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Arnold on Wordsworth, Shelly, Keats and Byron/his denouncement of Romanticism:-

[the bracketed portions are for Arnold’s opinion on Wordsworth Shelley Keats and
Byron. The rest of the answer and the last two paragraphs are for his denouncement of
Romanticism.]

Arnold's evaluations of the Romantic poets such as Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, and Keats
are landmarks in descriptive criticism, and as a poet-critic he occupies an eminent position in
the rich galaxy of poet-critics of English literature. Arnold did not consider the Romantic age,
that which was born of the French Revolution, to be an epoch of expansion. He thought it
almost was, but it failed. Instead, he considered this age to be an epoch of concentration, one
in which ideas are stagnant and the free exchange of ideas is stifled.

Arnold turns his back on the prevailing Romantic view of poetry and seeks to revive the
Classical values of objectivity, urbanity, and architectonics. He denounces the Romantics for
ignoring the Classical writers for the sake of novelty, and for their allusive (Arnold uses the
word 'suggestive') writing which defies easy comprehension. In the preface to
his Poems (1853) Arnold asserts the importance of architectonics; ('that power of execution,
which creates, forms, and constitutes') in poetry - the necessity of achieving unity by
subordinating the parts to the whole, and the expression of ideas to the depiction of human
action, and condemns poems which exist for the sake of single lines or passages, stray
metaphors, images, and fancy expressions. Scattered images and happy turns of phrase, in his
view, can only provide partial effects, and not contribute to unity. He also, continuing his
anti-Romantic theme, urges, modern poets to shun allusiveness and not fall into the
temptation of subjectivity.

He says that even the imitation of Shakespeare is risky for a young writer, who should imitate
only his excellences, and avoid his attractive accessories, tricks of style, such as quibble,
conceit, circumlocution and allusiveness, which will lead him astray.

As an example of the danger of imitating Shakespeare he gives Keats's imitation of


Shakespeare in his Isabella or the Pot of Basil. Keats uses felicitous phrases and single happy
turns of phrase, yet the action is handled vaguely and so the poem does not have unity. By
way of contrast, he says the Italian writer Boccaccio handled the same theme successfully in
his Decameron, because he rightly subordinated expression to action. Hence Boccaccio's
poem is a poetic success where Keats's is a failure.

Arnold also wants the modern writer to take models from the past because they depict human
actions which touch on 'the great primary human affections: to those elementary feelings
which subsist permanently in the race, and which are independent of time'. Characters such as
Agamemnon, Dido, Aeneas, Orestes, Merope, Alcmeon, and Clytemnestra, leave a
permanent impression on our minds. After Comparing 'The Iliad' or 'The Aeneid' with 'The
Childe Harold' or 'The Excursion' one can see the difference.
[[ In the second series of Essays in Criticism, he takes here the risk of entering "on times
where the personal estimate of' poets begins to rife". He writes on the four great romantic
poets, Keats, Wordsworth, Byron and Shelley.

Matthew Arnold, an important Victorian social and literary critic, wrote of Wordsworth 'I, for
one, must always listen to him with the profoundest respect'. However, he thought that
ultimately, Wordsworth could never be a truly great and permanent poet of the stature that
Coleridge had suggested he might be. He felt the poetry of Wordsworth and the other
Romantic poets to be 'premature', produced 'without sufficient materials to work with'.
Arnold summarises: 'In other words, the English poetry of the first quarter of this century,
with plenty of energy, plenty of creative force, did not know enough'. This was a shortcoming
not of the poets themselves, but of the society in which they were writing; this response is
ironic in that both Coleridge and Wordsworth read copiously in numerous fields. But for
Arnold, both the strength and the weakness of Wordsworth's poetry would always be that it
had its 'source in a great movement of feeling, not in a great movement of mind'.

Arnold writes that Wordsworth was popular in his own life time but since his death, his
popularity has gradually declined. He is not fully recognised at home and he is not at all
recognised abroad. This negligence of his writing is very surprising as his poetical
performance in English language is next only to Milton and Shakespeare and in European
poetry, is next only to Goethe and Moliere. The real cause of this negligence is Wordsworth’s
large quantity of inferior work. Arnold finds that Wordsworth’s best works are his shorter
pieces.

