(A man of intellect and of spiritual sensitivity contemplates the purpose of life and its struggles.)
“Unwelcome shroud of the forgotten dead,/ Oblivion’s dreary fountain, where art thou”. What a dark way to begin one’s poetical efforts, at 18 years of age! And we need read no further to suspect (correctly) that in Matthew Arnold we are in for something very different from the Romantics, and quite different also from his Victorian contemporaries Browning and Tennyson. The essence of the distinction is in his preoccupation with the meaning of life, and by extension death and the loss of faith. This spiritual decline that disturbed him so much, often called the maladie du siècle or the “sickness of the century”, had been treated more seriously on the continent, while in England Wordsworth, Keats, and Shelley were grasping at Nature or the humanism of the Greeks for their spiritual anchor. Arnold was a more melancholic, more skeptical poet, and doubted that the sickness could ever be cured, although he certainly loved the ancients (many of his early poems have classical subjects), and he also did look to nature for inspiration. Even as a teen he presaged the Existentialists, and indeed much of the spirit of the twentieth century, in trying to devise a way to preserve our spirituality and sense of wonder while being brutally honest about our mortality and the fleeting nature of all human endeavor. Matthew Arnold was a great poet not mainly because he was imaginative, morally sensitive, and wonderstruck, nor on the other hand because he was freethinking, scholarly, and skeptical; he was great because he was somehow both of these sorts of people at once. If his poetry could be said to have a single goal, it was to merge these two halves of his consciousness, the spiritual and the intellectual.
Unfairly, today we do not tend to bring Arnold to mind as frequently as the other greats of 19th century English poetry. The low volume of his poetic output may have had something to do with this, and the fact that he would largely leave poetry for literary and social criticism; and his fame, even today, mainly rests on his contributions to the latter genre. Still, plenty of equally or more famous poets have been meager of oeuvre and plenty others were polymaths. I think the main reasons for our tendency to undervalue him are his narrow focus and his steady-minded treatment that did not allow for flights of fancy or sensationalism. His was, to paraphrase one commentator, poetry of the mind more than of the heart. Actually there was much heart in his poetry, but he was primarily concerned with addressing questions, with indicating social concerns, with illustrating problems, and with describing beauty, rather than portraying his emotional reactions to any of these things. And at this versified philosophizing and description he was a master, achieving at times an eloquence and clarity of presentation that can be more gripping than the most enraptured of Romantic reveries (if you’re susceptible to that kind of inspiration).
His early poems provide sufficient examples of his genius for description, perception, and thought. The scene in the middle of his early “Alaric at Rome” is as vibrant as anything he ever wrote; and he shows precocious insight in the third stanza of “Cromwell”, in his interesting picture of the crystallization of adult character from vague childhood lessons and experiences. On the other hand, although several poems in this period address the issue of what we might call spiritual ignorance or orphanage, it was not until “Dover Beach”, one of his last poems (so not covered here), that the power of his ideas broke through in a rush upon the English readership. But unlike Arnold’s contemporaries, we have the benefit of an intervening century and a half, when the struggle for spirituality in a scientific and rational age has often been at the forefront of artistic and even popular culture; so we are likely to catch on much more quickly. Certainly “The Voice” presents the situation just as clearly. Arnold knew this was where society was heading– that the issues with which he was wrestling would be the defining issues of the coming times. Or, in more individual terms, (as Arnold sometimes took a societal perspective, other times a personal), the issues in his poetry would be the issues that anyone will face when he comes to know himself, or at least seeks to know himself, and his place in the world.
So let’s cut to the quick—if we are ignorant about our spiritual destiny, if the life of faith is fraught with doubt and struggle, if death is the destination of all existence regardless of our efforts to evade or ignore it, and yet despite these things if we possess a deep yearning and admiration for things beyond our understanding, how on earth does Arnold suggest we live? What kind of perspective makes most sense, in his intellectual cum imaginative cum poetic rationale, given such a concept of human nature? In the poems summarized below, the beginnings of an answer can be found. We should live a life of sensitivity to the leanings of our spirit, for example to instances of beauty and moral excellence; we should be tireless workers towards political freedom and for tolerance and compassion; we should pursue the “strain’d life” of serious study and contemplation; and above all, we should be content simply in living, and seek peace rather than joy.
