One of Matthew Arnold’s most famous, or infamous, phrases as a critic comes in “The Study of Poetry” where he mysteriously describes poetry as consisting in “the application of ideas to life.” Because of the frequency of “ideas” in our daily conversation, it is easy to overlook the peculiarity of that word, along with the word “application.” It is also easy to take “idea” to mean “theory” or “notion about,” as T.S. Eliot seems to have done in his implicit rebukes of Arnold. But what if the phrase were seen otherwise? What if “ideas” were taken in a Platonic sense?
In this sense, “idea” would not be just a thought, notion, or theory; it would be closer to a “take” or a “light.” But even that isn’t right. Embracing the Platonic depth of the word, we could say that “idea” refers to a form, to something transcendent or metaphysical. My reason for suspecting this as a possibility comes from a chance encounter with Annabel Patterson’s 1970 study of the reception of Hermogenes in the Renaissance: Hermogenes’ treatise, Concerning Ideas, is structured around seven ideas of style (apparently a popular number for the critical mind), with the notion of “idea” containing, Patterson explains, an “implicit Platonism.”
I admit that reading Arnold’s “ideas” as Platonic is perverse and runs against the Victorian semantic grain; but Arnold would have had a healthy dose of Plato and might have known of Hermogenes, and so this sense might have been in his mind when he wrote. It is at least worth entertaining for the upshots it brings in appreciating Arnold as a critic and certain critical tasks.
For Arnold, it is not to the critic to ask what transformation language undergoes in a poem or what special sort of language makes literature what it is; instead, the question is “what does language do when a poem succeeds?” and the answer is “applies an idea to life.”
In working out what “idea” might mean in a Platonic sense, some of the specifics of Hermogenes’ discussion (influential through the Renaissance up to Milton’s invocation of “ideas, and various kinds of style”) are helpful.
Hermogenes’ Ideas of Style offered a rhetorical scheme to rival the work of Cicero and Quintillian, but rather than the elevated, middle, and low styles of Ciceronian rhetoric, Hermogenes offered a seven-fold division (with further subdivisions): clarity, beauty, speed, ethos, grandeur, verity. The division is not hierarchical, though the final term, gravitas or gravity (sometimes severity or eloquence), was both a term on its own and also a harmonious balancing of the other terms. I say “terms,” but in fact each of these styles represents an “idea”: the idea of clarity, for instance, in a poem, would allow us to apply the predicate clear to the poem, or, Platonically, to say that the poem partakes of “The Clear,” or else, in Arnold’s phrase, to suggest that a poem applies clarity to life.
Rather than get into the merits of Hermogenes’ specific terms, or argue their definitions, I’d say both that taking the different ideas of style seriously, from the perspective of poets, is enlightening, and that the final idea of gravitas, reflects quite nicely Arnold gets at by seriousness.
I say that it can be enlightening to think of ideas of style because the notion of ideas, however Platonic we want to make it, can restore weight to critical descriptions; without requiring a settled rubric of critical terms, the notion that different ideas might entail families of descriptions, and a coherent center of stylistic gravity, poses a critical challenge. Doubts about the challenge emerge when we ask what it gives us except a more fixed or meaningful description (as opposed to, say, analysis), and here Arnold’s formulation is genuinely helpful: for we are led to ask why a poet would be led to wish to apply that idea to life, both by thinking what about their understanding of life justifies the application, and by thinking about how they draw on the transient, shifting resources of language to realize the application.
Other questions follow: which poets seek “gravity” in verse, and how do they go about it? At what periods are certain ideas of style valued more than others? How are the same ideas expressed or explored differently over time? How do new perceptions of the world insist on reinventions of ideas, or vice-versa? Which, or how few, ideas of style govern what contemporary poets do?
With ideas of style in mind, and with the thought that poets apply these ideas to the world, the greatness of a poet like Blake becomes immediately appreciable: he found (or, out of his imagination, invented) subjects suitable for the ideas of style of which he was capable, especially gravitas and severity. Browning’s experiments in the dramatic monologue are likewise distinct for their shifts from one idea to another, the lucid sublimity sudden and fleeting for many speakers. Wordsworth, devoid of comedy, can be appreciated for the range of ideas of style that are balanced and modulated in a single passage, often simultaneously, speed, grandeur, gravitas, severity, lightness all possible. For these poets—and maybe for all—the ideas find the world and the world finds the ideas, by way of language.
In the case of Arnold, the phrase can perhaps help explain what Arnold manages with unqualified success at least once, in “Dover Beach.” There, an idea that is rarely adaptable by the English language—an idea associated with Leopardi, whose work Arnold would have known—is applied to the pessimism and uncertainty of the speaker. Notice: the idea is not pessimism or uncertainty. Those are the stuff of “life.” The idea, in the sense of the word I think is appropriate for Arnold, is instead in the bare severity of language, the openness of address, the limpid calm.
These adjectives are easy for critics and difficult for poets to achieve; maybe one reason that it is possible to read a poem, and thrill at it, before fully understanding its ambiguities and nuances of meaning (all of which are matters of the application itself, internal to the application) is that one can nonetheless experience and encounter the ideas of style it embodies; it becomes an encounter, not just with (for instance) clarity or beauty, and not just with clarity or beauty in language, but with clarity in beauty successfully, as if justifiably, applied to life, as if life were these.