Matthew Arnold, a prominent Victorian critic and poet, discussed the concept of evaluating poetry through what he identified as three types of estimates: the real estimate, the historical estimate, and the personal estimate.
- The Real Estimate refers to the true value of a poem or a piece of literature, judged by its lasting contribution to the canon of great literature. It is an assessment of a work’s inherent quality, craftsmanship, emotional depth, and the truth it reveals about the human condition.
- The Historical Estimate considers a poem in the context of its time. It evaluates how a piece of literature reflects the values, beliefs, and aesthetics of the era in which it was created. While this estimate can offer valuable insights into the cultural and social influences on the poet, Arnold cautioned that it might lead critics to overvalue works that are more a product of their time than of true poetic excellence.
- The Personal Estimate is based on an individual’s subjective response to a poem. It involves personal taste and emotional reaction, which can be influenced by one’s personal experiences, temperament, and beliefs. Arnold warned that this estimate is the most likely to lead us astray, as it is inherently biased and can prevent a more detached and objective analysis of the poem’s quality.
The historic estimate regards a poet in relation of his age, as concerned with a particular phase of development. The personal estimate has to do with the personal likes and dislike of critic in judging a poet. The real estimate looks for real excellence in poetry. It is concerned with the sense of far the best. It is satisfied with nothing short of perfection.
The historic estimate is likely to be applied in dealing with the poets of the past: the personal estimate in dealing with poets contemporary or modern.
Comparing the old English poet Caedmon with Milton, is an instance of the historic estimate. And we may say that Arnold’s disparagement of Shelley is an instance of the personal estimate.
Arnold discourages either the historic or the literary estimate. The historic estimate may be necessary in studying a poet of the past and the influence exercised upon his contemporaries, or in reference to the future development of poetry. For example, in tracing the history of romantic poetry we examine some poets of the late 18th century Thompson Collins. Gray. A poet is not to be judged independently of his age. Arnold himself explains the sterility of Gray with reference to the age in which he was born. This is a historic estimate. He could have noted too that Gray anticipated the romantic movement in poetry.
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Pope was not a great poet but he was a great poet in his age, and that because he perfected the heroic couplet as medium of verse. He was derided in the age of Wordsworth because the standard of judgement varies from age to age. Arnold’s real estimate comes to something like an absolute standard of judgement. Nor can we totally ignore the personal estimate.
After all a poet is what he means to an individual reader or critic. The personal reaction of a reader or critic and that of course, depends partly. On the individual temperament is set forth in literary criticism. The personal estimate is, in fact, the plain factor, determining the general trend of any critic’s judgement, there has been no exception in the case of Arnold. Arnold has a classically trained mind and cool temperament, and is naturally biased towards Greek sanity and temperance, which determine his literary judgement. He may sincerely endeavour to discover the real excellences of a poet, but in doing so he follows his own bias as classical turn of mind. No absolute standard can be set up for literary judgement. Arnold writes with a very practical end in view and he tells us how to apply the real estimate. He suggests that we must treasure up in our memory lines and expressions of the great master and he gives us examples from poets, English and classical. These lines and passages are to be applied as a test. These lines sound all right they have the quality of strangeness added to beauty noted for the startling novelty or familiarity of ideas as well as the felicity of expression. These lines are picked out of the mass of a poet’s work. Does a poet maintain the same level in all that he writes? Even Shakespeare has his lapses, the level of excellence is not uniformly maintained in the work of any poet. And we are asked by Arnold to judge the work of other poets by the best lines of the best matter and substance as in the manner and style. The substance of poetry must possess truth and seriousness, and upon truth and seriousness depends the excellence of the style and diction.
Arnold argued that the historical and personal estimates are likely to divert us from excellent poetry because they rely on factors external to the actual quality of the poetry. They focus on aspects that are transient and not purely related to the art itself—the historical estimate can cause us to be overly forgiving of flaws in older works because of their significance at the time, while the personal estimate can make us prefer works that resonate with us on a personal level but may not have lasting literary value.
According to Arnold, a true appreciation of poetry should strive towards the real estimate, which seeks to transcend the biases of the era and the individual. This allows for a more objective measure that can recognize excellence in poetry that endures beyond its historical moment and despite personal predilections. Arnold’s focus on the real estimate aligns with his broader critical efforts to establish standards of objectivity in evaluating poetry.