Matthew Arnold (1822-1888)

Matthew Arnold’s early life follows a path of most poets of the time: traditional schooling steeped in classical studies, Greek and Latin, French and German, frequent traveling at home and abroad. There is one difference: while other poets considered poetry their profession, Arnold was, for the greater part of his life, a public official – might we call writing poetry for Arnold a “professional hobby” then? Perhaps. He was private secretary to Lord Lansdowne in 1847 which led to his appointment as Inspector of Schools in 1851. He remained in this position even after his appointment as professor of poetry at Oxford in 1857. While at Oxford he established the role of literary critic, describing it in the Preface to Literature and Dogma as “a disinterested endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world.” Arnold’s poetic output compared to length of life is rather scant; Browning’s contribution comprises sixteen volumes. However, Arnold rises in stature when the ratio of amount to substance is applied.

As a person, Arnold was congenial, likeable, a popular lecturer, with many close friends. We read of his “cheerfulness… tolerance and charity”. “The most sociable, the most lovable, the most companionable of men”… “preeminently a good man, gentle, generous, enduring, laborious.” His life was human, kindly and unselfish, and he allowed no clash between the pursuit of personal perfection and devotion to the public cause.”

He wrote for the learned, well-read, esoteric intellectuals of the day. Classical in subject; archetypal in form as he drew from Achilles, Prometheus, Clytemnestra, and Dido. He offered this reference to antiquity and the Greeks as “unapproached masters of the grand style.” In Preface to Poems (1853-1854) he references Aristotle in support of this belief: “We all naturally take pleasure, in any imitation or representation whatever: this is the basis of our love of poetry: and we take pleasure in them because all knowledge is naturally agreeable to us; not to the philosopher only but to mankind at large…What is not interesting, is that which does not add to our knowledge of any kind; that which is vaguely conceived and loosely drawn; a representation which is general, indeterminate, and faint, instead of being particular, precise, and firm.” Then later he speaks of Hesiod and the Muses who were born that they might be “a forgetfulness of evils, and a truce from cares”…it is not enough that the poet should add to the knowledge of men, it is required of him also that he should add to their happiness.” This last expression is a challenge for Arnold’s poetry output can hardly be described as happy and it did not contain humor, wit, and satire. Friendship’s Garland was the deposit of humor. As was the poem Poor Mathias:

“Down she sank amid her fur;
Eyed thee with a soul resign’d
And thou deemedst cats were kind!
Cruel, but composed and bland,
Dumb, inscrutable and grand,
So Tiberius might have sat,
Had Tiberius been a cat.”

Satire, the favorite, but even more playful than serious and for which Arnold took the pseudonym Arminius Thundertentronckh.

Arnold was also an admirer of the French school Rousseau, De Stael, and Chateaubri; however the novel Obermann (1804) by E. P. de Senancour took his heart by storm. [see Poem: Obermann Once More] In November, 1849 Arnold wrote Stanzas in Memory of the Author of Obermann where a famous quote occurs in lines 53-60:

“But Wordsworth’s eyes avert their ken
From half of human fate;
And Goethe’s course few sons of men
May think to emulate.

For he pursued a lonely road,
His eyes on Nature’s plan;
Neither made man too much a God,
Nor God too much a man.”

In philosophy he followed John Ruskin and the conviction that “faith, morality, education, and good social conditions” were required for the creative. He would have no patience with “passion and animalism like that of Byron”. He wrote: “The difference between genuine poetry and the poetry of Dryden, Pope, and all their school is briefly this: their poetry is conceived and composed in their wits, genuine poetry is conceived and composed in the soul.”

When Arnold’s first published work The Strayed Reveller and Other Poems was published duchies, fiefdoms, and nobilities were being challenged throughout Europe; revolutions were going on in Paris, Vienna, Milan, and Parma. Arnold wrote: “the hour of the hereditary peerage and eldest sonship and immense properties has struck”; of America “he sees a torrent of hot, dizzy trash which people are talking…a torrent of American vulgarity and laideur [ugliness] threatening to overflow Europe.” During his entire life his criticisms touched all countries, all institutions. “It is impossible to conceive of him as an enthusiastic and unqualified partisan of any cause, creed, party, society, or system.” (G. Russell) Though little of the attempts to correct these problems. Arnold visited America twice and concluded that one, “the political and social problem had been well solved; two, that there the constitution and government were to the people as well-fitting clothes to a man; and three, that there was a closer union between classes there than elsewhere, thus a more homogeneous nation.” Arnold, in the style of balanced criticism, followed this praise with a litany of failures particularly those concerning the “human problem:” “From the first to the last he was a critic – a calm and impartial judge, a serene distributer of praise and blame – never a zealot, never a prophet, never an advocate, never a dealer in ‘blague and mob pleasing’ of which he truly said that ‘it is real talent and tempts many men to apostosy.’”