Incidentally, this post is the first in a new Category (listed to the right) under Author Identity, called Young Writers. These will be works penned when the authors were just in their teens or twenties. Amazingly, Mary Wollstonecraft and her boyfriend Percy Shelley were wandering around Europe in their teens while writing works (her Frankenstein and his poetry) that would immortalize both of their imaginations. Stephen Crane, William Cullen Bryant, and John Keats wrote their most famous stuff in their early 20s– indeed, Keats didn’t make it beyond 25. And of course we have Hellen Keller and Anne Frank. Anyway, the poems in this post were written by Arnold when he was between 18-27 years old; these make up 33 of the about 119 poems he wrote, so over a quarter of his poetic output.
These are the “early poems” as designated by the (out of print) Everyman Library edition of Matthew Arnold’s complete poems. It contains a majority of the anonymous and overlooked Strayed Reveler and Other Poems of 1849, as well as a prizewinning gem from his eighteenth year “Alaric at Rome” (1840), another from his Oxford days “Cromwell” (1843), and a few others from the period, some of which were published in later collections, particularly Empedocles on Etna and Other Poems of 1853. Ones with an asterisk get my vote for the best.
“Alaric at Rome”
-A meditation and lament for Rome, sacked for the first time in almost 800 years, by the Visigoths under Alaric in 410, never really to recover. The poet moves from idea to idea: the moral lesson we might learn; wonderment at the contrast between Rome now and in its heyday; the voice of doom; Alaric the conqueror and his potential thoughts, especially his mortality (for he would drown soon afterwards). And what is Rome’s splendor to us now? A wonderful and hopeful, but fleeting image.
[Heartfelt; suffused with the notion that Rome had it coming. Alaric was the avenger. Where did old Rome go, the poet wonders?]
-A poetic and evaluative biography of Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England following the deposition and beheading of King Charles I. Cromwell has far from an inspiring childhood, yet he still manages to become inspired by the concept of freedom. His youthful influences develop in him despite his profligacy and laziness, to break forth suddenly after a vision—horrific, but somehow also triumphant at first. In this vision he sees the events and people of his future, and himself the terrible dark man of conquest and cold action. Finally, he sees himself on his deathbed, all lost to him.
[As with the previous poem, this is about a Realm-Destroyer. In this, Cromwell is portrayed as two different people: himself, and this terrible vision of himself. Perhaps this is an accurate depiction—a man of freedom, but also a man of cruelty; of constitutionalism, but also of domination.]
1. “Quiet Work”
-The world encourages haste and noise, and pits work and peace against each other. The poet calls us to look to the ant! May we all toil in tranquility.
2. “To a Friend”
-A friend had asked him where he finds solace. He answers: Homer, Epictetus the Stoic philosopher, and especially the well-adjusted, noble-minded Sophocles, “who saw life steadily and saw it whole”.
-The poet marvels at the Bard for his understanding, and his insight into the human condition.
4. “Written in Emerson’s Essays”
-The world is heedless of the wisdom of Emerson. The irony here is that the very wisdom that people are too mean to accept, is the idea that they can be elevated beyond meanness to godhood if they could simply will it.
[The poem ends, appropriately, with a question. How are we to solve such a paradox?]
5. “Written in Butler’s Sermons”
-The philosopher’s (e.g., Joseph Butler’s) many distinctions and divisions of human nature are ineffectual. Human nature is a unity, and beyond dissection.
[Another poem I like for its message, which is very fresh today in our time of questionable reductions, categories, and distinctions in psychology and philosophy.]
6. “To the Duke of Wellington, on hearing him mispraised”
-He offers support for the man who defeated Napoleon and then spent his life championing Tory causes, for his tenacity and consistency.
