Mathew Arnold’s importance in the history of English literary criticism is acknowledged by one and all. His greatness lies in the fact that he had a definite aim in writing poetry. He clearly stated this aim and tied to conform to his aim. It was “a criticism of life”. By “criticism of life” he meant “noble and profound application of ideas to life.” It means that poetry is not for affording pleasure and creating beauty. It must have a high deal. This ideal is to present life in such a way that it may illumine us and inspire us. In other words Arnold wanted to use poetry for making man good. The ideas he wanted to apply were moral ideas.
Arnold had a very high conception of poetry. The best poetry, he said, is a criticism of life under the conditions fixed for such a criticism by the laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty. The author of any literary piece is expected to be man of high personal experience with all his mental and intellectual faculties highly developed by means of his vast reading and deep thinking.
The phrase “criticism of life” is elaborated by Arnold with the phrase “application of ideas to life.” Poetry is an “application of ideas to life.” The more powerful the application of ideas, the greater will be the poetry. We understand what Arnold means by the phrase. He means that poetry is an interpretational life as the poet experiences it and knows it bringing into play his intellect and mind matured by experience and reading. According to Arnold, poetry is not however, merely as intellectual exercise, it is subject to the laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty.
As if poetry is a criticism of life, the laws, fixed by the poetic the poetic truth and poetic beauty, insist on one condition. This condition of the quality of “high seriousness” when comes out of the deepest sincerity with which the poet feels for the subject. And this quality of “high seriousness” is obviously found in the poetry of Dante, Homer and Milton and this is the quality which Arnold says gives their poetry its power. From Milton he quotes the famous line:-
Nor live thy life nor hate; but what thou livest
Live well; how ling or short, permit to heaven
He says poetry however deals with ideas and not facts, and without poetry science will remain incomplete. Much of religion and philosophy may be replaced by poetry. Arnold believes that the highest type of poetry should deal with moral ideas not so much in its didactic character. The moral is used in its widest sense. The very question, how to live, is according to Arnold a moral idea. Arnold declares that, moral, should not be interpreted in a narrow sense. It means a code of behavior or a system of thought. Finally, Arnold holds the view that a “poetry of revolt against moral ideas is a poetry of revolt against life; a poetry of indifference towards moral idea is a poetry of indifference towards life.
Criticism also means how a creative artist reacts to his experiences and gives expression to his ideal attitude to those experiences. Arnold is of the opinion that the qualities of high type of poetry can be found in its matter and substance and in its manner and style.
However Arnold’s concept of poetry is really too high and serious and in this lies its limitations. From the very first Arnold is against art for art’s sake. Many English critics have disagreed with Arnold’s statement. T.S.Eliot himself a good poet says that Arnold’s view is “frigid to any one who has felt the full surprise and elevation of a new experience of poetry.”
However in the last word we can say that poetry is a criticism of life. The critics’ duty is to examine poetry and life at the same time. As we understand Mathew Arnold had a broad conception of criticism including religion, culture and education as well as poetry. In this wider perspective the aim of criticism is “in all branches of knowledge theology, philosophy, history, art science to see the object as in itself it really is.”