Which brings us to our discussion of Arnold and his poetry. In general when speaking of criticism we refer to prose writing. Not so in the case of Arnold “he was never more essentially the critic than when he concealed the true character of his method in the guise of poetry”. [Saintsbury, Herbert and others] He believed that all poetry ís “at bottom a criticism of life.” “The creation of a modern poet, to be worth much, implies a great critical effort behind it; else it must be a comparatively poor, barren, and short-lived affair. This is why Byron’s poetry had so little endurance in it, and Goethe’s so much.”.

Arnold put this belief in poetry in Memorial Verses:

“When Goethe’s death was told, we said:
Sunk then, is Europe’s sagest head.
Physician of the iron age,
Goethe has done his pilgrimage.
He took the suffering human race,
He read each wound, each weakness clear;
And struck his finger on the place,
And said: Thou ailest here, and here!

He look’d on Europe’s dying hour
Of fitful dream and feverish power;
His eye plunged down the weltering strife,
The turmoil of expiring life
He said: The end is everywhere,
Art still has truth, take refuge there!
And he was happy, if to know
Causes of things, and far below
His feet to see the lurid flow
Of terror, and insane distress,
And headlong fate, be happiness.”

Arnold had little to say about meter and rhyme, it was idea and thought and the pursuit of truth in the guise of poetry. It was repression of the romantic and expression of the intellect; more sense than meter; more thought than melody; more on the soul of man than a Victorian portrait for “what is countenance without its expression.” We regard Arnold’s poetry as mostly reflective. In 1853 Arnold wrote Sohrab and Rustum as an epyllion [see Glossary]. It had all the ingredients required for an epic but it fell flat for readership. In this effort he wrote in rimed trochaic (five-stressed verse):

“Fear me not, I will be always with thee;
I will watch thee, tend thee, soothe thy pain;
Sing thee tales of true, long-parted lovers
Join’d at evening of their days again.”

His favorite rhymes were irregular couplets and quatrains (Sicilian). For couplets and some quatrains there is the dramatic poem Apollo Musagetes:

“Through the black, rushing smoke-bursts,
Thick breaks the red flame;
All Etna heaves fiercely
Her forest-clothed frame.

Not here, O Apollo!
All haunts meet for thee,
But,where Helicon breaks down
In cliff to the sea.”

What strikes most scholars is the opening use of Mt. Etna, which overlooks the Straits of Messina in Sicily to the Helicon belongs to the Parnassus Mountains of Greece making the opening of no importance except to tie it to the previous work Empedocles on Etna. Continuing on there is:

“Where the moon-silver’d inlets
Send far their light voice
Up the still vale of Thisbe,
O speed, and rejoice!”

Where Thisbe (lover was Pyramus) in classic studies actually a lover’s tragic legend from mythology; rewritten by Ovid; corrupted by Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. One is left with another mystery as to the word “vale”. One student suggested that it should be “valley” but since the myth is the story of two Babylonian lovers we’re left with two options: is it Arnold “in pursuit of the truth” or just the need to write a poem? If “poetry must be governed by the imagination” there is plenty of room for that here. Perhaps if we stare long enough at Edward Dodwell’s painting Mt. Parnasus in 1821 the answer may reveal itself.

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Continuing on: The Forsaken Merman is a narrative. He wrote one elegaic monody Thyrsis – to commemorate Arthur Hugh Clough.

“It irk’d him to be here, he could not rest,
He loved each simple joy the country yields,
He loved his mates; but yet he could not keep,
For that a shadow lour’d on the fields,
Here with the shepherds and the silly sheep.
Some life of men unblest
He knew which made him droop, and fill’d his head.
He went; his piping took a troubled sound
Of storms that rage outside our happy ground;
He could not wait their passing, he is dead!”

Anthropomorphisms like “silly sheep” “happy ground” “stormy note” “wandering shade” “insane distress” “victorious brow” abound in his verse.

