Among the major Victorian writers sharing in a revival of interest and respect in the second half of the twentieth century, Matthew Arnold is unique in that his reputation rests equally upon his poetry and his prose. Only a quarter of his productive life was given to writing poetry, but many of the same values, attitudes, and feelings that are expressed in his poems achieve a fuller or more balanced formulation in his prose. This unity was obscured for most earlier readers by the usual evaluations of his poetry as gnomic or thought-laden, or as melancholy or elegiac, and of his prose as urbane, didactic, and often satirically witty in its self-imposed task of enlightening the social consciousness of England.
Assessing his achievement as a whole, G. K. Chesterton said that under his surface raillery Arnold was, "even in the age of Carlyle and Ruskin, perhaps the most serious man alive." A later summary by H. J. Muller declares that "if in an age of violence the attitudes he engenders cannot alone save civilization, it is worth saving chiefly because of such attitudes"—a view of Arnold's continuing relevance which emphasizes his appeals to his contemporaries in the name of "culture" throughout his prose writings. It is even more striking, and would have pleased Arnold greatly, to find an intelligent and critical journalist telling newspaper readers in 1980 that if selecting three books for castaways, he would make his first choice The Poetical Works of Matthew Arnold (1950), because "Arnold's longer poems may be an acquired taste, but once the nut has been cracked their power is extraordinary." Arnold put his own poems in perspective in a letter to his mother on 5 June 1869: "It might be fairly urged that I have less poetical sentiment than Tennyson, and less intellectual vigour and abundance than Browning; yet, because I have perhaps more of a fusion of the two than either of them, and have more regularly applied that fusion to the main line of modern development, I am likely enough to have my turn, as they have had theirs."
The term modern as used by Arnold about his own writing needs examining, especially since many readers have come to see him as the most modern of the Victorians. It is defined by Arnold in "On the Modern Element in Literature," his first lecture as professor of poetry at Oxford in 1857. This lecture, the first to be delivered from that chair in English, marked Arnold's transition from poet to social as well as literary critic. Stating that the great need of a modern age is an "intellectual deliverance," Arnold found the characteristic features of such a deliverance to be a preoccupation with the arts of peace, the growth of a tolerant spirit, the capacity for refined pursuits, the formation of taste, and above all, the intellectual maturity to "observe facts with a critical spirit" and "to judge by the rule of reason." This prescription, which he found supremely fulfilled in Athens of the fifth century B.C., is of course an idealized one when applied to any age, as is obvious when Arnold writes that Athens was "a nation the meanest citizen of which could follow with comprehension the profoundly thoughtful speeches of Pericles."
Such an ideal Arnold saw as peculiarly needful if his own age was to become truly modern, truly humanized and civilized. The views he developed in his prose works on social, educational, and religious issues have been absorbed into the general consciousness, even if what his contemporary W. R. Greg called "realisable ideals" are as far as ever from being realized. The prospect of glacially slow growth never discouraged Arnold. He could harshly satirize the religious cant which would have the "festering mass" of "half-sized, half-fed, half-clothed" children in London's miserable East End "succour one another if only with a cup of cold water"; he could more gently satirize the suicide of a Puritan businessman obsessed with the two fears of falling into poverty and of being eternally lost. But he believed above all in the need for a vision of perfection if faith in the possibility of a better society for all were to be maintained. The vision, as an eloquent conclusion to a call for practical reforms in education, suffuses the final paragraph of heightened prose in A French Eton (1864). The belief that sustained him and motivated his crusade on behalf of "culture" is soberly expressed in the late essay "A French Critic on Milton": "Human progress consists in a continual increase in the number of those, who, ceasing to live by the animal life alone and to feel the pleasures of sense only, come to participate in the intellectual life also, and to find enjoyment in the things of the mind."
