Tuesday 9 December 2014

Chetan Bhagat's 'one night @ the call center': Worksheet for Literary Analysis

Worksheet for Literary Analysis
Chetan Bhagat's 'one night @ the call centre' (2005)
(Quiz based on this novel)

(Do not miss to visit this blog for some interesting videos and links
Bhagat's Novels retain 5 position in top ten beset sellers in India
“It isn’t great literature. Serious critics will no doubt quibble with the two-dimensional characterization, the pedestrian prose, the plot’s contrived dues ex machine, and the author’s hokey spiritualism.” (Tharoor). Yet, Chetan Bhagat’s novels remain top 5 best sellers in January 2014. ‘one night @ the call centre’ (on@tcc, the author likes to call it thus), after nine long years of its publication, still retains sixth position among top ten bestselling novels in India in January 2014. (Balaji). Even then, there are websites which does not consider Chetan Bhagat in revered and highly acclaimed English fiction and novel writers who have garnered prestigious literary awards such as the Pulitzer and the Booker Prize. (Kausambi). This website considered Arundhati Roy (The God of Small Things - 1997), Amitav Ghosh (The Shadow Lines – 1988), Anita Desai (Fasting, Feasting - 1999), Vikram Sheth (A Suitable Boy – 1993), Khushwant Singh (Train to Pakistan – 1956), Abraham Verghese (Cutting For Stone – 2009), Amit Chaudhary (The Immortals – 2009), Akhil Sharma (An Obedient Father – 2000) and Aravind Adiga (The White Tiger – 2008) (Kausambi) as the Top Selling Must Read Indian Novelist of high acclaim. Quite conspicuously, Chetan Bhagat is not mention in this list. It may not have any effect on Chetan Bhagat. “For all its billion-strong population, only 61% of whom can officially read, India is hardly commercially viable territory for the workaday novelist. The typical Indian “bestseller” sells between 3,000 and 5,000 copies; a true success is one that remains in print for years, with reprints of 2,000 copies or so every nine or twelve months. In this modest market, on@tcc reportedly sold more than 1,00,000 copies in the first few months after its publication, and the demand shows no sign of abating.” (Tharoor). Quite obvious, why would anybody care for awards when the showers of manna overflow the coffers?

To be or not to be popular is not under the control of the text. So, to say that, the text does not have literariness because it is popular is nothing less than an injustice forced on the text.  No fiction shall be denied the literary analysis. We may conclude against the text, but not without weighing pros and cons of and in the literary text.

Well, let us see if this brave attempt by the Boswell of this brave new middle-class Indians (the Samuel Johnsons) has captured their aspirations, the dream and the desire better themselves in the era of Globalization with poignancy or has just touch-and-go kind of superficial portrayal of their characters and life. Let us pose some questions before on@tcc and see if it has potential to answer them.  The students are suggested to give their responses to the below given markers in the ‘comment’ below this blogpost.

1.     Contemporary issues in on@tcc:
a.     Do you agree: “Bhagat has a talent for tapping into the zeitgeist; that he is not much older than the people he writes about makes him a particularly credible portrayer of their world.” (Tharoor). Give illustrations from your reading of the novel.
b.     Can you justify this observation? “Bhagat's tone is pitch-perfect, his observer's eye keenly focused on nuance and detail. Verisimilitude is all: The first two thirds of the novel evokes, indeed reproduces, the way the young call center workers think, talk, eat, drink, dress, date and behave.” (Tharoor).
c.      Had  Bhagat’s vision been shallow, he wouldn’t have been able to see “call-centers as soul-destroying sweatshop, soaking up the energies of young Indians who could be doing better for themselves and their country”. (Bhagat). Do you feel that Chetan Bhagat with this observation has captured the skeleton image of the undercurrents in the society?
d.     Bhagat has an insight for the contemporary issues that are movers and shakers in India. See the below give table. You will find all his novels listed with the key contemporary issue portrayed with his imaginative stockade in the fiction, respectively. Share your observations on the important issues of the time and its delineation in Chetan Bhagat’s fictional oeuvre.

Issues in Bhagat's novels
e. Coleridge remarked in defence of Wordsworth: Had Mr. Wordsworth's poems been the silly, the childish things … they must have sunk at once, a dead weight, into the slough of oblivion, and have dragged the preface along with them.” (Coleridge). In light of the decade long career of Chetan Bhagat, can we say so about his literary contribution? 

2.     Mannepean satire:

a.     Menippean satire, seriocomic genre, chiefly in ancient Greek literature and Latin literature, in which contemporary institutions, conventions, and ideas were criticized in a mocking satiric style that mingled prose and verse. (Manippean Satire). Can you justify on@tcc as Menippean satire?
Do not miss to illustrate contemporary conventions like ‘throwaway culture’ (Suraiya) or ‘the great Indian chamcha’ (watch this video:


                                                             i.      Other issues that surfaced while discussion in the classroom – Bossism (authority), satire on people’s mindset that God only can solve problem, satire on work-culture (i.e. love your work but never your company, you never know when your company stops loving you), ‘loyalty’, marriage institution, family values (Priyanka: “I want my mother to be happy. But I cannot kill myself for it. My mother needs to realize . . . she is responsible for her own happiness.” Radhika: “I want to divorce Anuj. I don’t want to ever look at my mother-in-law’s face again.” (Bhagat)).

