Touchstone method by Matthew Arnold
Question: What do you disadvantages of Arnold's Touchstone method judging poetical work?
Or, What are the disadvantages of Arnold's Touchstone method of judging and evaluating poetry?
Or, What is Touchstone method as described in Arnold's The Study of Poetry. Discuss its disadvantage
Or, Critically comment on Arnold's Touchstone method of literary criticism.
Mathew Arnold has set a really very high standard for the judgement of poetry. His conception of poetry is an exalted one. He forces the immense future of poetry when poetry will take the place of religion and science, and our human race will find a surer stay in poetry.
But only truly excellent poetry can reach that high destiny, In the Study of Poetry, Arnold delineates his idea of excellent poetry and formulates a practical method for identifying true poetry. This method is named by him the Touchstone Method.
Arnold adopts the method suggested by Longinus and Addison in a modified form. They have told us that the greatest test of excellence is the test of time. If a work of art is read and admired by people of different tastes, countries and ages, then it is great to work. But Arnold's Touchstone Method is a comparative method of criticism.
According to this method, the specimens of the very highest quality of poetry are compared to the specimens of the work of poetry understudy and conclusions are drawn in favour or against the work. The method requires to keep in one's mind lines and expressions of the great masters and to apply them as a touchstone to other poetical works. If the other work moves us in the same way as these lines and expressions do, then it is really great work, otherwise not.
This method was recommended by Arnold to overcome the shortcomings of the personal and historical estimates of a poem. Both historical and personal estimate go in vain. In the personal estimate, we cannot wholly leave out the personal and subjective factors. In the historical estimate, historical importance often makes us rate work as higher than it really deserves.
In order to form a real estimate, one should have the ability to distinguish a real classic. At this point, Arnold offers his theory of the Touchstone Method. A real classic, says Arnold, is a work, which belongs to the class of the very best. It can be recognised by placing it beside the known classics of the world. Those known classics can serve as the touchstone by which the merit of contemporary poetic work can be tested. This is the central idea of Arnold's Touchstone Method.
Arnold suggests that a reader should always have in his mind lines and expressions of the great masters of poetry and that these lines should be applied as a touchstone to judge other poetry. The poetry need not resemble these lines and expressions; they may be very different, applied with fact and care, can help us detect the presence or absence of high excellence in a poem.
Arnold illustrates his point by giving short passages and even single lines from Homer, Dante, Shakespeare and Milton. These are Arnold's touchstones gathered from the works of the greatest classics of European literature. After formulating his concept of the Touchstone, Arnold goes on to show its practical application. He looks at the poetry of Chaucer, Pope, Dryden, Gray and Burns. As far as the subject matter of great poetry is concerned, Arnold values the quality of ‘high seriousness’ which he believes to be the central essence of the great classics. He praises Chaucer's style and manner calls his action ‘divine’ and ‘gold dew-drops of speech’.
But according to him, Chaucer is found to be lacking in high seriousness, when the Touchstone method is applied to his poetry. By using one line from Dante,
In la sua volun tade nostra pace .. with that, he concludes that the substance of Chaucer's poetry, his view of things and his criticism of life, has largeness, freedom, shrewdness, benignity, but it has not this high seriousness.
Homer's criticism of life has it, Dante's has it, Shakespeare's has it. as a Touchstone and by comparing Chaucer's line Arnold applies the Touchstone Method for determining the worth of the works of Dryden and Pope, and comes to the conclusion that though they can be called the classics of our prose', they can not be called the classics of poetry. He uses lines each from Shakespeare, Milton and Chaucer as Touchstones and proves that no line of Dryden and Pope is as these quoted lines.
Arnold's Touchstone Method has created much hot criticism. Many critics have marked that his choice of Touchstone takes into account mere lines and passages and not the poem as a whole, It is the impression of a poem that matters, not pieces of it. In this case, Arnold's own contention goes against his estimation. One of the contradictions of Arnold's own view is that the subject of the poem is the most important aspect of poetry. If we judge it by his touchstone method, there is no space for judging the subject.
We can only judge poetry by the style, the manner of writing. Critics are particularly annoyed with Arnold's failure to appreciate the seriousness of Chaucer's poetry. But in spite of this criticism, Arnold's method has got its practical value and can guide our arrangement to a great extent. Arnold's examples show how a critic of fact and intelligence can employ the "Touchstone method" seriously.