When Arnold's poetry is considered, a different meaning must be applied to the term modern than that applied to the ideas of the critic, reformer, and prophet who dedicated most of his life to broadening the intellectual horizons of his countrymen—of, indeed, the whole English-speaking world. In many of his poems can be seen the psychological and emotional conflicts, the uncertainty of purpose, above all the feeling of disunity within oneself or of the individual's estrangement from society which is today called alienation and is thought of as a modern phenomenon. As Kenneth Allott said in 1954: "If a poet can ever teach us to understand what we feel, and how to live with our feelings, then Arnold is a contemporary."
The recurring themes of man's lonely state and of a search for an inner self; the rejection in "The Scholar-Gipsy" of "this strange disease of modern life,/With its sick hurry, its divided aims"; the awareness, at the end of the early poem "Resignation," "In action's dizzying eddy whirled" of "something that infects the world" make an impact a century and more later. Readers of the jet age may find wryly amusing these lines from "Stanzas in Memory of the Author of 'Obermann'" (1849):
Like children bathing on the shore
Buried a wave beneath,
The second wave succeeds before
We have had time to breathe.
But the speed of the destabilizing process of change is, after all, relative. On the other hand, no reader can fail to respond to Arnold's well-known lines in "Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse" describing himself as "Wandering between two worlds, one dead,/The other powerless to be born." Romantic nostalgia for idealized older worlds, or for simpler states of being, is at the emotional core of many of his poems, with the insistent pressure of the present creating a conflict only to be resolved by a shift to prose and to the role of midwife, or at least prophet, of a better world in the future.
Chesterton's view of Arnold as, in spite of his fun with the Philistines, basically the most serious man of his times was supported by the publication in 1952 of the complete Note-Books. This "breviary of a humanist" contains quotations in six languages, copied from books over a period of thirty-six years, that caught Arnold's attention, passages which held profound meaning for him and invited meditation and reconsideration. The Bible bulks largest, followed by moral, religious, and philosophical thinkers. Even an hour a day of serious as against mere desultory reading was, in Arnold's experience, immensely "fortifying." In a letter of 1884 to Charles Eliot Norton he characteristically blends observation and prediction: "You are quite right in saying that the influence of poetry and literature appears at this moment diminishing rather than increasing. The newspapers have a good deal to do with this. The Times, which has much improved again, is a world, and people who read it daily hardly feel the necessity for reading a book; yet reading a book—a good book—is a discipline such as no reading of even good newspapers can ever give. But literature has in itself such powers of attraction that I am not over anxious about it."
The emphasis on religion and morality in the Note-Books is what one might expect of a son of Dr. Thomas Arnold, that strenuous Christian and scholarly clergyman-historian who fulfilled a prophecy that if elected headmaster of Rugby he would change the face of education "all through the Public Schools of England." But son Matthew was a more complex being, partly perhaps by virtue of genetic inheritance from his Cornish mother, Mary Penrose. There is evidence that the good doctor, whose avowed aim in education was to place moral and religious edification above mere intellectual attainment in order to turn schoolboys into young Christian gentlemen, felt some disappointment at times over the behavior of Matthew, who was less amenable, apparently, than were his brothers and sisters. Some of this "worldly" behavior, which puzzled and alarmed family and friends and caused great surprise at the serious tone and substance of his first published poems, was probably a sign of incipient polarities and conflicts. It marked his school and university days and to some extent his earlier years in the larger world, years illuminated not only by his poems but even more by his letters to Arthur Hugh Clough; the important collection of these letters published in 1932 gave fresh stimulus and direction to Arnold studies.
Following five years under tutors at Laleham and at Rugby, Arnold was sent for a year to his father's old school, Winchester College, presumably for discipline as well as instruction. At Winchester he won a prize for verse recitation with a passage from Byron and a barrage of potato peelings from horrified schoolmates who heard him casually telling the headmaster that the work of the school was really quite light. The fifth and sixth forms he spent at Rugby, where he did well without obvious effort, and where on one occasion he delighted his friends by making faces at them over his father's head from the position behind Dr. Arnold's chair that served for punishment. He won prizes for Latin verse and for English essay and verse--his prize poem Alaric at Rome (1840) was printed at Rugby--and climaxed his public school career with a scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford, in 1840. At Oxford he established an intimate friendship with Clough, the former Rugby student who had most completely fulfilled Dr. Arnold's aim of intellectual brilliance crowned by Christian fervor and moral earnestness. "I verily believe," Clough said, "my whole being is soaked through with the wishing and hoping and striving to do the school good"; he later transferred this compulsion to society, earning from Arnold the mocking title of "Citizen" Clough. There was a whole other side to Clough, as the satirical wit and realistic substance of many of his poems were to show, but his hyperactive conscience and often paralyzing dissection of desires and motives have frequently been adduced as the effect on sensitive natures of Dr. Arnold's standards of prayer and purity.
There was little evidence at this time of a similar influence on Matthew Arnold. The touches of mischief and resistance displayed in boyish years developed at Oxford into outright dandyism and independence, entertaining but also at times disturbing his more conventional friends. Clough records with amusement and reproach that "Matt is full of Parisianism; Theatre in general, and Rachel in special: he enters the room with a chanson of Beranger's on his lips--for the sake of French words almost conscious of tune: ... his hair is guiltless of English scissors: he breakfasts at 12 ... and in the week ... he has been to Chapel once." This Frenchiness extended to the reading of George Sand's novels, no doubt with a sense of daring in the Victorian atmosphere of rectitude and distrust of things foreign. In part it was a romantic response to vivid descriptions of nature and to a passionate gospel of freedom in human relations; in larger part it was a response to the element of social idealism based on a belief in equality, as recalled in his generous obituary tribute of 1877 to George Sand's greatness of spirit and her civilizing influence. Visiting her at her home in Nohant in 1846 and following the actress Rachel to Paris to see every performance for six weeks must have been seen by his friends, however, as Byronic and dangerous adventures.
In the years at Balliol a deeper source of concern to his friends than his rather extravagant dress and behavior was his careless attitude to his studies in the formally required subjects. Only prodding and coaching got him even a second class degree, though his general performance was apparently good enough to let him join Clough as a fellow of Oriel College. Clough had been expected on all sides to get a first instead of the second he also received, but in his case the distractions were part of that period of hectic religious strife. Young men at Oxford were, as Clough described himself, caught "like a straw drawn up the draught of a chimney" in the anguished debates swirling around the Tractarian or Oxford Movement and the dominant figure of John Henry Newman, who was soon to move on with some disciples to the Roman Catholic church. Differences between the Roman and Anglican positions and difficulties in subscribing to the articles of faith required of communicants in the Church of England were only the chief among problems exercising sensitive young minds at Oxford in those days. But the soul-searching and tormented inner debate which later led Clough, unwilling to subscribe to the Thirty-nine Articles, to resign his Oriel fellowship, were even then foreign to Arnold's cool and skeptical consideration of religious dogma. He was moved by the imaginative and spiritual eloquence of Newman, but he was after all the son of an aggressively liberal reformer in matters of Church and State. (Dr. Arnold, who died suddenly in 1842, had been appointed professor of modern history at Oxford in 1841, at a time when echoes of his searing attack on Newman and the "Oxford Malignants" in the Edinburgh Review were still reverberating.) The tone of a letter from Arnold to John Duke Coleridge in 1845 is noncommittal, even playful. Telling his friend not to let admiration for the sermons of Thomas Arnold reduce his admiration for Newman, Arnold said: "I should be unwilling to think that they did so in my own case, but owing to my utter want of prejudice... I find it perfectly possible to admire them both."
