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Matthew Arnold’s Touchstone Method
Matthew Arnold is not only a critic but also a poet in the history of English literature. He introduces some
methods of criticism in "The Study of Poetry". These are personal estimate, historical estimate and above all
arnold's touchstone method. Arnold is much influenced by Longinus who advocated touchstone method or the
comparative method. His touchstone method has been praised by many critics though it has got some
shortcomings. For these limitations, Arnold is much condemned. His choice of quotations or passages is quite
praiseworthy. He chooses the quotations or lines which are great in diction and style but only the lines from
Milton. Critics find no important diction but only moral sentiment.
Touchstone is a word generally used to mean a standard for comparing and judging other things. It is used for
measurement and verification. But the term conveys completely a different meaning in the world of literature.
Matthew Arnold tries a lot to invent an ideal standard of ideal literary works in "The Study of Poetry ". He
invents a process by which the real worth or value of literary work can be judged. This process of judging a
piece is called touchstone method.
Touchstone method can be applied to the writers of all ages. According to Arnold, a writer is a creative man.
The creativity of a writer is basically an abstract quality. If the writer is new, it becomes very difficult to justify
him and his works. This difficulty causes as we are not aware of him. We may not understand y nature of his
writings. As a result, a critic and a reader are always in confusion to find out the success and the failure of a
new kind of writing. But 'touchstone method' solves this problem. It can judge a new writer and his writings
very clearly.
For the judgement of any literary art, Arnold propounds at first the personal estimate and historical y. But both
of them are not ideal standards. They have defects and limitations. Arnold then propounds touchstone
method. In this method, he has chosen some quotations of passages from t great writers like Shakespeare,
Dante and Milton. He introduces a comparative method of justification of poetry. This does not mean that the
subject-matter of the touchstone piece and that of the literary piece would be similar. But the poetic diction
and high seriousness would be the same. Critics have praised Arnold's choice of the remarkable quotations.
Arnold suggests that we have to collect some lines of the great masters or writers at first. Then we have to
apply them as a touchstone to other poems. It means that we have to make a comparative study between
some extracts of world famous literary works and new literary works. Some selected lines or expressions of the
great writers can be used as a 'touchstone' to find out the real standard of a new writing. For this purpose, we
can quote some lines from Homer, Dante, Shakespeare and Milton. We can select them from other writers too.
Then we have to make a comparative study between them and the new writings. If we can see the images of
the great writers in the works of the new writers, we will consider the new writers and their new writings with
great value. If we do not find the shadows of great literary works in the new literary works, we will consider
the new literary works and the new writers as worthless.
In this critical essay, Arnold propounds this new theory of touchstone method. He even applies this theory to
the writings of Chaucer. He quotes some lines from Chaucer and compares them with a line from Dante.
Arnold decides that Chaucer does not have the quality of a great writer. In other words, Chaucer is not great as
the general people think of him. According to Arnold, many quotations of Chaucer have become well-known
and attracted the attention of the critics. He applies his touchstone method to justify the merits of Chaucer. He
compares Chaucer with Dante. His comparative study shows that Chaucer does not have the quality of high
seriousness like Dante, Homer, Shakespeare and Milton.
According to the theory of touchstone method, Chaucer fails to present high seriousness in his works. This
lacking excludes Chaucer from the group of the classics. High seriousness is the basic essence of any authentic
poetry. The true success of poetry lies in its high seriousness. No poetry can achieve success without it. A poet
can apply his ideas of life in his poetry. But his application will fail if there is no seriousness. High seriousness is
the product of poetic truth and poetic beauty. High seriousness will come out for the catalectic influence of
poetic truth and poetic beauty. It is the chief aim of poetry. Chaucer cannot be a classic because he does not
show the signs of high seriousness in his poetry. For this reason, touchstone method does not approve
Chaucer as a classic writer.
