.’ And “the greatness of a poet lies in his powerful and beautiful application of ideas to life—to the question : How to live.” Again he says “In poetry, however, the criticism of life has to be made conformably to the laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty. Truth and seriousness of substance and matter, felicity and perfection of diction and manner, as these are exhibited in the best poets, are what constitute a criticism of life made in conformity with the laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty; and it is by knowing and feeling the work of those poets that we learn to recognise the fulfilment of such conditions.” At another place he says, “Poetry interprets in two ways : it interprets by expressing with magical felicity the physiognomy and movement of the outer world, and it interprets by expressing with inspired conviction, the ideas and laws of the inward world of man’s moral and spiritual nature. In other words, poetry is interpretative by having natural music in it; and by having moral profundity “
According to Arnold, there is no difference between art and morality. He says : “A poetry of revolt against moral idea is a poetry of revolt against life : a poetry of indifference towards moral ideas is a poetry of indifference towards life.” When Arnold pleads for treating in poetry moral ideas, he dees not mean composing moral and didactic poems, but the poems that give answers to the question—how to live well.
Arnold’s views on poetry have aroused considerable controversy among the critics. Prof. Saintsbury thinks that the objects of poetry are not merely actions but thoughts and feeling also and thus Arnold unnecessarily limits the scope of poetry. Then he thinks that Arnold’s definition of poetry is 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.” The fact is that Arnold believes that the ideas and sentiments to have any permanent value must be based on actual life. Thoughts and feelings excluded from the action might be the creed of a few poets, but they have no charm for him.
Arnold’s theory of poetry may be questionable in details and on minor points, on the whole we can say that his views are quite mature, and are in harmony with modern ideas. Arnold was actually against romantic poetry in which the poets were expressing personal sentiments and emotions without caring for the general human nature. The poets were trying to build an imaginative atmosphere of their own, which though fascinating, was of no use in affecting that self-realization which was the aim of Wordsworth. The greatest poets and philosophers of all ages have believed that the ethical view of life is the essential view of life, and Arnold also believed the same. It had become all the more important in his own age when materialism had dominated the life of the people, and when religious values were crushed due to the development of science. Arnold knew the malady of his age very well and protested vigorously against it. He wanted to renew the permanent ethical values of life and to reconstruct art on its true basis. He also believed that art, thus realised, would help men in achieving ethical values. Therefore he insisted on the union of the best subjects and the highest expression in poetry. Only poetry of this sort can achieve its ultimate end.