[A rather awkwardly assembled poem, unusual for Arnold.]
7. “In Harmony with Nature, to a preacher”
-A forceful argument against the concept of goodness as harmony with Nature. It is precisely in how we go beyond nature that gives us the possibility of goodness.
[This is part of the truth (for we are after all a part of nature as well), but it is a very important, often overlooked part. To much of the rest of Romantic poetry, touché!]
8. “To George Cruikshank: on seeing, in the country, his picture of ‘the bottle’”
-This etcher and caricaturist, known for political satire and eerie images, has created an image that disturbs the poet. Nature is not the balm for such disquiet, though. Rather, the soul soothes itself, offering the consolation [the Socratic one] that the worst harm others can do to you is kill you.
9. “To a Republican Friend, 1848” and 10. “Continued”
-France is again in revolution. Arnold sows his solidarity with high ideals such as democracy and care for the poor, all of which are served by the Republican cause. But, unlike the revolutionaries, he doubts that man can lift himself up to harmony and godlike liberation and peace.
11. “Religious Isolation”
-He chides a friend for his evangelism, like a child calling for attention. “Live by thy light, and Earth will live by hers.”
12. “To the Hungarian Nation”
-More than any other country, freedom-loving Hungary seems capable of showing heroism to the cynical world.
[In 1848 Europe was convulsed in a largely futile revolutionary movement. The Magyars of Hungary fought valiantly for their freedom. Arnold seems to have written this poem during the conflict. Eventually the Magyars were crushed by three armies, from within and without, and Hungary became a mere province of Austria.]
13. “Youth’s Agitations”
-He expects that, though he hates youth now, he will eventually look back on the tumultuous period with envy. Discontent is common to youth and old age.
14. “The World’s Triumphs”
-So many revolutions have failed—attempts to recast the way of the world have proved fruitless. [This is the story of Europe in 1848!]. The world has triumphed, one might say. But the vanquished idealist might respond that he would rather be taken out of the world hating it, than to capitulate to it.
-An Egyptian king lives justly and rules well, unlike his father. But, although his father lived long and happily, an oracle gives Mycerinus only six years to live! In shock and frustration he challenges the gods and decides that virtue yields no reward. He will leave his duties and revel in the forest throughout his remaining years.
* “The Church of Brou”
-A pastoral reverie on love, death, and paradise.
1. “The Castle”
-Young love between a duke and duchess is thwarted by death in a hunting accident. The widow completes an unfinished church in the mountains, erects a marble tomb for both of them, and then joins him.
2. “The Church”
-Life proceeds quietly and idyllically at the Church where they lie.
3. “The Tomb”
-Reflection on their stillness leads the poet to fantasize that they wake on their marble beds. They might see the sunset pouring through the stained glass, or hear an autumn rain, and see the high pillars, and know themselves to be in heaven.
[I love the way Arnold’s imagination works. He is skeptical, but still always full of spirit, full of wonder. He always takes religion seriously, here seamlessly melding it with pastoral culture and nature. He cannot take us to heaven, but he brings heaven here to earth.]
-A woman gave of herself throughout her life, but never received the rest, peace, and space she herself desired. Only in death could she find it.
“Lines Written by a Death-bed”
-A beautiful woman is now dead, released from cares, calm, imperturbable. But is this our “crowning end of life and youth”? Is this what youth strives for? No. Youth strives for life. The calm of death is our destination, but not our goal.
“A Memory Picture: to my friends who ridiculed a tender leave-taking”
-As we age we realize that the things we cherish will nevertheless fade from our memories. Though youth will squander memories, we should rather do what we can to keep them. If they are doomed to dim, we might at least celebrate the dim impressions that remain to us!
-He canoes on a stream through the Alps, and sees his beloved [from whom he apparently recently parted] dressed in white on a balcony, waving—yet the boat continues, past cities, into the sea.
[It is the River of Life. Love is so brief. He wants to stay, but the river moves him onward.]
