Essay on Poetic Theory

The Study of Poetry (1880)

by Matthew Arnold
That is primitive work, I repeat, with an undeniable poetic quality of its own. It deserves such praise, and such praise is sufficient for it. But now turn to Homer—

Hös phato tous d’eide katechen physizoos aia
en Lakedaimoni auphi philei en patridi gaiei

[“So said she; they long since in Earth’s soft arms were reposing, / There, in their own dear land, their fatherland, Lacedaemon”—Iliad, iii, 243, 244 (translated by Dr. Hawtry). Arnold’s note.]

We are here in another world, another order of poetry altogether; here is rightly due such supreme praise as that which M. Vitet gives to the Chanson de Roland. If our words are to have any meaning, if our judgments are to have any solidity, we must not heap that supreme praise upon poetry of an order immeasurably inferior.

Indeed there can be no more useful help for discovering what poetry belongs to the class of the truly excellent, and can therefore do us most good, than to have always in one’s mind lines and expressions of the great masters, and to apply them as a touchstone to other poetry. Of course we are not to require this other poetry to resemble them; it may be very dissimilar. But if we have any tact we shall find them, when we have lodged them well in our minds, infallible touchstone for detecting the presence or absence of high poetic quality, and also the degree of this quality, in all other poetry which we may place beside them. Short passages, even single lines, will serve our turn quite sufficiently. Take the two lines which I have just quoted from Homer, the poet’s comment on Helen’s mention of her brothers;—or take his

A deilo, ti sphoi, domen Pelei anakti
Thneta; hymeis d’ eston agero t’ athanato’ te.
ei hina dystenoisi met’ andrasin alge’ echeton

[“Ah, unhappy pair, why gave we you to King Peleus, to a mortal? but ye are without old age, and immortal. Was it that with men born to misery ye might have sorrow?”—Iliad, xvii. 443–45.]

the address of Zeus to the horses of Peleus;—or take finally his

Kai se, geron, to prin men akouomen olbion einai

[“Nay, and thou too, old man, in former days wast, as we hear, happy.”—Iliad, xxiv. 543.]

the words of Achilles to Priam, a suppliant before him. Take that incomparable line and a half of Dante, Ugolino’s tremendous words—

Io no piangeva; sì dentro impietrai.
Piangevan elli …

[“I wailed not, so of stone grew I within; / they wailed.—Inferno, xxxiii. 39–40.]

take the lovely words of Beatrice to Virgil—

Io son fatta da Dio, sua mercè, tale,
Che la vostra miseria non mi tange,
Nè fiamma d’esto incendio non m’assale . . .

[“Of such sort hath God, thanked be His mercy, made me, / That your misery toucheth me not, / Neither doth the flame of this fire strike me.”—Inferno, ii. 91–93.]

take the simple, but perfect, single line—

In la sua volontade è nostra pace

[“In His will is our peace.”—Paradiso, iii. 85.]

Take of Shakespeare a line or two of Henry the Fourth’s expostulation with sleep—

Wilt thou upon the high and giddy mast
Seal up the ship-boy’s eyes, and rock his brains
In cradle of the rude imperious surge . . .

and take, as well, Hamlet’s dying request to Horatio—

If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart,
Absent thee from felicity awhile,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain
To tell my story . . .

Take of Milton that Miltonic passage—

Darken’d so, yet shone
Above them all the archangel; but his face
Deep scars of thunder had intrench’d, and care
Sat on his faded cheek . . .

add two such lines as—

And courage never to submit or yield
And what is else not to be overcome . . .

and finish with the exquisite close to the loss of Proserpine, the loss

. . . which cost Ceres all that pain
To seek her through the world.”

These few lines, if we have tact and can use them, are enough even of themselves to keep clear and sound our judgments about poetry, to save us from fallacious estimates of it, to conduct us to a real estimate.

Originally Published: October 13, 2009

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 Matthew  Arnold


Among the major Victorian writers sharing in a revival of interest and respect in the second half of the twentieth century, Matthew Arnold is unique in that his reputation rests equally upon his poetry and his prose. Only a quarter of his productive life was given to writing poetry, but many of the same values, attitudes, and feelings that are expressed in his poems achieve a fuller or more balanced formulation in his prose. . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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