3.     The effect of Globalization:

a.     Thomas Friedman’s the World is Flat (Friedman)and on@tcc:
                                                             i.      Friedman’s notion of the Flat World is a reality. Justify this with an analysis fo the novel on@tcc. (Read here the reference in Chapter 2)
                                                           ii.      What sort of future projections discussed in The World is Flat seems to be supported in the fictional narrative of on@tcc?
                                                        iii.      on@tcc is a novel which brings out th effects of Globalisation at the cost of the personal. Elaborate.
                                                        iv.      Globalization has had a huge impact on thinking across the humanities, redefining the understanding of fields such as communication, culture, politics, and literature. (Connell and Marsh). How far is this novel affected by Globalization?
v. "Although technological revolution, transnational corporations, and global restructuring of capitalism have made the world increasingly interdependent and interconnected, radically altering our concepts of time, space, politics, and relations, this has in no way changed the fundamental fact that the West still poses or imposes itself as the centre of the world. The mythology of a world already decentered politically, culturally, economically, and ideologically papers over the lived global power-relations between the developed West and the underdeveloped Rest." (Shaoba Xie, Is the World Decentered? A Postcolonial Perspective on Globalization.) 
vi. Suman Gupta in Under Construction: “World Literature” in the Twenty-First Century portrays many of globalization’s major topics and processes: intercultural relations, intercultural conflict, transnationalism, population mobility, heterogenization, homogenization, hybridity, the public-private interface, economic integration, and so on.
vii. Sanjaya Subramanium's observation on another post-modern paradox authorship. (Read full interview) Here in on@tcc, how does this operate?

4.     Narrative Structure:
a.     The literature is not just telling stories in chronological order. It is the ‘how’ part of the story-telling which matters most. Chetan Bhagat makes interesting use of prologue and epilogue in this novel. The Aristotelian unities of time, place and action are also taken care of in plot construction. The justification of dues ex machine is also given with the possible alternative reading of the novel without God. Discuss with reference to the narrative structure of Life of Pi (Martel), the merits and demerits of the narrative structure of on@tcc.

b. “The narrative follows the dream of the author in train from Kanpur to Delhi, wherein God, in form of mysteriously beautiful young lady, narrates the story of ‘One Night @ the Call Centre’, which, in turn, is written from the perspective of Shyam – one of the six characters in the novel.” Comment upon the narrative structure of the novel.

5.     Popular Literature and ON@TCC

a.     Do you agree that on@tcc has following characteristics (Robinson, "Popular Prose Fiction.")  of Popular literature? Do not miss to give illustrations:
                                                             i.      Popular literature commonly lacks a sustained plot, worked out with close regard to cause and effect.
                                                           ii.      Still more characteristically it lacks the study of character and the intellectual analysis of such varied problems as occupy the fiction of the present age.
                                                        iii.      The popular romances lay their stress chiefly on incident and adventure or simple intrigue, and set forth only the more familiar and accepted moral teachings.
                                                        iv.      They represent, on the whole, an instinctive or traditional, rather than a highly reflective, philosophy of life.
                                                           v.      For all these reasons they have come to be regarded chiefly as the literature of children; a natural result, perhaps, of the fact that they originated largely in the childhood of civilization or among the simple peoples in more advanced ages.
                                                        vi.      It does not raise or answer abstract questions; it assumes that man knows what he needs to know in order to live.

6.     Self-help book and on@tcc:

a.     Define and discuss the characteristics of Self – help book in on@tcc.
What is the importance of the Call from God in the novel? Do you believe that under the law of probability and possibility, there are once in a while chances of such happenstance?
b. Reading resources: 
i) Self-Help, Inc. by Micki McGee / Review of this book - Click here to read online
ii) Self-Help Book (wikipedia)

7. One of the themes of the novel is its anti-American sentiments which are intertwined with Nationalism. Had you been God, what would have been your answer to Vroom when he said "If only you had given India as much as America!"?


Click here to appear in the quiz to test your understanding of the novel

The Hindi film Hello is based on this novel. (Bhagat, Hello)

Additional Reading Resources:


Balaji. neetchi. 2 Jan 2014. 8 Dec 2014 <http://www.neetchi.com/best-selling-books-in-india-january-2014/>.
Bhagat, Chetan. one night @ the call center. New Delhi: Rupa & Co., 2005.
Coleridge, Samuel. Biographia Literaria or Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and Opinions. London, 1815-17.
Connell, Liam and Nicky Marsh. Literature and Globalization: A Reader. USA: Routledge Literature Readers, 2011.
Friedman, Thomas. The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. United Sates: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005.
Hello. Dir. Atul Agnihotri. Perf. Chetan Bhagat. Prod. Atul Agnihotri. 2008.
India, The Times of. "The Great Indian Chamcha." 23 Nov 2014. YouTubeIndiaTimes. 8 Dec 2014 <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DHfR04Jm54g>.
Kausambi. track.in. 9 Aug 2014. 8 Dec 2014 <http://trak.in/tags/business/2012/02/09/top-selling-indian-novels-all-times/>.
Life of Pi. Dir. Ang Lee. Perf. Yan martel. 2012.
"Manippean Satire." 27 March 2013. Encyclopaedia Britannica. 8 Dec 2014 <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/375088/Menippean-satire>.
Martel, Yan. Life of Pi. Canada: Knopf Canada, 2001.
Robinson, F.N. "Popular Prose Fiction." The Harvard Classics 1909-14. 8 Dec 2014 <http://www.bartleby.com/60/162.html>.
Suraiya, Jug. "Throwaway culture: Unlike earlier days when things were made to last, today everything is disposable." 3 Dec 2014. timesofindia.indiatimes.com. 8 Dec 2014 <http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/jugglebandhi/throwaway-culture/>.
Tharoor, Shashi. "India Finds Its Calling." Mar.-Apr. 2006. Foreign Policy. Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive, LLCStable. 6 Dec. 2013 <http://www.jstor.org/stable/25462017>.
Xie, Shaoba. 'Is the World Decentered? A Postcolonial Perspective on Globalization.' In Joseph and Wilson 2006, pp.53-75