Immortality is a special Italian Sonnet. As far as meter goes Arnold favored the hexameter but also was electic in that we find a kind of wayward rhymeless rhythm for the lyric poem The Strayed Reveller and a sort of sporadic rhyming as:

“As the punt’s rope chops round”…
“Uno’erleap’d mountains of Necessity,
Sparing us narrow margin than we deem.”

In his Palladium we find a Sicilian quatrain in a weak iambic pentameter:

“Set where the upper streams of Simois flow
Was the Palladium, high ‘mid rock and wood;
And Hector was in Ilium, far below,
And fought, and saw it not- but there it stood!”

Two distitches are worthy of mention the first from the lyric poem On the Rhine:

“Eyes too expressive to lie blue,
Too lovely to be grey;”

The second from The Scholar Gypsy:

“Still nursing the unconquerable hope,
Still clutching the inviolable shade.”

Lastly we read from Fussell in Poetic Meter and Poetic Form that unable to find some new form both “Tennyson and Arnold continued to work in what is fundamentally the accentual-syllabic line bequeathed them by the Augustans, with its strict syllabic imitation and conservative placement of stresses.” One last comment after reading Byron’s Childe Harold he was much taken by the fluidity of the Spenserian stanza. All of the above prompted one critic to so anoint him “the spasmodic poet”. On to characteristics.

Our first characteristic is melancholy, the “piercing pathos” of humanity.

“Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.” The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roasr,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.” Dover Beach a lyric poem

“Ah! two desires toss about
The poet’s feverish blood.
One drives him to the world without,
And one to solitude.

The glow, he cries, the thrill of life,
Where, where do these abound?
Not, in the world, not in the strife
Of men, shall they be found.” Memory of the Author of Obermann

“Children dear, was it yesterday
We heard the sweet bells over the bay?
In the caverns where we lay,
Through the surf and through the swell,
The far-off sound of a silver bell?
Sand-strewn caverns, cool and deep,
Where the winds are all asleep;
Where the spent lights quiver and gleam,
When did music come this way?
Children dear, was it yesterday? The Forsaken Merman

“Wandering between two worlds, one dead,
The other powerless to be born,
With nowhere yet to rest my head,
Like these, on earth I wait forlorn.
Their faith, my tears, the world deride
I come to shed them at their side The Grande Chartreuse –stanza 15

“When I shall be divorced, some ten years hence,
From this poor present self which I am now.
When youth has done its tedious vain expense
Of passions that forever ebb and flow.

Shall not joy youth’s heats are left behind,
And breathe more happy in an even clime?
Ah no, for then I shall begin to find
A thousand virtues in this hated time!

Then I shall wish its agitations back,
And all its thwarting currents of desire:
Then I shall praise the heat which then I lack,
And call this hurrying fever, generous fire.

And sigh that one thing only has been lent
To youth and age in common – discontent.” Youth’s Agitations

Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself.

“His deepest conviction about “the suffering human race” would seem to have been that its worst miseries arise from a too exalted estimate of its capacities.” G. W. Russell

“Men are perpetually disappointed and disillusioned because they expect too much from human life and human nature, and persuade themselves that their experience, here and hereafter, will be, not what they have reasonable grounds for expecting, but what they imagine or desire.” See above: Stanzas in Memory of …

“Wordsworth thought it a boon to ‘feel that we are greater than we know’; Arnold thought it a misfortune.”

“…warned against discontented youth not to expect greater happiness from advancing years in his poem Youth’s Agitations. Russell

“How comes it, people often ask, that his verse be so uniformly grave, so far removed from humour? How comes it that in his poetry he brings, not once nor twice, but perpetually, the eternal note of sadness…” T. H. Ward

“Hence the almost tragic note that sounds through so much of Arnold’s poetry; the sad reflection that he, whom nature and training had endowed with Hellenic clearness and vision and utterance, should have to express the thoughts of an age in which all is confusion and perplexity.” T. H. Ward. V. 5

Our second characteristic is intellectual taste.

“And once in winter, on the caseway chill
Where home through flooded fields foot-travellers go,
Have I not pass’d thee on the wooden bridge
Wrapt in thy cloak and battling with the snow,
Thy face towards Hinksey and its wintry ridge?
And thou hast climb’ d the hill
And gain’d the white brow of the Cumnor range ;
Turn’d once to watch, while thick the snowflakes fall,
The line of festal light in Christ Church hall” The Scholar Gypsy

“Thin, thin the pleasant human noises grow,
And faint the city gleams;
Rare the lone pastoral huts marvel not thou!
But solemn peaks but to the stars are known,
But to the stars, and cold lunar beams;
Alone the sun arses, and alone
Spring the great streams.” In Utrumque Paratus

“Man, who are thou who dost deny my words?
Truth sits upon the lips of dying men,
And falsehood, while I lived, was far from mine.” Sohrab and Rustum

Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself.