“The New Sirens: a palinode”
-(A palinode is a poetic retraction of an earlier poem). The allurements and pleasures of women have, like the Sirens of old, taken him away from his purer, intellectual and spiritual pursuits. They call, telling him to forget his head and look to his heart instead—but the result is a dullness and listlessness, the drowsiness after pleasure. He admits that the call is lush and delightful, but who knows the future? “The eye wanders, faith is failing”. The spell of the new sirens is broken by the light of Dawn, and love dies.
** “The Voice”
-The inner whispers and tuggings that he knew from long ago, again try to open his heart, like ocean waves beating in vain on a beach, or tears falling for a dead flower. He is touched, moved, but he can no longer believe or embrace the call.
[Of love, or more likely God. A poem of unbelievable sadness, of a frozen, closed heart.]
“Stagirius”, or “Stagyrus” (later this poem was retitled “Desire”)
-[Chrysostom wrote a couple of letters to a melancholy man by this name. He had gone into the ministry, then regretted it.] A prayer, reminiscent of a spiritual, of a man seeking God but frustrated and hindered in the attempt. A plea to God to save us from all the anguish of life, especially arising from our own weakness and blindness.
-We are not masters of the ship of our own life—somehow we manage to live past our strayings and waywardness as if steered “by some unknown Powers”.
[On the weakness and inconstancy of our will in contrast to the largely wholesome tug of destiny or Providence.]
“To a Gipsy Child by the Sea-shore: Douglas, Isle of Man”
-A child’s sorrow demonstrates a knowledge of the tragedy of life. This lost naivete perhaps brings with it a wisdom deeper than that of sages, kings and poets. The child is not insulated from heartbreaking realities; poverty and hopelessness forge a clear understanding, and “this majesty of grief” cultivates a courageous character.
“The Hayswater Boat”
-A battered craft bobs alone in black water under a forbidding rock. It has been pushed out to sea but somehow hovers close to shore amid the wild waves.
[In the same spirit as the preceding poems, a sketch vividly illustrating the state of human life.]
“A Question: to Fausta”
-Life and its wonders—even the most far-reaching—are ephemeral, even doomed.
[Reminiscent of Ecclesiastes. A burst of despair from a man who refuses to be falsely or superficially comforted.]
“In Utrumque Paratus”
-[This title is from Virgil’s Aeneid, and means “prepared for either”, which in that context referred to peace or war.] The message the poet takes from the universe is the same regardless of whether it was created by God from nothing, or else always existed and happened “at her happiest throe” to produce us. It is a vast place in which humans are ignorant and inconsequential.
[Hoping it does not detract from this very interesting perspective, I offer a mere side note: the connection between God and the temporally finite universe is a traditional one, the usual atheistic option being that the universe always existed. A century and a half of physics has come down firmly on the side of the universe having had a distinct beginning.]
“The World and the Quietist (To Critias)”
-[A quietist is a person who views the ideal life as in some sense a retreat into oneself, or a removal of oneself from the world.] The Sophist Critias suggests that if the world has gone a certain way, why not just relax and accept it? The poet’s answer is that the World calls always for Laborers, challengers to the status quo. It is these who move the world.
** “The Second Best”
-The best for us would be a simple, unfettered, moderate life. But “the world’s so madly jangled/ Human things so fast entangled”, that such a life is impossible. But a “strain’d life”, through study and the discernment that comes from experience, can build character and hope. This is the promise of a second best life.
-In a dark hour the poet finds comfort that at any moment in time, though some may be in pain or sorrow, others are happy, and for them the moment is beautiful. Time cannot change for one without affecting the others.
“Resignation: To Fausta”
-Some are driven to always blaze new trails, impatient or ashamed to rest or return to places of the past. “Milder natures, and more free”, on the other hand, are content to frequent familiar places, much as the poet and a friend Fausta now retrace an old path, or as the Gipsies roam well-known lands. The Poet rises above the tumult of the day’s concerns and excitement, and sees life and humanity as a thread running through time. This does not mean that we should seek the “rapt security” of the Poet, for in fact that too demands more than life can be expected to provide. If we look to the life of “plants, and stones, and rain” for an example, we see that they tend to “bear rather than rejoice”. It is this kind of life we tend towards when we realize that the world is bigger than any unrest, urgency, joy or despair, life or death. “Enough, we live.”
