Arnold’s “The study of Poetry” can be taken as a kind of legislative criticism where he puts up his belief as a literary critic. He proclaims that Chaucer and Burn are not the great classics. Now, the question comes why does Arnold put Chaucer and Burn outside the domain of classic writers? To solve this riddle, we should first know his idea of a classic.
According to Arnold, poetry is a criticism of life under the conditions fixed for such a criticism by the laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty. Great poetry alone posses the power to sustain, console, delight and to interpret life to us. He thus sets high standard for great poetry. In order to be a classic the poet must be able to fill us with such strength and joy that will guide us in our life. He suggests a practical method for finding a true classic. It is his famous “Touchstone Method.” One has to take specimen of poetry of the high quality and apply them to the poetry under judgment. When we judge a contemporary piece of poetry by such touchstone we can determine whether it can be justifiably turned as the product of a genuine classic.
Accordingly the best poetry is characterized by truth and seriousness. As regards the manner and style, the best poetry is characterized by superiority of diction and of movement. Thus according to Arnold, a poet is to be regarded as a classic if he fulfils the conditions stated above.
Arnold is of the opinion that many writers are considered to be classics but actually they are false classics because their poetry does not live upto the high standard of poetic art attained by such great masters as Homer, Milton and Shakespeare.
Arnold at first applies his Touchstone Method on Chaucer. He quotes a few line from Chaucer and then compares them with a line from Dante and comes to the conclusion that the poetry of Chaucer does not have the account of the classics. At first Arnold praises on Chaucer’s poetical performance and poetical achievement. But he denies to Chaucer the status of poetical classic. In his opinion, Chaucer does not possess high poetic seriousness.
Arnold has high praise for Chaucer’s poetical performance. The poetry of Chaucer is far superior to the French romance poetry of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Chaucer’s power of fascination is enduring.The substance of Chaucer’s poetry, his view of things and his riticism of life has largeness, freedom, shrewdness and kindliness. His poetry is criticism of life and it has truth of substance or matter. Chaucer is a perpetual source of good sense. Yet he does not have that high seriousness which Homer had, which his successor like Shakespeare, Milton etc had.
Chaucer does not pose himself as stern moralist, as social reformer. Chaucer has a genial humor devoid of spite and cynicism. Chaucer endeavored to picture life truthfully without either exalting unduly or demeaning unnecessarily any of his characters.
In the poetry of Burns too, Arnold does not find the accent of high seriousness. The poetry of Burns has truth of matter and truth of manner but not the accent of the poetic virtue of the highest master. Arnold concludes the essay by pointing out the case of Burns, how a personal estimate of a poet can mislead us and how we can correct such an estimate by using the poetry of the great classics as a sort of touchstone, just as we would correct the historic estimate of a poet by the same means.
By such means we can derive the benefit of being able clearly to feel and deeply to enjoy the best, the truly classic in poetry.