Arnold’s Works and Hidden Radicalism in Them
Matthew Arnold was born in 1822 in Laleham-on-Thames in Middlesex County, England. Due to some temporary childhood leg braces, (Machann, 1) and a competitiveness within the large family of nine (Culler xxi) young Matthew earned the nickname “Crabby”. His disposition was described as active, but since his athletic pursuits were somewhat hindered by this correction of a “bent leg” (Machann 1), intellectual pursuits became more accessible to him. This may have led him to a literary career, but both his parents were literary (his mother wrote occasional verse and kept a journal, Machann 1) and scholarly, also, and this may have been what helped to accomplish the same aim. His father, Thomas Arnold, was a celebrated educator and headmaster of Rugby School, to which Matthew matriculated. He later attended Oxford, and, after a personal secretary-ship to Lord Lansdowne (Machann, 19) he was appointed Inspector of Schools. He spent most of his adult life traveling around England and sometimes the continent observing and reporting on the state of public schools, and his prose on education and social issues continues to be examined today (Machann xi). He also held the Chair of Poetry at Oxford for ten years, and wrote extensive literary criticism (Culler, xxii).
Arnold is probably best known today for this passage of his honeymoon-written (Machann, 31) “Dover Beach”, the only poem of Arnold’s which may be called very famous. This is the last stanza of the poem.
“Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! For the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here a on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.” (Strand and Boland, 185-186)
This poem, a love poem doubtless, in the end directs us to a love beyond all earthly love, and a rejection of the world as a place of illusions. Religion was the central idea of Arnold’s life, but he thought that poetry was an excellent, and, in fact, vital part of the new society, which he thought absolutely necessary to understanding the spiritual component of life. He wrote in his The Study of Poetry, “But for poetry the idea is everything; the rest is a world of illusion, of divine illusion. Poetry attaches its emotion to the idea; the idea is the fact. The strongest part of our religion to-day is its unconscious poetry.” (463), and “We should conceive of [poetry] as capable of higher uses, and called to higher destinies, than those which in general men have assigned to it hitherto. More and more mankind will discover that we have to turn to poetry to interpret life for us, to console us, and to sustain us.” (464).
So this poet, who was actually not primarily a professional poet for a large part of his life, but instead accomplished all of his great poetic feats during his time off from his employment inspecting schools (Britannica article), argued that poetry was of paramount importance to everyone, and necessary for spiritual health. What kind of poetry would a man like this write? He naturally excelled at lyric and elegy (Schmidt 486,) but he really thought the truly impersonal epics – the “classic virtues of unity, impersonality, universality, and architectonic power and upon the value of the classical masterpieces” (Britannica article) – were the highest form and the best model of poetry. He wrote some long dramatic and narrative poems, such as “Empedocles on Etna” “Sohrab and Rustum, and “Tristram and Iseult”, with classical and legendary themes. He had a classical education at Rugby and Oxford, but distanced himself from the classics (though he thought of them as being the bastion of sanity (Schmidt 486,) but he was also the first Poetry chair at Oxford to deliver his lectures in English instead of Latin (Culler, xxii)). He gave a lecture “On Translating Homer”, but in it refused to translate it himself, and instead provided criticism on the latest two translations. He was very religious, but also was critical of the established religions of his Victorian time, and wrote “most of what now passes with us for religion and philosophy will be replaced by poetry” (Harmon, 464,) which must have been a somewhat shocking claim in his time coming from a man employed in more than one capacity to mold young minds. He was a product of his time, but had deep personal reservations about the state of his world.
His poetry has been criticized, even his greatest poems, as being “an allegory of the state of his own mind.” (Culler, xvii). His talents appear to have lain in the personal poems – the lyric and the elegy, such as “Dover Beach”, but his ambitions perhaps lay in what he considered a higher form of poetry – the epic. “Empedocles on Etna”, for example, doesn’t have the immediacy and the musicality of “Dover Beach” or even his famous (at the time) sonnet “Shakespeare”:
Others abide our question. Thou art free.