Tidbits of Significance
A glorious manhood, yet a dim old age
And years of crime, and nothingness, and gloom:
And then that mightiest crash, that giant fall,
Ambition’s boldest dream might sober and appal.
-“Alaric at Rome” [a 4-line summary of the history of Rome]
Where all we see, or do, or hear, or say,
Seems strangely echoed back by tones of yesterday
-“Alaric at Rome” [I find that this does tend to be the impression one gets after reading the produce of Greece and Rome.]
Oh! it is bitter, that each fairest dream
Should fleet before us but to melt away;
That wildest visions still should loveliest seem
And soonest fade in the broad glare of day
-“Alaric at Rome”
Say not such dreams are idle: for the man
Still toils to perfect what the child began;
And thoughts, that were but outlines, time engraves
Deep on his life
-on youthful imaginings, “Cromwell”
All pains the immortal spirit must endure,
All weakness that impairs, all griefs that bow,
Find their sole voice in that victorious brow.
“O Monstrous, dead, unprofitable world,
That thou canst hear, and hearing, hold thy way.”
-a frustrated plea by a “voice oracular”, “Written in Emerson’s Essays”
Know, man hath all which Nature hath, but more,
And in that more lie all his hopes of good.
-“In Harmony with Nature”
Man must begin, know this, where Nature ends;
Nature and man can never be fast friends.
Fool, if thou canst not pass her, rest her slave!
-“In Harmony with Nature”
Breasts her own griefs
-“To George Cruikshank”
..sigh that one thing only has been lent
To youth an aged age in common—discontent.
“Behold, she cries, so many rages lull’d,
So many fiery spirits quite cool’d down…”
-the world, to would-be revolutionaries, “The World’s Triumphs”
It may be that sometimes his wondering soul
From the loud joyful laughter of his lips
Might shrink half startled, like a guilty man
Who wrestles with his dream
-“Mycerinus”, as he doubts the rightness of his hedonistic resignation
Mountain greensward paves the chancel;
Harebells flower in the nave.
-of the church in “The Church of Brou: 1. The Castle”
But ah, though peace indeed is here,
And ease from shame, and rest from fear;
Though nothing can dismarble now
The smoothness of that limpid brow;
Yet is a calm like this, in truth,
The crowning end of life and youth?
And when this boon rewards the dead,
Are all debts paid, has all been said?
-“Lines Written by a Death-bed”
“Calm’s not life’s crown, though calm is well.”
‘Tis all perhaps which man acquires:
But ‘tis not what our youth desires.
-“Lines Written by a Death-bed”
Ah! too true. Time’s current strong
Leaves us true to nothing long.
Yet, if little stays with man,
Ah! retain we all we can!
If the clear impression dies,
Ah! the dim remembrance prize!
Ere the parting hour go by,
Quick, thy tablets, Memory!
-“A Memory Picture”
“Come,” you say, “the brain is seeking,
When the princely heart is dead:
Yet this glean’d, when Gods were speaking,
Rarer secrets than the toiling head.”
-a woman, to the poet, “The New Sirens”
“Come,” you say, “opinion trembles,
Judgment shifts, convictions go:
Life dries up, the heart dissembles:
Only, what we feel, we know.
Hath your wisdom known emotions?
Will it weep our burning tears?
Hath it drunk of our love-potions
Crowning moments with the weight of years?”
I am dumb. Alas! too soon, all
Man’s grave reasons disappear:
Yet, I think, at God’s tribunal
Some large answer you shall hear.
-a woman, and the poet’s reply, “The New Sirens”
But for me, my thoughts are straying
Where at sunrise, through the vines,
Of these lawns I saw you playing,
Hanging garlands on the odorous pines.
