The Study of Poetry


Matthew Arnold

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The Study of Poetry Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Matthew Arnold's The Study of Poetry. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Matthew Arnold

Matthew Arnold was a poet and literary critic whose reputation as a leading figure in the literary culture of Victorian-era England rests on his lyric poetry and, above all, his cultural criticism, which defended high culture from the growing materialism of Arnold’s day and affirmed the vital importance of intellectual integrity to a healthy democratic society. Born into an intellectual family, Arnold was educated at Oxford and published his first book of poetry in 1849 before taking a position as an inspector of schools—a job that not only allowed him to support his family but enabled him to visit many far-flung areas of England and to develop his unconventional views on the direction English society was taking in the Victorian era. While Arnold’s poetry was generally, if not universally, admired, his reputation as a leading critic grew with the publication of Essays in Criticism (1865) and Culture and Anarchy (1869), in which Arnold argued passionately for the importance of upholding the highest standards in art and society, respectively. It was in the latter work that Arnold offered his memorable definition of culture as “the best which has been thought and said.” By the time of his death in 1888, Arnold was regarded as one of England’s most important critics, and his views on the function of art in a democratic society continue to have significant influence among cultural critics and political philosophers.
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Historical Context of The Study of Poetry

Matthew Arnold lived and wrote during the reign of Queen Victoria (1837 to 1901), a time of both dramatic transformation and remarkable stability in British society. Against the backdrop of widespread revolution across Europe in 1848, a steady rate of social reform and increased democratic participation in Great Britain provoked debates over what British culture should look like in an age of a rising middle class. New technologies such as the railroad and the telegraph supported the emergence of an industrial economy that spanned Europe and hastened urbanization, prompting romantic nostalgia for vanishing ways of life. Religion gradually retreated from its previous cultural importance, causing critics like Arnold to wonder what would replace it. New artistic movements (such as Realism in literature and Impressionism in painting) offered their own answers, suggesting that art could meet the human need for fundamental truths. The growth of literacy led to the emergence of a broader reading public and drove demand for newspapers and popular literature, but it also caused critics like Arnold to worry about the fate of high culture. All of these changes, which are recognized now as the features of modernity, caused anxiety about the future among thinkers like Arnold, who wrote “The Study of Poetry” to reaffirm poetry’s preeminence in European culture.

Other Books Related to The Study of Poetry

Matthew Arnold’s essays on poetry, of which “The Study of Poetry” is a quintessential example, carved out an important place in literary criticism of the Victorian era. Since Arnold was defending the primacy of what he calls “classic poetry”—represented by the works of Homer, Dante, and Milton—against other social and artistic movements, it is worth noting other critics who were taking part in this critical debate, which was ultimately about the duties and responsibilities of the poet to society, and vice versa. Forty years earlier, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “A Defence of Poetry” prepared the ground for Arnold’s essay by making the case for poetry as an art form with a unique commitment to truth and beauty and for poets as “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” John Ruskin, another important critic of the Victorian period, argued in Modern Painters (1843-1860) that the highest obligation of the artist (and, by implication, the poet) is to express fundamental truths, an idea that Arnold would develop in his own way in “The Study of Poetry.” In contrast to Arnold, who sought a rigorous universal method for distinguishing truly classic poetry, the critic Walter Pater emphasized the importance of subjectivity and individuality in works like The Renaissance (1873). Thus, in writing “The Study of Poetry,” Arnold was joining other Victorian-era thinkers who were preoccupied with one of the key questions of 19th-century aesthetics and the relationship between truth, beauty, and morality.
Key Facts about The Study of Poetry
  • Full Title: The Study of Poetry
  • When Written: 1879
  • Where Written: England
  • When Published: 1880
  • Literary Period: Victorian
  • Genre: Essay, Literary Criticism
  • Climax: Arnold concludes that despite the public’s apparent retreat from reading classic poetry, poetry will never lose its status as the supreme consolation for thinking people, since human beings will aways return to poetry in moments of need.
  • Antagonist: Charlatanism
  • Point of View: First Person

Extra Credit for The Study of Poetry

A Memorable Introduction. Although it was republished in Arnold’s Essays in Criticism, Second Series and is now often read as an anthologized essay, “The Study of Poetry” was originally written as an introduction to an anthology of English poets. The fact that the essay has outlived the book it was intended to introduce is a testament to the enduring fascination of the questions Arnold sets out to answer.

The Philistine. Arnold is credited with introducing the term “Philistine”—his derogatory term for a narrow-minded person who is hostile to culture—into English usage in his book Culture and Anarchy (1869). Arnold’s attack on Philistinism can also be seen in “The Study of Poetry,” in which he subtly berates readers who are unwilling to insist on the highest standards.