Monday 1 December 2014

T. S. Eliot: Tradition and Individual Talent

Short Video Lectures and Quiz on T.S. Eliot's 
Tradition and Individual Talent (1919/1920-22)

T.S.Eliot’s “Tradition and Individual Talent” was published in 1919 in The Egoist - the Times Literary supplement. Later, the essay was published in The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism in 1920/2. (Gallup). This essay is described by David Lodge as the most celebrated critical essay in the English of the 20th century. The essay is divided into three main sections:
* the first gives us Eliot’s concept of tradition;
* the second exemplifies his theory of depersonalization and poetry. And in
* the third part he concludes the debate by saying that the poet’s sense of tradition and the impersonality of poetry are complementary things.
At the outset of the essay, Eliot asserts that the word ‘tradition’ is not a very favourable term with the English who generally utilize the same as a term of censure. The English do not possess an orientation towards criticism as the French do, they praise a poet for those aspects of the work that are individualistic.
 However, they fail to realize that the best and the most individual part of the poet’s work is that reflects maximum influence of writers of the past. Tradition does not imply a blind adherence to the literary tradition of the past tradition. This would amount to mere copying or slavish imitation.
For Eliot, Tradition has a three-fold significance. Firstly, tradition cannot be inherited and involves a great deal of labour and erudition. Secondly, it involves the historical sense which involves apperception not only of the pastness of the past, but also of its presence. Thirdly the historical sense enables a writer to write not only with his own generation in mind, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature from Homer down to the literature of his own country forms a continuous literary tradition.
As claimed by Chris Baldick that Eliot had created an inverted literary history in which history being second to the permanent quality of literature, is readjusted to accommodate it to literature. Therefore, Eliot’s conception of history is a dynamic one and not static; and is forever in a state of flux.

Short Video Lectures:

1. Introduction:

2. The Concept of Tradition:

3. Explanation of "Some can absorb knowledge, the more tardy must sweat for it":

4. Explanation of The Chemical Reaction: The theory of Depersonalization:

5. Summing up:

Critique of Eliot’s Critical Thought:
Until the middle of the last century, Eliot’s ideas of tradition were extraordinarily influential. His essay was a major contributor to Modernism’s rise and hegemony. Like its author, the essay came to be regarded as conservative, elitist, obsessed with order and backward-looking. (Gareth Reeves – T.S.Eliot and the Idea of Tradition in Patricia Waugh’s Literary Theory and Criticism)
Eliot’s theory of literary tradition has been criticized for its limited definition of what constitutes the canon of that tradition. He assumes the authority to choose what represents great poetry, and his choices have been criticized on several fronts. For example, Harold Bloom disagrees with Eliot’s condescension of Romantic poetry, which, in The Metaphysical Poets (1921) he criticizes for its "dissociation of sensibility." Moreover, many believe Eliot’s discussion of the literary tradition as the "mind of Europe" reeks of Euro-centrism. (on the same note it should be recognized that Eliot supported many Eastern and thus non-European works of literature such as the The Mahabharata. Eliot was arguing the importance of a complete sensibility: he didn't particularly care what it was at the time of tradition and the individual talent.) He does not account for a non-white and non-masculine tradition. As such, his notion of tradition stands at odds with feminist, post-colonial and minority theories. Kenyan author James Ngugi advocated (in a memo entitled "On the Abolition of the English Department") a commitment to native works, which speak to one’s own culture, as compared to deferring to an arbitrary notion of literary excellence. As such, he implicitly attacks Eliot’s subjective criterion in choosing an elite body of literary works. Post-colonial critic Chinua Achebe also challenges Eliot, since he argues against deferring to those writers, including Conrad, whom have been deemed great, but only represent a specific (and perhaps prejudiced) cultural perspective.
Harold Bloom (The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry:1975) presents a conception of tradition that differs from that of Eliot. Whereas Eliot believes that the great poet is faithful to his predecessors and evolves in a concordant manner, Bloom (according to his theory of "anxiety of influence") envisions the "strong poet" to engage in a much more aggressive and tumultuous rebellion against tradition.
In 1964, his last year, Eliot published in a reprint of The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, a series of lectures he gave at Harvard University in 1932 and 1933, a new preface in which he called "Tradition and the Individual Talent" the most juvenile of his essays (although he also indicated that he did not repudiate it.)
However, now that the dust is settling, when postmodernism is retreating, when we are beginning to live comfortably with the fact of plurality and the notion of literatures rather than Literature, and with canons rather the Canon, it is possible to return to Eliot’s idea of tradition, as critics and theorists have been doing of late, from a more impartial perspective. 