When your showering locks enwound you,
And your heavenly eyes shone through:
When the pine-boughs yielded round you,
And your brows were starr’d with dew.
-of a woman, “The New Sirens”
In the pines the thrush is waking—
Lo, yon orient hill in flames:
Scores of true love-knots are breaking
At divorce which it proclaims.
When the lamps are paled at morning,
Heart quits heart, and hand quits hand.
–Cold in that unlovely dawning,
Loveless, rayless, joyless you shall stand.
-“The New Sirens” [How rare, to associate Dawn with the death of love in Romantic poetry; yet sadly often true, even literally, especially today.]
O unforgotten Voice, thy whispers come,
Like wanderers from the world’s extremity,
Unto their ancient home.
In vain, all, all in vain,
They beat upon mine ear again,
Those melancholy tones so sweet and still.
Those lute-like tones which in long distant years
Did steal into mine ears:
Blew such a thrilling summons to my will;
Yet could not shake it.
Drain’d all the life my full heart had to spill;
Yet could not break it.
From the ingrain’d fashion
Of this early nature
That mars thy creature.
Save, oh, save.
-a frustrated prayer, “Stagirius”
Thou hast foreknown the vanity of hope,
Foreseen thy harvest—yet proceed’st to live.
-“To a Gipsy Child by the Sea-shore”
For them, for all, Time’s busy touch,
While it mends little, troubles much:
Their joints grow stiffer; but the year
Runs his old round of dubious cheer
The Poet, to whose mighty heart
Heaven doth a quicker pulse impart,
Subdues that energy to scan
Not his own course, but that of Man.
-“Resignation” [This idea that universal scope is the role of the poet contrasts with some more recent ideas of poetry that are much more individualistic or in-group oriented, in some extreme cases even solipsistic.]
Are in his eyes, and in his ears
The murmur of a thousand years:
Before him he sees Life unroll,
A placid and continuous whole
-of the ideally resigned nature, “Resignation”
The World in which we live and move
Outlasts aversion, outlasts love.
Outlasts each effort, interest, hope,
Remorse, grief, joy:– and were the scope
Of these affections wider made,
Man still would see, and see dismay’d,
Beyond his passion’s widest range
Far regions of eternal change.
Yet they, believe me, who await
No gifts from Chance, have conquered Fate.
They, winning room to see and hear,
And to men’s business not too near,
Through clouds of individual strife
Draw homewards to the general Life.
Like leaves by suns not yet uncurl’d:
To the wise, foolish; to the world,
Weak: yet not weak, I might reply,
Not foolish, Fausta, in His eye.
Each moment as it flies, to whom,
Crowd as we will its neutral room,
Is but a quiet watershed
Whence, equally, the Seas of Life and Death are fed.
READ THIS WHEN
…you seek poetry of the mind—the clear and honest meditations of a modern who wonders what his spirituality and imagination is for;
…you are pensive and could use an insightful and expressive companion.
IF YOU LIKE THIS, YOU’D LIKE:
(for the aspiring Victorian poet:)
- Matthew Arnold, (other) poems (1849-1867).
- Robert Browning, Pauline (1833).
- Robert Browning, The Ring and the Book (1868-1869).
- Alfred Tennyson, In Memoriam (1850).
(for the broad-minded and imaginative inquirer into life’s meaning and purpose:)
- Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Confessions (d. 1778).
- Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays (1841).
- Søren Kierkegaard, Edifying Discourses in Various Spirits (1847).
- Matthew Arnold, Last Essays on Church and Religion (1877).
Matthew Arnold’s poetry is not in print in hardcover! Terrible. Everyman Library had a great edition but dropped it. Your best bet is to go used, unless you want to hazard one of the facsimile editions (with which I have had very little success).
Even in paperback our poor Arnold has been sorely mistreated. The easiest to find now is the Dover Thrift Edition, but this is just a selection and does not have most of the poems covered in this post.
This edition is questionable, although it implies that it is complete: