The future of poetry is immense, because in poetry, where it is worthy of its high destinies, our race, as time goes on, will find an ever surer and surer stay. There is not a creed which is not shaken, not an accredited dogma which is not shown to be questionable, not a received tradition which does not threaten to dissolve. Our religion has materialised itself in the fact, in the supposed fact; it has attached its emotion to the fact, and now the fact is failing it. 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 today is its unconscious poetry.Matthew Arnold. Introduction to the first volume of The Hundred Greatest Men 1880 .
As you see this passage by the famous Victorian critic and poet, Matthew Arnold was written 140 years ago. How well does it stand today?
Two large prophetic claims are made. Religion is in decline and poetry- at least “if it is worthy of its high destinies”- has the potential to take its place.
I imagine whereas the prophecy on religion- Arnold is speaking as a member of the Church of England- will meet with some agreement, given the decline in church attendance in recent decades, the positive claim for poetry will be treated with some astonishment. If the claims of religion as the supreme truth are held to be in doubt it is surely because science not poetry has taken its place as the socially regarded supreme arbiter of what is true and what is false.
Matthew Arnold believed both in the “high seriousness” of poetry and the importance of religion. His doubts about religion, even though church attendance in his age and succeeding ages up to the 1950’s remained comparatively high, is based on the rise of scepticism in intellectuals brought about, particularly, by the impact of Darwinism which suggested an evolution of humanity that appeared to set it at odds with the generally accepted Creation story in Genesis; taken as factual description that is and not positively as myth. This, came on top of a climate philosophical scepticism, induced by such as David Hume- from the eighteenth century-for instance , with respect to miracles. Lives of Jesus by writers like Schleiemacher (1832) and Renan( 1863)- translated by George Eliot, the great novelist,- stressed his human qualities and downplayed the possibility of miracles or supernatural powers. Such delimitation has continued of course into our times in which various quests for the historical Jesus have been pursued. Here what Arnold has to say of the fact failing religion given the prominence of scientific reasoning and scepticism throughout society may well seem spot on.
But the consequent rise of poetry! Surely here Arnold is being unrealistic? Actually for many years no!. Matthew Arnold was not an “ivory-tower” critic; ; he worked for over thirty years as a school inspector working to advance the use of great literature in the school curriculum at the crucial stage when education had become compulsory for all children by law. Largely through his inspiration English poetry was seen as a vital element for newly educated children to be introduced to what was best in the language. To teach a child from the slums Wordsworth’s “Daffodils” , for instance, was important for getting a child to love a poem. In his Report for 1880 Arnold writes:
Good poetry does undoubtedly tend to form the soul and character; it tends to beget a love of beauty and of truth in alliance together, it suggests, however indirectly, high and noble principles in action, and it inspires the emotion so helpful in making principles operative.
The language is very much Victorian , to an extent, that in our sceptical age might seem over-exalted. But then Arnold’s sentiments are culturally complentary to the spiritual emphasis St Paul makes in the Letter to the Philippians
Whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, or if there be any praise, think on these things.Epistle of Paul to the Philippians. Ch4.8
Paul’s verses are part of our culture, inevitably, because when a faith comes to be written down and translated it takes its place within the language’s culture. But how well they fit with Arnold’s expression of the value of poetry! Through reading or hearing poetry one absorbs its values and this is an important part of one’s education relating to the development of who one is. For Arnold’s perceived great poetry would share Paul’s emphasis on virtue as righteousness and beauty.
Arnold’s influence on the development of education was immense. While, inevitably, practice would vary from school to to school it was in general a part of the school’s responsibility to encourage people to know good poetry and to learn passages by heart. The idea continued right into the fifties and early sixties as I myself can report, when it was taken for granted that at secondary level, a variety of Shakespeare’s plays would be read and in poetry we would work through poets from “A Pageant of English Verse”; it was considered essential to give pupils the opportunity to experience a range of great poetry in English.
A future post will seek to show that Arnold’s sense of the significance of the “fact” is not so clear as he believes. But here I want again to point out that Arnold’s prophecy expressed in this quotation is not borne out by an age markedly less religious (I refer to North America and the West) but also less given to Arnold’s high estimate of poetry and very much more prone to an exaggerated identification of truth with science and objectively verifiable fact.
So what then are we to make of Arnold’s judgement that “the strongest part of our religion is its unconscious poetry”? See the follow-up posts.