“the world lacks imagination and so can know very little about time past, which is crystallized in ancient literature like a leaf in amber…” Comments on Dover Beach Marc Plamondon.

“The most fruitful action of a university chair, even upon the young college student, is produced not by bringing down the university chair to his level, but by beckoning him up to its level.” Arnold The Function of a Professor.

Speaking of non-conformists thus “ need the culture that is the pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world.” Arnold. From the social and moral essay Culture and Anarchy

“My poems represent the main movement of mind of the last quarter of a century, and thus they will probably have their day as people become conscious to themselves of what that movement of mind is, and interested in the literary productions which reflect it.” Arnold in Letter of 1869

Our third characteristic is moral wisdom and religious faith.

“I knew not yet the gauge of time,
Nor wore the manacles of space;
I felt it in some other clime,
I saw it in some other place.
‘Twas when the heavenly house I trod,
And lay upon the breast of God.’” Morality

“Then, in such hour of need
Of your fainting, dispirited race,
Ye, like angels, appear,
Radiant with ardour divine!
Beacons of hope, ye appear!
Languor is not in your word,
Weariness not on your brow.
Ye alight I our van! At your voice
Panic, despair, flee away.
Ye move through the ranks, recall
The stragglers, refresh the outworn,
Praise, re-inspire the brave!
Order, courage, return.
Eyes rekindling, and prayers,
Fiollow your steps as ye go.
Ye fill up the gaps in our files,
Strengthen the wavering line,
Stablish, continue our march,
On, to the bound of the waste,
On, to the City of God.” Rugby Chapel

“Stern law of every mortal lot,
Which man, proud, man, finds hard to bear;
And build himself I know not what
Of second life I know not where.” Geist’s Grave

“I met a preacher there I knew, and said,
Ill and overworked, how fare you in this scene?
Bravely! Said he; for I of late have been
Much cheered with thoughts of Christ, the living bread.” East London

“Children of men! The unseen Power, whose eye
Forever doth accompany mankind,
Hath look’d on no religion scornfully
That men did ever find.” Progress

Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself.

“Faith is nobly seen when a man, standing like Columbus upon the shore with a dark, stormy atlantic before him, resolves to sai, and although week after week no land be visible, still believes and still sails on; but it is nobler when there is no America as the goal our our venture, but something which is unsubstantial, as, for example, self-control and self-purification.” Pages from a Journal Arnold.

“The poem Grande Chartreuse written in 1855 mourns the loss of faith in the modern world.” Reader’s Encyclopedia.

“He interpreted the Bible as literature and showed that, as in all great poetry, the poetry of the Bible contained the moral and spiritual truths that were the essence of religion.”

Our fourth characteristic is solemn reverence for nature, the cosmos, and God.

“Who ordered that their longing’s fire
Should be, as soon as kindled, cooled?
Who renders vain their deep desire?
A God, a God their severance ruled!
And bade betwixt their shores to be
The unplumbed, salt, estranging sea.” Marguerite

“In harmony with Nature?” Restless fool,
Who with such heat dost preach what were to thee,
When true, the last impossibility
To be like Nature strong, Like Nature cool!

Know, man hat all which Nature hath, but more,
And in that more lie all his hopes of good.
Nature is cruel, man is sick of blood;
Nature is stubborn, man would fain adore;

Nature is fickle, man hath need of rest;
Nature forgives no debt, and fears no grave;
Man would be mild, and with safe conscience blest.

Man must begin, know this, where Nature ends;d
Nature and man can never be fast friends.
Fool, if thou canst not pass her, rest her slave! In Harmony with Nature

“Bounded by themselves, and unregardful
In what state God’s other works may be,
In their own tasks all their powers pouring,
These attain the might life you see.” Self-Dependence

“Human longings, human fears,
Miss our eyes and miss our ears,
Little helping, wounding much,
Dull of heart, and hard of touch,
Brother man’s despairing sign
Who may trust us to divine?” Poor Mathias

Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself.