After viewing these short videos on key concepts in the essay 'Tradition and Individual Talent', students shall give their responses to the below given questions/though provokers. The responses shall be given in the comments section below this blog.

  1. How would you like to explain Eliot's concept of Tradition? Do you agree with it?
  2. What do you understand by Historical Sense? (Use these quotes to explain your understanding)
    • "The historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence"
    • This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional
  3. What is the relationship between “tradition” and “the individual talent,” according to the poet T. S. Eliot?
  4. Explain: "Some can absorb knowledge, the more tardy must sweat for it. Shakespeare acquired more essential history from Plutarch than most men could from the whole British Museum".
  5. Explain: "Honest criticism and sensitive appreciation is directed not upon the poet but upon the poetry"
  6. How would you like to explain Eliot's theory of ddepersonalization? You can explain with the help of chemical reaction in presence of catalyst agent, Platinum.
  7. Explain: " Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality."
  8. Write two points on which one can write critique on 'T.S. Eliot as a critic'.


Click here to attempt the quiz on this essay.

Further Readings:

  • Brooks, Harold Fletcher. T. S. Eliot as Literary Critic. London: C. Woolf, 1987.
  • Rainey, Lawrence S. Institutions of Modernism: Literary Elites and Public Culture. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.
  • Reeves, Gareth. T.S. Eliot and the Idea of Tradition. Ed. Patricia Waugh. An Oxford Guide: Literary Theory and Criticism. International Student Edition. 2006/7. OUP.
  • Shusterman, Richard. T. S. Eliot and the Philosophy of Criticism. London: Duchworth, 1988.
  • "T. S. Eliot." The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. Ed. Michael Groden, Martin Kreiswirth, and Imre Szeman. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.
Citation credits:
Barad, Dilip. Short Video Lectures on T.S. Eliot. NMEICT Project Playlist. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a2CTQo6ZPt8&list=PL5C6B835309FB9771 2012.
Gallup, Donald. T. S. Eliot: A Bibliography (A Revised and Extended Edition) Harcourt, Brace & World, New York, 1969. pp. 27–8, 204–5 (listings A5, C90, C7)
IZQuotes-image credit: http://izquotes.com/quotes-pictures/quote-the-progress-of-an-artist-is-a-continual-self-sacrifice-a-continual-extinction-of-personality-t-s-eliot-305388.jpg

Sunday 23 November 2014

Mathew Arnold: The Study of Poetry

The Study of Poety: Mathew Arnold


The criticism in the Victorian Era:

1. Art and Morality: Art for Life’s sake

a. Carlyle and Ruskin: Moral view point should be the benchmark to judge the work of literature. Art should be for the betterment of life.

2. Art and Aesthetic pleasure: art for Art’s sake

a. Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde: Aesthetic and artistic delight should be the benchmark to judge the work of literature: Art should be for delight and pleasure of mankind.

3. Golden Mean: Mathew Arnold (1822-1888),:

a. His ‘Essays in Criticism’ (1865-1888): A series of Lectures, he delivered as professor of poetry. The first place among Arnold’s prose works must be given to it, which raised the author to the front rank of living critics. His fundamental idea of criticism appeals to us strongly. The business of criticism, he says, is neither to find fault nor to display the critic’s own learning or influence; it is to know ‘the best which has been thought and said in the world’ and by using this knowledge to create a current of fresh and free thought. (W.J.Long). ‘The Study of Poetry’ is among the best essays in criticism.

b. The Study of poetry: The first essay in the 1888 volume was originally published as the general introduction to T.H. Ward’s anthology, The English Poets (1880). It contains many of the ideas for which Arnold is best remembered.

c. His classicism: He did not like the spasmodic expression of Romanticism. He advocated discipline in writing and recommended the classical writers.

d. As a prose writer the cold intellectual quality, which mars his poetry by restraining romantic feeling, is of first importance, since it leads him to approach literature with an open mind and with the single desire to find ‘the best which has been thought and said in the world’. W.J.Long: “We cannot speak with confidence of his rank in literature; but by his crystal-clear style, his scientific spirit of inquiry and comparison, illumined here and there by the play of humour, and especially by his broad sympathy and intellectual culture, he seems destined to occupy a very high place among the masters of literary criticism.”

e. Literary Criticism is, as Matthew Arnold points out, a "disinterested endeavor to learn and propagate" the best that is known and thought in the world. And he strove hard to fulfill this aim in his critical writings.

f. The first great principle of criticism enunciated by Arnold is that of disinterestedness or detachment. Disinterestedness on the part of the critic implies freedom from all prejudices, personal or historical.

g. Attaching paramount importance to poetry in his essay "The Study of Poetry", he regards the poet as seer. Without poetry, science is incomplete, and much of religion and philosophy would in future be replaced by poetry. Such, in his estimate, are the high destinies of poetry.

h. Arnold asserts that literature, and especially poetry, is "Criticism of Life". In poetry, this criticism of life must conform to the laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty. Truth and seriousness of matter, felicity and perfection of diction and manner, as are exhibited in the best poets, are what constitutes a criticism of life.

