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Decoding Mathew Arnold’s statement ‘Poetry is the criticism of life”

By: Abdullah Usama

Matthew Arnold, famous English poet and critic, had a peculiar perception that only the art of  poetry has the worthiness to sustain a culture or civilization through its beauty and truth as he asserts, ‘Poetry is the criticism of life’ or in simple words, poetry deals with life and reflects life. Arnold believes that only poets have the majestic capability through which they can portray their ideas into the shape of poetry. They talk about different problems and prospects of life, flaws and follies of human nature, ups and downs of a race and thus a culture or race subsists for ages through their criticism in the shape of poetry. He even mentions that science, religion and philosophy are incomplete without poetry and soon will give up their ways to poetry.

            The theme of life is depicted in poetry and it works like a mirror where all the aspects and views of life reflect. To Arnold, poetry is all about the discussion of life. The idea, theme, subject-matter in a poetry are inextricably relevant to each other. As Arnold says-

“Noble and profound application of ideas to life under the conditions fixed by the laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty.”

Arnold further elaborated the phrase “Criticism of Life” by the meaning of “application of ideas to life”. The finer would be the ideas, the greater would be the poetry. However, that must be performedunder a few conditions as he mentioned that – to be a worthy piece of poetry, laws of poetic beauty and poetic truth must be followed. By the term “poetic truth” Arnold denotes the true way of representing the life. After that, by the term “poetic beauty”, he means the manner and style of poetry.

“A criticism of life under the conditions fixed for such a criticism by the laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty.”

In short, according to Arnold, the subject and theme of the poetry should have high seriousness in it, style should be rich and free from trivial matters. As a result, he prefers Homer, Dante and Milton as the standard poets, whereas he denies Chaucer and John Donne as quality poets though they fulfill the criteria of poetry.

            In addition to the previous ideas, Arnold also suggests that the entrance of charlatanism in poetry should be prevented by any means. Therefore, no extravagant or trivial subject-matter should be introduced in a poetry as it may divert the central theme of poetry from its core purpose; criticism of life. He provides examples of metaphysical poems as those are extravagant and deviated from the criticism of life. Same goes to Alexander Pope’s mock-epic. It is a form of poetry but does not serve the purpose as the subject is trivial.

            To sum up, it is clear enough that poetry criticizes life, culture, community, society, race etc. and keeps them alive for millenniums. People recognize Greeks and their dignity, heroic deeds, culture etc. through Homer’s Iliad. Milton’s Paradise Lost justifies the God’s way which is also a high serious topic as it is immensely connected to the world’s major 3 religions’ core belief. So, as Arnold himself was one of the greatest critics of all time, his mentioned term “criticism” contains a lot of perspectives including philosophy, theology, science etc. in it. None the less, all these are closely related to Arnold’s indication that “Poetry is the criticism of life”.

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