“I do not contest Mr. Walt Whitman’s powers and originality,” wrote Matthew Arnold in 1866, but he adds this warning: “No one can afford in literature to trade merely on his own bottom and to take no account of what the other ages and nations have acquired: a great original literature America will never get in this way, and her intellect must inevitably consent to come, in a considerable measure, into the European movement.” It is not the least useful service of Arnold’s own essay on “The Study of Poetry”〖H. C., xxviii, 65ff.〗 that it takes us at once into this European movement. The essay was written as a preface to a collection of English verse—“one great contributory stream to the world river of poetry.” Arnold insists throughout, in characteristic fashion, upon the necessity of developing a sense for the best, for the really excellent. He points out the fallacies involved in the purely historical and the purely personal estimates. He uses lines and expressions of the great masters as “touchstones” for detecting the presence or absence of high poetic quality. He takes Aristotle’s remark about the “higher truth” and “higher seriousness” of poetry as compared to history, and tests therewith the “classic” matter and manner of English poets.

There are pitfalls, without question, lurking in the path of Arnold’s apparently sure-footed and adroit method, but the temper of his performance needs no praise. He brings us steadily and serenely back to “the European movement,” to the laws and standards that endure. But he also teaches that life and art are inexhaustible in their resources. “The future of poetry is immense”; that is the first sentence of Arnold’s essay; and it will be also the confirmed final truth of any reader who has taken pains to acquaint himself with the utterance of poets about poetry. Walter Bagehot wrote long ago: “The bare idea that poetry is a deep thing, a teaching thing, the most surely and wisely elevating of human things, is even now to the coarse public mind nearly unknown.... All about and around us a faith in poetry struggles to be extricated, but it is not extricated. Some day, at the touch of the true word, the whole confusion will by magic cease; the broken and shapeless notions will cohere and crystallize into a bright and true theory.” We are still waiting, no doubt, for that true and final word, but if it is ever spoken, it is likely to be uttered by one of the poets.

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