i. Poetry, says Arnold, interprets life in two ways: "Poetry is interpretative by having natural magic in it, and moral profundity". And to achieve this the poet must aim at high and excellent seriousness in all that he writes. This demand has two essential qualities. The first is the choice of excellent actions. The poet must choose those which most powerfully appeal to the great primary human feelings which subsist permanently in the race. The second essential is what Arnold calls the Grand Style - the perfection of form, choice of words, drawing its force directly from the matter which it conveys.

j. This, then, is Arnold's conception of the nature and mission of true poetry. And by his general principles - 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". 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".

k. Arnold while giving his touchstone method makes reader aware about the fallacy in judgment. He is of the view that historical fallacy and personal fallacy mars the real estimate of poetry. While expressing his views of the historic, the Personal, the Real he writes that ‘… in reading poetry, a sense for the best, the really excellent, and of the strength and joy to be drawn from it, should be present in our minds and should govern our estimate of what we read. But this real estimate, the only true one, is liable to be superseded, if we are not watchful, by two other kinds of estimate, the historic estimate and the personal estimate, both of which are fallacious’.


(Do not forget to take quiz after reading this presentation and blog. Click here to open quiz.)

Write notes on:1. Mathew Arnold’s touchstone method
2. Arnold’s views of Chaucer as a poet.
3. Arnold’s views on the age of Dryden and Pope
4. Arnold’s views on Robert Burns as a poet
5. Arnold as a critic: (His limitations and legacies)
The Touchstone Method:The Study of Poetry: a shift in position - the Touchstone Method
He (also) condemns the French critic Vitet, who had eloquent words of praise for the epic poem Chanson de Roland by Turoldus, (which was sung by a jester, Taillefer, in William the Conqueror's army), saying that it was superior to Homer's Iliad. Arnold's view is that this poem can never be compared to Homer's work, and that we only have to compare the description of dying Roland to Helen's words about her wounded brothers Pollux and Castor and its inferiority will be clearly revealed.Arnold's criticism of Vitet above illustrates his 'touchstone method'; his theory that 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 . . 'On Chaucer:The Study of Poetry: on Chaucer: The French Romance poetry of the 13th century langue d'oc and langue d'oil was extremely popular in Europe and Italy, but soon lost its popularity and now it is important only in terms of historical study. But Chaucer, who was nourished by the romance poetry of the French, and influenced by the Italian Royal rhyme stanza, still holds enduring fascination. There is an excellence of style and subject in his poetry, which is the quality the French poetry lacks. Dryden says of Chaucer's Prologue 'Here is God's plenty!' and that 'he is a perpetual fountain of good sense'. There is largeness, benignity, freedom and spontaneity in Chaucer's writings. 'He is the well of English undefiled'. He has divine fluidity of movement, divine liquidness of diction. He has created an epoch and founded a tradition.
Some say that the fluidity of Chaucer's verse is due to license in the use of the language, a liberty which Burns enjoyed much later. But Arnold says that the excellence of Chaucer's poetry is due to his sheer poetic talent. This liberty in the use of language was enjoyed by many poets, but we do not find the same kind of fluidity in others. Only in Shakespeare and Keats do we find the same kind of fluidity, though they wrote without the same liberty in the use of language.Arnold praises Chaucer's excellent style and manner, but says that Chaucer cannot be called a classic since, unlike Homer, Virgil and Shakespeare, his poetry does not have the high poetic seriousness which Aristotle regards as a mark of its superiority over the other arts.On the Age of Dryden and Pope:The Study of Poetry: on the age of Dryden and Pope
The age of Dryden is regarded as superior to that of the others for 'sweetness of poetry'. Arnold asks whether Dryden and Pope, poets of great merit, are truly the poetical classics of the 18th century. He says Dryden's post-script to the readers in his translation of The Aeneid reveals the fact that in prose writing he is even better than Milton and Chapman.Just as the laxity in religious matters during the Restoration period was a direct outcome of the strict discipline of the Puritans, in the same way in order to control the dangerous sway of imagination found in the poetry of the Metaphysicals, to counteract 'the dangerous prevalence of imagination', the poets of the 18th century introduced certain regulations. The restrictions that were imposed on the poets were uniformity, regularity, precision, and balance. These restrictions curbed the growth of poetry, and encouraged the growth of prose.Hence we can regard Dryden as the glorious founder, and Pope as the splendid high priest, of the age of prose and reason, our indispensable 18th century. Their poetry was that of the builders of an age of prose and reason. Arnold says that Pope and Dryden are not poet classics, but the 'prose classics' of the 18th century.As for poetry, he considers Gray to be the only classic of the 18th century. Gray constantly studied and enjoyed Greek poetry and thus inherited their poetic point of view and their application of poetry to life. But he is the 'scantiest, frailest classic' since his output was small.On Burns:The Study of Poetry: on Burns
Although Burns lived close to the 19th century his poetry breathes the spirit of 18th Century life. Burns is most at home in his native language. His poems deal with Scottish dress, Scottish manner, and Scottish religion. This Scottish world is not a beautiful one, and it is an advantage if a poet deals with a beautiful world. But Burns shines whenever he triumphs over his sordid, repulsive and dull world with his poetry.Perhaps we find the true Burns only in his bacchanalian poetry, though occasionally his bacchanalian attitude was affected. For example in his Holy Fair, the lines 'Leeze me on drink! it gies us mair/ Than either school or college', may represent the bacchanalian attitude, but they are not truly bacchanalian in spirit. There is something insincere about it, smacking of bravado.When Burns moralises in some of his poems it also sounds insincere, coming from a man who disregarded morality in actual life. And sometimes his pathos is intolerable, as in Auld Lang Syne.We see the real Burns (wherein he is unsurpassable) in lines such as, 'To make a happy fire-side clime/ to weans and wife/ That's the true pathos and sublime/ Of human life' (Ae Fond Kiss). Here we see the genius of Burns.But, like Chaucer, Burns lacks high poetic seriousness, though his poems have poetic truth in diction and movement. Sometimes his poems are profound and heart-rending, such as in the lines, 'Had we never loved sae kindly/ had we never loved sae blindly/ never met or never parted/ we had ne'er been broken-hearted'.
Also like Chaucer, Burns possesses largeness, benignity, freedom and spontaneity. But instead of Chaucer's fluidity, we find in Burns a springing bounding energy. Chaucer's benignity deepens in Burns into a sense of sympathy for both human as well as non-human things, but Chaucer's world is richer and fairer than that of Burns.Sometimes Burns's poetic genius is unmatched by anyone. He is even better than Goethe at times and he is unrivalled by anyone except Shakespeare. He has written excellent poems such as Tam O'Shanter, Whistle and I'll come to you my Lad, and Auld Lang Syne.
When we compare Shelley's 'Pinnacled dim in the of intense inane' (Prometheus Unbound III, iv) with Burns's, 'They flatter, she says, to deceive me' (Tam Glen), the latter is salutary.Arnold on ShakespearePraising Shakespeare, Arnold says 'In England there needs a miracle of genius like Shakespeare's to produce a balance of mind'. This is praise tempered by a critical sense. In a letter he writes. 'I keep saying Shakespeare, you are as obscure as life is'.In his sonnet On Shakespeare he says;Others abide our question. Thou art free.We ask and ask—Thou smilest and art still,Out-topping knowledge. For the loftiest hill,Who to the stars uncrowns his majesty,Planting his steadfast footsteps in the sea,Making the heaven of heavens his dwelling-place,Spares but the cloudy border of his baseTo the foil'd searching of mortality;And thou, who didst the stars and sunbeams know,Self-school'd, self-scann'd, self-honour'd, self-secure,Didst tread on earth unguess'd at.—Better so!All pains the immortal spirit must endure,All weakness which impairs, all griefs which bow,Find their sole speech in that victorious brow.