According to Arnold, Wordsworth’s superiority arises from the powerful application of ideas
to life. His best poems are criticism of life. Wordsworth communicates to us the joy, ‘in
widest commonality spread’. His use of the plain style is unique . His poetry is unmatchable
when there is a successful balance of profound truth of subject with profound truth of
execution.

Wordsworth’s formal philosophy as revealed in the Excursion and in the Odes on Intimations
to Immorality is not an element in his poetic greatness. Indeed, too much talk about his
philosophy has obscured his greatness as a poet. But, his poetry is as inevitable as Nature
itself. His poetry, at its best, is sure to cooperate with the benign tendencies of human nature
and make men ‘happier, wiser, better’.

Wordsworth "gives us so much to rest upon, so much which communicates his spirit and
engages ours”. The key phrase is “to rest upon”, that is, in Wordsworth' a poetry, “ the spirit
of our race will find,... its consolation and stay ".Wordsworth's is that kind or poetry to which
"we have to turn ... to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us ".
In his essay on Shelley, Arnold shows a personal disliking of Shelley. Shelley as a poet and
prophet could not satisfy Arnold’s demands of character. Arnold has criticised Prof. Dowden
for defending Shelley. As a Victorian he could not approve the ‘sensuous’ Keats or
‘inflammable’ Shelley. His Shelley criticism is more a biography than literary criticism.
Shelley was the friend of the unfriended poor. He possessed feminine refinement, gracious
manners and was without arrogance. His earnestness and his freedom from everything
artificial charmed everybody. He writes, ‘The man Shelley, in very truth, is not entirely sane,
and Shelley’s poetry is not entirely sane either. The Shelley of actual life is a vision of beauty
and radiance, indeed, but availing nothing, effecting nothing. And in poetry, no less than in
life, he is “a beautiful and ineffectual angel beating in the void his luminous wings in vain”.
In other words, there is an incurable want of sound subject matter in his poetry. As a result, it
suffers from unsubstantiality.

In spite of being a Victorian, it is strange that Arnold considered Byron and Wordsworth as a
‘glorious pair’ and according to him Wordsworth is inferior to Byron. He writes, “In spite of
his prodigious vogue, Byron has never yet, perhaps, had the serious admiration which he
deserves.”It is not the artist in Arnold but the critic, the social critic, and even more,
something in his person, that admires Byron, the Byron who fought against British
Philistinism. The chief motive behind Arnold’s Byronism is this battle of Byron against
philistinism. Byron" shattered himself to places against the huge, black, cloud-topped,
interminable Precipice of British Philistinism”.

Arnold finds character and self control wanting in Keats’ letters to Fanny Brawne—“Keats’
love letter is the love-letter of a surgeon’s apprentice”. He is abundantly sensuous but a
merely sensuous man cannot either by promise or by performance be a great poet. Arnold, as
a moralist, could not approve Keats’ sensuousness but he loves the classical conception of
Keats’ principle of beauty. He praised Keats for his principle of beauty in all things. Arnold
writes that Keats perceived the necessary relation between beauty with truth and both with
joy. Misfortune, disease and death are responsible for Keats’ incomplete achievements. He
had more than any other poet almost Shakespearean felicity of expression but he does not
have the faculty for moral interpretation which Shakespeare has. Keats is perfect in his
shorter pieces as in them moral interpretation and high architectonics are not required.

Arnold makes clear his disapproval of the vagaries of some of the Romantic poets. Perhaps
he would have agreed with Goethe, who saw Romanticism as disease and Classicism as
health. But Arnold occasionally looked at things with jaundiced eyes, and he overlooked the
positive features of Romanticism which posterity will not willingly let die, such as its
humanitarianism, love of nature, love of childhood, a sense of mysticism, faith in man with
all his imperfections, and faith in man's unconquerable mind.

Arnold's inordinate love of classicism made him blind to the beauty of lyricism. He ignored
the importance of lyrical poems, which are subjective and which express the sentiments and
the personality of the poet. Judged by Arnold's standards, a large number of poets both
ancient and modern are dismissed because they sang with 'Profuse strains of unpremeditated
art'.]