Although poetry has been defined diversely by different poets and critics, Matthew Arnold is found to strike a quite original note in this respect. He defines poetry categorically as a criticism of life-“Poetry is at bottom a criticism of life and the greatest of poetry lies in the powerful and beautiful application of ideas of life—to the question how to live”. What he has emphasized here is the function of poetry as the interpreter of life. The implication is that poetry shows man the ideal of life and tells him how to live. In fact, his emphasis is laid on the interpretative role of poetry as a criticism of life. By ‘a criticism of life’, the critic in Arnold does not mean merely the critical function of poetry to life as this is. On the other hand, he implies by ‘a criticism of life’ a comparative interpretation between what life is and what it ought to have been in order to find out an ideal standard of living. His celebrated poems, like The Scholar Gipsy and Dover Beach, with their elegiac character, focus and illustrate his view of poetry as a criticism of life. Both the poems are sufficiently indicative of his idea that poetry has a positive function and a didactic character to improve the moral of life and to inspire a distinct ideal to pursue.
Dover Beach, though not as prominent and popular as The Scholar Gipsy and a quite shorter lyric than that, is commended often as Arnold’s most deeply reflective and elegiac poem. This poem is usually characterised as an elegy, although it is no conventional one, like The Scholar Gipsy. This is rather an elegy on the emptiness of modern life. The melancholy strain that rings all through the poem serves to reveal the moral and intellectual deficiency of modern life. This is trenchantly brought out by the poet through the imagery of the flow and the ebb of the sea-water near the beach of Dover.
Dover Beach brings out what is wrong with modern life of doubt and distraction and what ought to have been the ideal, sanctified with faith, peace and love. The poet reflects here on the state of modern life that lacks the depth of faith. This, as suggested already, is shown through the scene of the seashore near Dover. The sea of faith was once full and flowed all round the human earth. But, in the present state, that sea of faith is found to have receded. Man today is left without any faith to take his stand on. Arnold makes a sharp comparison between what life was in the distant past and what this is just now. The sea of faith, once so full and warm, has dried up and turned barren under the hard impact of materialism. The poet, of course, admits that the world remains apparently attractive ‘so various, so beautiful, so new-, but absolutely bereft of strong faith or conviction. This possesses no moral force, no instinctive joy, no feeling of certainty or hope. Arnold’s analysis is clear, categorical and powerful of modern life, ‘full of sound and fury’, but without any enduring significance. The concluding lines of the poem, so touching and meaningful, are worth quoting here :
For the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.
Arnold, thus, makes dissection of modern life, as it is with its restlessness and confusions and herein is found a close analogy between his two elegiac poems The Scholar Gipsy and Dover Beach. Of course, the scope is here much limited, but the criticism implied is not less powerful and penetrative.
Indeed, in Dover Beach, as in The Scholar Gipsy, Arnold well marks out the difference of present life from the previous one. Man lacks faith today, has neither conviction nor constancy and so his life is full of chaos, confusion and contradiction. This deplorable situation, in which modern mechanised men are placed, is powerfully signified in the imagery, already noted, of the men engaged in suicidal struggles and flight ‘on a darkling plain.’
Arnold’s criticism of life is nothing absolutely negative. It implies a curative principle. In Dover Beach, Arnold prescribes his consolation for the despondent modern life. The cure for this lies in faith—faith in love. The poet feels certain that in this melancholy and mutable world, true love and sincere devotion only survive. Life should be one of attachment, devotion to life and that is why the poet’s appeal to the lady-“Ah, love, let us be true to one another”- forms the essence of the didactic note of his dictum-poetry is the criticism of life.’
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