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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 estimates, historical estimate,s and above all Arnold's touchstone method. Arnold is much influenced by Longinus who advocated the 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 the touchstone method.

Touchstone method can be applied to 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 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 an 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 can not 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.
Arnold's touchstone method


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Anonymous said...

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Unknown said...

Do you agree that the touchstone method is practically feasible and successful in evaluating poetry

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