The Touchstones of Matthew Arnold

The Touchstones of Matthew Arnold

The Touchstones of Matthew Arnold

The Touchstones of Matthew Arnold

Excerpt

On a blank page in the front of Matthew Arnold's pocket diary and almanac for 1880, under the heading "To write-1880," is the entry "Preface to Ward's Poets"; and as late as November of that year he tells his sister of his preparation for the task:

I have been reading Chaucer a great deal, the early French poets a great deal, and Burns a great deal. Burns is a beast, with splendid gleams, and the medium in which he lived, Scotch peasants, Scotch Presbyterianism, and Scotch drink, is repulsive. Chaucer, on the other hand, pleases me more and more, and his medium is infinitely superior. But I shall finish with Shakespeare King Lear before I finally write my Introduction, in order to have a proper taste in my mouth while I am at work.

In 1872 Arnold's niece, Mary Augusta, the daughter of his younger brother Tom, had married Thomas Humphry Ward, then fellow and tutor of Brasenose, who in 1880 went up to London for a life of literary work. There his first task was to bring out the important selections of verse called The English Poets, a work considerably enriched by the contribution of his wife's eminent uncle. For the "Preface to Ward's Poets," one of Arnold's most important critical utterances, is widely known as The Study of Poetry, under which title it heads the nine papers published in 1888 as Essays in Criticism, 2nd Series. In it he enunciates his famous test of poetry by means of the application of "touchstone" passages. These passages, and their bearing on Arnold's characteristic states of mind and habits of thought, are the chief concern of this work.

Arnold was, in 1880, at the very height of his influence and powers. He was in his fifty-eighth year. For nearly thirty years he had been an inspector of schools, and the period of his official employment was drawing to a close. Save for "WestminsterAbbey . . ."

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