We ask and ask – Thou smilest and art still,
Out-topping knowledge. For the loftiest hill,
Who to the stars uncrown his majesty,
Planting his steadfast footsteps in the sea,
Making the heaven of heavens his dwelling-place,
Spares but the cloudy border of his base
To the foil’d searching of mortality;
And thou, who didst the stars and sunbeams know,
Self-school’d, self-scann’d, self-honour’d, self-secure,
Didst tread on earth unguess’d at. – Better so!
All pains the immortal spirit must endure,
All weakness which impairs, all griefs which bow,
Find their sole speech in that victorious brow. (Culler 26)
This poem has the fourteen lines of a sonnet, and the final rhyming couplet, but has additional stanza breaks that Shakespeare’s sonnets did not. Perhaps in this kind of laudatory poetry (perhaps imitating the original form of classical elegies, which were replete with flatteries) Arnold didn’t think he was worthy to directly imitate his subject’s sonnet form. This example of Arnold’s poetry shows his mastery of language – even awkward constructions like “Self-school’d, self-scann’d, self-honor’d, self-secure” trip off the tongue and make sense without seeming simplistic. He uses some of Shakespeare’s language (didst, thou,) but doesn’t make this sound like a piece of Elizabethan poetry, either. He brings the reader to think about what in Shakespeare he or she might have read that is “out-topping knowledge.” The comparison in the second stanza is definitely classical in origin (perhaps the Colossus of Rhodes, or the battles of the Titans and the gods in Greek mythology), showing Shakespeare metaphorically large enough to stand on earth and live in heaven. We humans on earth can only contemplate his lower parts, his “base” (Machann says that it is an image of Shakespeare as a “lofty mountain, 15.)
It is a good way of capturing the wonder and mystery of great art. We “ask and ask”, as Arnold says, be we don’t fully understand a masterpiece or how its creator made it. Also, it’s just self-conscious enough to show Arnold’s modesty about his own talent. He doesn’t put himself in the class with Shakespeare, or with Homer or writers of the other classical epics. He hasn’t quite reconciled himself, I think, to the idea that the future of poetry lay in the personal, which was a kind of poetry he himself was able to write very well.
Arnold’s poetry, especially his lyrics and elegies, are often interesting and thought-provoking. His mastery of English is complete, and his diction shows his full Latin and Greek education, with the deep understanding of the origin of Latinate English words. But he does not shy away from good Anglo-Saxon words, either, like Shakespeare does not, and is fully able to use both high-flown language (such as in Empedocles on Etna, “These rumblings are not Typho’s groans, I know!/These angry smoke-bursts/Are not the passionate breath/Of the mountain-crush’d, tortured, intractable Titan king,” Culler 65) and very simple, lovely images, such as “stars and sunbeams know.” His elegy “Memorial Verses to Wordsworth” is considered one of the best elegies in English. (Schmidt, 485)
Arnold was a product of his time — the old Victorian world of religion and classical education – but he also anticipated the new modern focus on self-choice and the value placed on the personal. He was a poetic talent with a flair for thoughtful poems, with the ability to create beautiful and lasting images.
Machann, C. Matthew Arnold: A Literary Life, New York: St Martin’s Press, 1998
“Arnold, Matthew.” Encyclopedia Britannica. 2006. Encyclopedia Britannica Online. 8 Oct. 2006 <http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-9009580>.
Culler, A. D., Ed., Poetry and Criticism of Matthew Arnold, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1961.
Strand, M., and Boland, E., Eds., The Making of a Poem, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2000
Harmon, W. Ed., Classic Writings on Poetry, New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.
Schmidt, M. The Lives of the Poets, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999
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Matthew Arnold was born in 1822 in Laleham-on-Thames in Middlesex County, England. Due to some temporary childhood leg braces, (Machann, 1) and a competitiveness within the large family of nine […]