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(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.
(What does it really mean for an opinion to be “a matter of taste”?)An art museum visitor observing a Jackson Pollock painting; from the blog Art Now and Then, by Jim Lane.
When we say “it’s just a matter of taste”, a bold and negative message lies behind the word “just”. Whether intended or not, the word creates a whiff of denigration. We discredit the thing we’re describing, reducing it such that it does not require much attention or respect. It’s a surefire conversation-ender. We are in effect saying that the question of whether the food is good, the music inspiring, or the sight beautiful, is not really worthy of discussion. We are also espousing a momentous philosophical position: that the matter at hand is subjective, in the sense that two individuals considering it may come to contradictory conclusions about it and neither could possibly be justified in criticizing the other. Probably not very many of us, when we make such a statement, are actually prepared to defend our implicit position, or the accompanying subliminal evaluation. More likely, we are simply incorporating into our daily language certain assumptions about the world, about truth, about goodness and beauty and love and appreciation and worthiness. Sometimes we can use quippy phrases because they come easily, whether or not we realize that we are taking a side on something. In time a fallacious circle is likely to complete itself: someday when we actually consider the matter, we will find ourselves thinking our assumption very likely to be true, simply because our manner of thinking has been shaped by our (and our community’s) manner of speaking. If we are trained long enough to talk as if something is so, we will tend to think it is so unless we examine our ideas deliberately.
(A sage in medieval Iceland attempts to restore order in the face of bloody vengeance and warrior’s honor)
Detail from Gunnar at Rangá, an illustration of an event in Njáls Saga by Andreas Bloch (1898). This drawing originally appeared in Vore fædres liv: karakterer og skildringer fra sagatiden, or Our Fathers’ Life: Characters and Scenes from the Age of Saga, by Nordahl Rolfsen.
The mighty deeds of a free people in struggle are frequently represented in timeless literature—such stories will never go stale. Whether tossed on the stormy Mediterranean, afoot in the forests and scrublands of India, or galloping through prairie grasses among stalwart buttes in the American West, there is something deeply inspiring about a small people forging a life in the face of privation, violence, and treachery. We who live in the comfort of civilization can be tempted to think that a reasonably stable government and the rule of law are guaranteed, automatic, assumed. Or, even if we endure corruption, are wary of the tyranny or selfishness of our leaders, or have suffered at the hands of criminals, we are among millions and are likely to see ourselves as puny actors on an immense stage—what can we possibly do?! How fascinating, then, are the tales of those who managed to defend some fragile order amidst a storm of chaos—those whose survival was assured not by the actions of others, whether their venerated ancestors or soldiers on distant front lines, but by themselves: by the wisdom of their own minds, the words that passed through their own lips, and the swords that hung from their own belts. The Icelandic Sagas—the Íslendingasögur—are epic narratives of this very sort. A man in the Age of Saga, so we are told, could cut his own destiny, no matter what coarse fabric sought to hem him in. And a woman could make the best of things by controlling the men. Anyone who wishes to see how this sort of lifestyle could play out can do no better than to read Njáls Saga (or, in the alternative title that is at once a spoiler, the Saga of Burnt Njál). The professionals tend to consider this the greatest and most well-developed of the 40 or so Icelandic Sagas that were written in the 13th-14th centuries. Whatever the critics say, here we certainly find hefty measures of all the most engaging ingredients in that genre: the bloody swinging of swords and thrusting of spears, the uncompromising defense of honor, the defiant challenge of the sea, the tenuous rise of God over the idols and of Law over bloody feuds, the disastrous fruits of pride and envy, the sly instigations of women, the mystic power of prophecy and fate, the iron duty of loyalty, and the deathgrip of revenge!
(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”).