Arnold's limitations

For all his championing of disinterestedness, Arnold was unable to practice disinterestedness in all his essays. In his essay on Shelley particularly he displayed a lamentable lack of disinterestedness. Shelley's moral views were too much for the Victorian Arnold. In his essay on Keats too Arnold failed to be disinterested. The sentimental letters of Keats to Fanny Brawne were too much for him.

Arnold sometimes became a satirist, and as a satirical critic saw things too quickly, too summarily. In spite of their charm, the essays are characterised by egotism and, as Tilotson says, 'the attention is directed, not on his object but on himself and his objects together'.

Arnold makes clear his disapproval of the vagaries of some of the Romantic poets. Perhaps he would have agreed with Goethe, who saw Romanticism as disease and Classicism as health. But Arnold occasionally looked at things with jaundiced eyes, and he overlooked the positive features of Romanticism which posterity will not willingly let die, such as its humanitarianism, love of nature, love of childhood, a sense of mysticism, faith in man with all his imperfections, and faith in man's unconquerable mind.

Arnold's inordinate love of classicism made him blind to the beauty of lyricism. He ignored the importance of lyrical poems, which are subjective and which express the sentiments and the personality of the poet. Judged by Arnold's standards, a large number of poets both ancient and modern are dismissed because they sang with 'Profuse strains of unpremeditated art'.

It was also unfair of Arnold to compare the classical works in which figure the classical quartet, namely Achilles, Prometheus, Clytemnestra and Dido with Heamann and Dorothea, Childe Harold, Jocelyn, and 'The Excursion'. Even the strongest advocates of Arnold would agree that it is not always profitable for poets to draw upon the past. Literature expresses the zeitgeist, the spirit of the contemporary age. Writers must choose subjects from the world of their own experience. What is ancient Greece to many of us? Historians and archaeologists are familiar with it, but the common readers delight justifiably in modern themes. To be in the company of Achilles, Prometheus, Clytemnestra and Dido is not always a pleasant experience. What a reader wants is variety, which classical mythology with all its tradition and richness cannot provide. An excessive fondness for Greek and Latin classics produces a literary diet without variety, while modern poetry and drama have branched out in innumerable directions.

As we have seen, as a classicist Arnold upheld the supreme importance of the architectonic faculty, then later shifted his ground. In the lectures On Translating Homer, On the Study of Celtic Literature, and The Study of Poetry, he himself tested the greatness of poetry by single lines. Arnold the classicist presumably realised towards the end of his life that classicism was not the last word in literature.

Arnold's lack of historic sense was another major failing. While he spoke authoritatively on his own century, he was sometimes groping in the dark in his assessment of earlier centuries. He used to speak at times as if ex cathedra(with authority), and this pontifical (pompous) solemnity vitiated his criticism.

