Short notes on Arnold as a critic

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Arnold always has less difficulty in knowing what to admire in the classics. One of Arnold’s most memorable terms is “touchstones.” By this he means small pieces of poetry – “short passages, even single lines”, a line of Dante, of Chaucer, of Shakespeare, two lines of Milton” – unmistakable examples of great poetry, such as a critic ought to carry about with him and apply as norms in the estimate of other poetry.

He says of his touchstone, “A single line, however, is too little if we have not the strain of Chaucer’s verse well in our memory”. Still he is talking precisely about the “strain” of the verse. To make the touchstone test it would seem we do not have to know much of anything about the story of the little “clergies.”

Arnold enjoyed a tall and successful aloofness from the historizing spirit of his times. He broadcast his criticism with a suave assurance that made him seem anything but a gauntly anachronistic and mistaken prophet. “Dryden and Pope”, he was to say in one of his later and most notorious pronouncements, “were classics of our prose.”

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Arnold’s mixed regard for the major English poets of the preceding generation produced some of the most highly colored images which he has left us. Arnold spent his career in hammering the thesis that poetry is a “criticism of life.”

Arnold’s arguments about translation (his stern rejection of Newman’s effort in search of an idiom) illustrate the growth of the historical sense in his era but also the limitations of that sense as the age applied it to poetry.

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