(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.
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Baroness Emmuska Orczy
(A master of disguise rescues French aristocrats from the guillotine and drops them safely into London society—until a sly French inspector tracks him down.)
Ian McKellen as the French inspector Chauvelin in the 1982 London Films production of The Scarlet Pimpernel, which also starred Anthony Andrews and Jane Seymour. This and other stills can be found at the blog Of Trims and Frills and Furbelows.
Don’t let the title’s reference to a dainty flower and the femininity of the author fool you. This is no Austen or Brontë novel. It is a hearty adventure, more along the lines of the father of adventure stories Sir Walter Scott, or Dumas, or Stevenson. What a treat to have a woman join these illustrious ranks! Rugged oaths and swordfights may be lacking, but stories stocked with those can easily be found elsewhere. Instead Orczy proficiently places a “caped avenger”-style suspense drama (a genre some say she invented) against a backdrop of fashionable London society. The high manners, the social competition, the gossip, the dress, the flamboyant events… Orczy was a baroness herself, and this is undoubtedly part of the reason why she was able to present these ingredients with such freshness and authenticity. But all this is ancillary to the mystery and excitement that lend this tale its permanent appeal.
(A poetic sage takes lessons on goodness and beauty from nature.)
Crop of Tintern Abbey (1804), by William Havell. Hikers laze above the abbey in the Wye Valley, just as Wordsworth did with his sister before composing his most famous poem. This painting is at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology in Oxford.
A man of wisdom, a poet of nature, is Wordsworth. These are the goals to which he aspires, goals that are discernable in his work from a very early age. He wrote many of his greatest poems in the years covered here, before he reached 30. Wisdom, or more specifically a yearning for and contemplation of goodness and beauty, suffuses his poetry. Thus he is keen to deliver moral advice, and almost seems to teach or prophesy rather than reflect. But it is the deepest and most profitable kind of reflection, I can almost hear him replying, whose results teach the reflector something. And since he insists in the Preface to his Lyrical Ballads that he writes each poem with a purpose, and with the intent of delivering objective truths rather than ideas that one may take or leave as a matter of preference, we must prepare for a slight didactic or pedagogical flavor now and then. For Wordsworth, though firmly against elitism in poetry, is aware of his own wisdom, and is driven to share it with others. The topics range from attitudes towards people (as in “Matthew”), to attitudes towards nature (as in “Lines Written in Early Spring”), to a straightforward exhortation to be good (as in “Goody Blake and Harry Gill”). He imparts his values on social matters as well, regarding for instance the evil of slavery (at the end of “Descriptive Sketches”), the necessity of legislated charity (at the beginning of “The Old Cumberland Beggar”), and thoughts on education (e.g. “Expostulation and Reply”).