As we have seen, later critics praise Arnold, but it is only a qualified praise. Oliver Elton calls him a 'bad great critic'. T. S. Eliot said that Arnold is a 'Propagandist and not a creator of ideas'. According to Walter Raleigh, Arnold's method is like that of a man who took a brick to the market to give the buyers an impression of the building.


Arnold's legacy

In spite of his faults, Arnold's position as an eminent critic is secure. Douglas Bush says that the breadth and depth of Arnold's influence cannot be measured or even guessed at because, from his own time onward, so much of his thought and outlook became part of the general educated consciousness. He was one of those critics who, as Eliot said, arrive from time to time to set the literary house in order. Eliot named Dryden, Johnson and Arnold as some of the greatest critics of the English language.

Arnold united active independent insight with the authority of the humanistic tradition. He carried on, in his more sophisticated way, the Renaissance humanistic faith in good letters as the teachers of wisdom, and in the virtue of great literature, and above all, great poetry. He saw poetry as a supremely illuminating, animating, and fortifying aid in the difficult endeavour to become or remain fully human.

Arnold's method of criticism is comparative. Steeped in classical poetry, and thoroughly acquainted with continental literature, he compares English literature to French and German literature, adopting the disinterested approach he had learned from Sainte-Beuve.

Arnold's objective approach to criticism and his view that historical and biographical study are unnecessary was very influential on the new criticism. His emphasis on the importance of tradition also influenced F. R. Leavis, and T. S. Eliot.

Eliot is also indebted to Arnold for his classicism, and for his objective approach which paved the way for Eliot to say that poetry is not an expression of personality but an escape from personality, because it is not an expression of emotions but an escape from emotions.

Although Arnold disapproved of the Romantics' approach to poetry, their propensity for allusiveness and symbolism, he also shows his appreciation the Romantics in his Essays in Criticism. He praises Wordsworth thus: 'Nature herself took the pen out of his hand and wrote with a bare, sheer penetrating power'. Arnold also valued poetry for its strong ideas, which he found to be the chief merit of Wordsworth's poetry. About Shelley he says that Shelley is 'A beautiful but ineffectual angel beating in a void his luminous wings in vain'.

In an age when cheap literature caters to the taste of the common man, one might fear that the classics will fade into insignificance. But Arnold is sure that the currency and the supremacy of the classics will be preserved in the modern age, not because of conscious effort on the part of the readers, but because of the human instinct of self-preservation.

In the present day with the literary tradition over-burdened with imagery, myth, symbol and abstract jargon, it is refreshing to come back to Arnold and his like to encounter central questions about literature and life as they are perceived by a mature and civilised mind.

Criticism of his view point:

a. Arnold's criticism of life is often marred by his naive moralizing, by his inadequate perception of the relation between art and morality, and by his uncritical admiration of what he regarded as the golden sanity of the ancient Greeks. For all his championing of disinterestedness, Arnold was unable to practice disinterestedness in all his essays. In his essay on Shelley particularly, he displayed a lamentable lack of disinterestedness. Shelley's moral views were too much for the Victorian Arnold. In his essay on Keats too Arnold failed to be disinterested. The sentimental letters of Keats to Fanny Brawne were too much for him. But Arnold's insistence on the standards and his concern over the relation between poetry and life make him one of the great modern critics.

b. George Sainsburry: A History of English Criticism: “all literature is the application of ideas of life and to say that poetry is the application of ideas to life under conditions fixed for poetry, is simply a vain repetition.

c. T.S.Eliot: ‘His observation that ‘poetry is criticism of life’ is repeating Aristotle. Nothing novel is contributed as a critic.’


(Do not forget to take quiz after reading this presentation and blog. Click here to open quiz.)

1. Discuss Mathew Arnold’s views on characteristics of good poetry.

2. “Poetry is the criticism of life, governed by the laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty”: Discuss.

3. “… real estimate, the only true one, is liable to be superseded, if we are not watchful, by two other kinds of estimate, the historic estimate and the personal estimate, both of which are fallacious.” Discuss Arnold’s views of the historic, the Personal, the Real.

4. Elucidate Arnold’s views on good poetry as “the superior character of truth and seriousness, in the matter and substance of the best poetry, is inseparable from the superiority of diction and movement marking its style and manner” with reference his essay The Study of Poetry.

Introduction: Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), the Victorian poet and critic, was 'the first modern critic' [1], and could be called 'the critic's critic', being a champion not only of great poetry, but of literary criticism itself. The purpose of literary criticism, in his view, was 'to know the best that is known and thought in the world, and by in its turn making this known, to create a current of true and fresh ideas', and he has influenced a whole school of critics including new critics such as T. S. Eliot, F. R. Leavis, and Allen Tate. He was the founder of the sociological school of criticism, and through his touchstone method introduced scientific objectivity to critical evaluation by providing comparison and analysis as the two primary tools of criticism.

Arnold's evaluations of the Romantic poets such as Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, and Keats are landmarks in descriptive criticism, and as a poet-critic he occupies an eminent position in the rich galaxy of poet-critics of English literature.

T. S. Eliot praised Arnold's objective approach to critical evaluation, particularly his tools of comparison and analysis, and Allen Tate in his essay Tension in Poetry imitates Arnold's touchstone method to discover 'tension', or the proper balance between connotation and denotation, in poetry. These new critics have come a long way from the Romantic approach to poetry, and this change in attitude could be attributed to Arnold, who comes midway between the two schools.

The Future of Poetry

In The Study of Poetry, (1888) which opens his Essays in Criticism: Second series, in support of the future of poetry. He writes, “THE FUTURE of poetry is immense, because in poetry, our race, as time goes on, will find an ever surer and surer stay. There is not a creed which is not shaken. But for poetry the idea is everything; the rest is a world of illusion, of divine illusion. Poetry attaches its emotion to the idea; the idea is the fact. The strongest part of our religion to-day is its unconscious poetry.”

We have to turn to poetry to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us. Without poetry, our science will appear incomplete; and most of what now passes with us for religion and philosophy will be replaced by poetry.

Science is incomplete without poetry.

WW truly calls poetry ‘the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge’; poetry ‘the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all science’

After giving this importance to poetry, he moves ahead to define canon for good poetry. To say in his own words, “But if we conceive thus highly of the destinies of poetry, we must also set our standard for poetry high, since poetry, to be capable of fulfilling such high destinies, must be poetry of a high order of excellence.”

Quoting from an anecdote (Napolean and Sainte-Beuve) he writes, “charlatanism might be found everywhere else, but not in the field of poetry, because in poetry the distinction between sound and unsound, or only half-sound, truth and untruth, or only half-truth, between the excellent and the inferior, is of paramount importance”. For Arnold there is no place for charlatanism in poetry. To him “poetry is the criticism of life, governed by the laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty”. It is in the criticism of life that the spirit of our race will find its stay and consolation. The extent to which the spirit of mankind finds its stay and consolation is proportional to the power of a poem's criticism of life, and the power of the criticism of life is in direct proportion to the extent to which the poem is genuine and free from charlatanism.

Thus he is of the view that, “the best poetry is what we want; the best poetry will be found to have a power of forming, sustaining, and delighting us, as nothing else can”

In this essay he also cautions the critic that in forming a genuine and disinterested estimate of the poet under consideration he should not be influenced by historical or personal judgements, historical judgements being fallacious because we regard ancient poets with excessive veneration, and personal judgements being fallacious when we are biased towards a contemporary poet. If a poet is a 'dubious classic, let us sift him; if he is a false classic, let us explode him. But if he is a real classic, if his work belongs to the class of the very best . . . enjoy his work'. He observes: “But this real estimate, the only true one, is liable to be superseded, if we are not watchful, by two other kinds of estimate, the historic estimate and the personal estimate, both of which are fallacious.

Arnold explains these fallacies in detail. He writes, “a poet or a poem may count to us historically, they may count to us on grounds personal to ourselves, and they may count to us really. The course of development of a nation’s language, thought, and poetry, is profoundly interesting; and by regarding a poet’s work as a stage in this course of development we may easily bring ourselves to make it of more importance as poetry than in itself it really is, we may come to use a language of quite exaggerated praise in criticizing it; in short, to overrate it.

So arises in our poetic judgments the fallacy caused by the estimate which we may call historic.” He quotes words of M.Charles, editor of magazine, to prove his point. M.Charles wrote, ‘the cloud of glory playing round a classic is a mist as dangerous to the future of a literature as it is intolerable for the purposes of history’. As examples of erroneous judgements he says that the 17th century court tragedies of the French were spoken of with exaggerated praise, until Pellisson reproached them for want of the true poetic stamp, and another critic, Charles d' Hricault, said that 17th century French poetry had received undue and undeserving veneration. Arnold says the critics seem to substitute 'a halo for physiognomy and a statue in the place where there was once a man. They give us a human personage no larger than God seated amidst his perfect work, like Jupiter on Olympus.'

He further writes, “then, again, a poet or poem may count to us on grounds personal to ourselves. Our personal affinities, likings and circumstances, have great power to sway our estimate of this or that poet’s work, and to make us attach more importance to it as poetry than in itself it really possesses, because to us it is, or has been, of high importance. Here also we overrate the object of our interest, and apply to it a language of praise which is quite exaggerated. And thus we get the source of a second fallacy in our poetic judgments—the fallacy caused by an estimate which we may call personal”.

So to judge a good poetry wherein our estimate is not affected by fallacies, we should look for following attributes in the poetry:

1. The matter and substance of the poetry, and its manner and style. Both of these, the substance and matter on the one hand, the style and manner on the other, have a mark, an accent, of high beauty, worth, and power.

2. Only one thing we may add as to the substance and matter of poetry, guiding ourselves by Aristotle’s profound observation that the superiority of poetry over history consists in its possessing a higher truth and a higher seriousness . Let us add, therefore, to what we have said, this: that the substances and matter of the best poetry acquire their special character from possessing, in an eminent degree, truth and seriousness.

Thus, the superior character of truth and seriousness, in the matter and substance of the best poetry, is inseparable from the superiority of diction and movement marking its style and manner.

So, a poet’s criticism of life may have such truth and power that it triumphs over its world and delights us.

Later in the essay he adds, for supreme poetical success more is required than the powerful application of ideas to life; it must be an application under the conditions fixed by the laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty. Those laws fix as an essential condition, in the poet’s treatment of such matters as are here in question, high seriousness;—the high seriousness which comes from absolute sincerity.

(Do not forget to take quiz after reading this presentation and blog. Click here to open quiz.)

Works Cited:


Long, W.J. The History of English Literature



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