“Let a man once believe in that God of infinite attributes of which thought and extension are those by which He manifests Himself to us; let him see that the opposition between thought and matter is fictitious; that his mind ‘is a part of the infinite intellect of God’; that he is not a mere transient, outside interpreter of the universe, but himself the soul or law, which is the universe, and he will feel a relationship with infinity which will emancipate him. Arnold Essay on Spinosa

“but when we become exhausted by the perversities of ill-controlled passion and find ourselves unable to breathe the rarefied air of transcendentalism, we may turn to him for the clarifying and strengthening effect of calm intelligence and pure spirituality.” O’Sulivan

“His counsels are the fruit of this well-ordered life and are perfectly in consonance with it. While he was a man of less striking personality and less brilliant literary gift than some of his contemporaries, and though his appeal was without the moving power that comes from great emotion, we find a compensation in his greater balance and sanity.” Dawson

“Wordsworth strongly reinforces three things in Arnold, the ability to derive from nature its “healing power” and to share and be glad in ‘the wonder and bloom of the world’; truth to the deeper spiritual life and strength to keep his soul” Theory of Criticism and Equipment as a Critic

Our fifth characteristic is description.

“Through the black, rushing smoke-bursts,
Thick breaks the red flame;
All Etna heaves fiercely
Her forest-clothed frame…

The day in his hotness
The strife with the palm;
The night in her silence,
The stars in their calm.” Callicles’ Song from Empedocles on Etna

“Cheerful, with friends, we set forth
Then, on the height, comes the storm.
Thunder crashes from rock
To rock, the cataracts reply,
Lightnings dazzle our eyes.
Roaring torrents have breach’d
The track, the stream-bed descends
In the place where the wayfarer one
Planted his footstep – the spray
Boils o’er its borders! Aloft
The unseen snow-beds dislodge
Their hanging ruin; alas,
Havoc is made in our train!” Rugby Chapel

“I take the omen! Eve lets down her veil,
The white fog creeps from bush to bush about,
The west unflushes, the high stars grow bright,
And in the scatter’d farms the lights come out. Thyrsis

“But when the moon their hollows lights,
And they are swept by balms of spring,
And in their glens, on starry nights,
The nightingales divinely sing;
And lovely notes, from shore to shore,
Across the sounds and channels pour.” To Marguerite

“What is it to grow old?
Is it to lose the glory of the form,
The luster of the eye?
Is it for beauty to forego her wreath?
Yes, but not this alone.

Is it to feel our strength
Not our bloom only, but our strength decay?
Is it to feel each limb
Grow stiffer, every fundtion less exact,
Each nerve more loosely strung?

“Yes, this, and more; but not
Ah, ‘tis not what in youth we dreamed ‘twould be!
“tis not to have our life
Mellowed and softened as with sunset glow,
A golden day’s decline.” Growing Old

“A November day at the end of the month – the country is left to those who live in it. The scattered visitors who took lodgings in the summer in the villages have all departed…The woods in which they wandered are impassable, for the rain has been heavy, and the dry, baked clay of August has been turned into a slough a foot deep….The grass for the most part is greyish-green, more grey than green where it has not been mown, but on the rocky and broken ground there is a colour like that of an emerald and the low sun when it comes out throws the projections on the hillside long and beautifully shaped shadows…” Journal and Other Papers Arnold

Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself.

“His landscape is exquisite; the stately stanza not merely swept, but sways and swings, with as much grace as state.” Saintsbury

“His is the kind of Nature-worship which takes nothing at second-hand. He placed himself as a reverent learner…It is this exactness of observation which makes his touches of local colouring so vivid and so true. This gives its winning charm to his landscape-painting.” G. Russell

“The School Gypsy, Thyrsis, Obermann, The Forsaken Merman with flawless gems of natural description…” G. Russell

We close with the lyric poem A Wish:

“Bathed in the sacred dews of morn
The wide aerial landscape spread
The World which was ere I was born,
The world which lasts when I am dead;

Which never was the friend of one,
Nor promised love it could not give.
But lit for all its generous sun,
And lived itself, and made us live.

There let me gaze, till I become
In soul, with what I gaze on, wed!
To feel the universe my home;
To have before my mind instead

Of the sick room, the mortal strife,
The turmoil for a little breath
The pure eternal course of life,
Not human combatings with death!

Thus feeling, gazing, might I grow
Composed, refresh’d, ennobled, clear;
Then willing let my spirit go
To work or wait elsewhere or here!”

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