Touchstone method is not accepted by all. It is true that many critics support it for its creative aspects. But
many of them oppose it for its arbitrary nature. According to them, a writer should not be compared because
the creativity of a writer is totally different from that of another writer. As a result, comparative study does not
work in the case of poetry or any other writing. Garrod who is a famous critic humorously calls it "the study of
selling poetry by the pound". T. S. Eliot also severely criticises touchstone method. He does not believe in this
comparative judgement procedure of Arnold.On the whole, we can say that Matthew Arnold is famous for the
theory of his touchstone method. His theory is often praised highly and seems to be logical. But it is very sad
that his touchstone method has got some fatal limitations. He believes that a quotations may judge a whole
poetry. But how it can be possible? A mere quotation cannot be a standard for judging poetry. Besides
according to the touchstone method, poetry can be judged only by diction, style and manner, not by the
subject matter. Of course, subject matter is a great factor in a poem. Touchstone method is condemned by T. S.
Eliot. But Eliot himself is much influenced by Matthew Arnold.
Touchstone Method is a short quotation from a recognized poetic masterpiece ‘The Study of Poetry’ (1880),
employed as a standard of instant comparison for judging the value of other works. Here Arnold recommends
certain lines of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and Milton as touchstones for testing ‘the presence or absence of
high poetic quality’ in samples chosen from other poets. The "Touchstone Method" - introduced scientific
objectivity to critical evaluation by providing comparison and analysis as the two primary tools for judging
individual poets. Thus, Chaucer, Dryden, Pope, and Shelley fall short of the best, because they lack "high
seriousness". Even Shakespeare thinks too much of expression and too little of conception. Arnold's ideal poets
are Homer and Sophocles in the ancient world, Dante and Milton, and among moderns, Goethe and
Wordsworth. Arnold puts Wordsworth in the front rank not for his poetry but for his "criticism of life".
Arnold writes, in order to judge a poet's work properly, a critic should compare it to passages taken from works
of great masters of poetry, and that these passages should be applied as touchstones to other poetry. Even a
single line or selected quotation will serve the purpose. From this we see that he has shifted his position from
that expressed in the preface to his Poems of 1853. In The Study of Poetry he no longer uses the acid test of
action and architectonics. He became an advocate of 'touchstones'. 'Short passages even single lines,' he said,
'will serve our turn quite sufficiently'.
Some of Arnold's touchstone passages are: Helen's words about her wounded brother, Zeus addressing the
horses of Peleus, suppliant Achilles' words to Priam, and from Dante; Ugolino's brave words, and Beatrice's
loving words to Virgil. From non-Classical writers he selects from Henry IV Part II (III, i), Henry's expostulation
with sleep - 'Wilt thou upon the high and giddy mast…' From Hamlet (V, ii) 'Absent thee from felicity awhile…
From Milton's Paradise Lost Book 1, 'Care sat on his faded cheek . . .', and 'What is else not to be overcome.'
Like Ruskin Arnold too wanted the contemporary reader against certain fallacies; the ‘fallacy’ of “historical
estimate” and the “fallacy” of “personal estimate” were both, in Arnold’s view, reflections of inadequate and
improper response to literature. According to him, both the historical significance of a literary work as well as
its significance to the critic in personal terms tend to obliterate the real estimate of that work as in itself reality
is. The best way to know the class, to which a work belongs in terms of the excellence of art, Arnold
recommends, is “to have always in one’s mind lines and expressions of the great masters, and to apply them as
a touchstone to other poetry.”
Comparing with the best lines and passages from Homer and Shakespeare, Arnold surveys the entire track of English poetry, and
divides the various poets into the categories of the good-and-great and the not-so-good and not-so-great. His idea of tradition is
select in that only the great constitute the body of literary history we should care for, and the rest we better ignore. Arnold’s view of
the greatness in poetry and what a literary critic should look for are summed up as follows: “it is important, therefore, to hold fast to
this: that poetry is at bottom a criticism of life; that the greatness of a poet lies in his powerful and beautiful application of ideas to
life, —to the question: how to live.” here is sort of manifesto for the criticism of the early Victorians as well as an indictment of the
critical creed, ‘art for art’s sake,’ as propounded and advocated by the later Victorians.