Arnold's behavior during those early years was a mask, enabling him to keep others at arm's length while he tried to make up his own mind, to explore his own nature and needs. His preferred reading is revealing. He shared the general enthusiasm of his friends for Carlyle's attacks on materialism and sham, and the exalting of great men and of character in Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841) may have inspired his own Oxford prize poem on Cromwell (1843). His preferences included Emerson, with his themes of "Self-Reliance" and "Trust thyself!"; Goethe, who taught that the main thing for man is to learn to master himself; and Spinoza, whose philosophy contains the idea that man's need is to affirm his own essence, to follow the law of his being. He had developed a strategy of detachment, as against Clough's commitment to the issues of the day; and the introspective analysis of his own nature and of his relations to men and ideas permeates the correspondence with Clough. He wrote to Coleridge in 1843 protesting against the general impression "as to my want of interest in my friends which you say they have begun to attribute to me. It is an old subject" and "the accusation, as you say, is not true. I laugh too much and they make one's laughter mean too much. However, the result is that when one wishes to be serious one cannot but fear a half suspicion on one's friends' parts that one is laughing, and, so, the difficulty gets worse and worse." When, seven years later, Charlotte Brontë met Arnold in Crabb Robinson's home, she found him striking and even prepossessing in appearance, but foppish, and added: "Ere long a real modesty appeared under his assumed conceit, and genuine intellectual aspirations, as well as high educational acquirements, displaced superficial affectations."
Arnold's drive to self-understanding and self-control may suggest a wish for a detached and self-sufficient position from which to contemplate human events and the historical flow, and could explain a change in the story of the young Egyptian king Mycerinus in Arnold's early poem of that name. Having heard from an oracle that he is to die in six years, although he has tried to atone for his father's selfish and unjust reign by a virtuous life and justice for his subjects, Mycerinus turns in scorn from his gods and his "sorrowing people" to spend the last years of his life in revelry. The possibility Arnold adds to that decision in lines 107-111 may be self-revealing:
It may be on that joyless feast his eye
Dwelt with mere outward seeming; he, within,
Took measure of his soul, and knew its strength,
And by that silent knowledge, day by day,
Was calmed, ennobled, comforted, sustained.
Arnold's appointment as private secretary to the elderly Whig statesman Lord Lansdowne in 1847, after a term as assistant master at Rugby School, gave him over the next four years a vantage point for observation of the "joyless feast" of nineteenth-century industrialism and class discontent and the revolutionary upheavals of 1848 throughout Europe. The striving to take "measure of his soul" is evident in poems and in the letters to Clough, as is the struggle to attain a state of peace and calm, a balance between withdrawal and commitment, a reconciliation of the claims of reason and the feelings and of the "two desires" which "toss about the poet's feverish blood. /One drives him to the world without/And one to solitude." Clough had committed himself to action and wrote Arnold from Rome describing his situation during bombardment of the city by the French armies. Arnold's reaction to Clough's reforming zeal appears in his two sonnets "To a Republican Friend." The first sonnet declares: "God knows it, I am with you" for "if to despise the barren, optimistic sophistries of comfortable moles" and "If thoughts, not idle, while before me flow/The armies of the homeless and unfed--/If these are yours, if this is what you are,/Then am I yours, and what you feel, I share." The second sonnet counsels a longer view, for "When I muse on what life is, I seem/Rather to patience prompted" than to the hope proclaimed by France "so loud." Necessity spares us "narrower margin than we deem," and the day when "liberated man" will burst through "the network superposed by selfish occupation" will not "dawn at a human nod."
Such sympathy with revolutionary aims but distrust of precipitate action could be expected of the young man whose "respect for the reason" sent him to Locke and Spinoza,and who already was turning from Beranger's "fade" Epicureanism to the stoic philosopher Epictetus. Arnold was especially attracted to the tragic dramatist Sophocles, whose "even-balanced soul," in the famous line from Arnold's sonnet "To a Friend," made him preeminently the writer "who saw life steadily and saw it whole." But though a philosophical overview, strengthened by classical art, could steady relations with the outer world, it was put to a much more severe test by the new experience that came Arnold's way on his travels. The powerful force of romantic love threatened to frustrate entirely the longing to take "measure of his soul" and so to be "calmed, ennobled, comforted, sustained."
The long dispute over whether Marguerite, the French girl Arnold fell in love with in Switzerland, was real or imaginary was settled by the publication of the letters to Clough. In a letter of 29 September 1848 he will "go to Thun" and "linger one day at the Hotel Bellevue for the sake of the blue eyes of one of its inmates." On 23 September 1849 he is in Thun "in a curious and not altogether comfortable state: however tomorrow I carry my aching head to the mountains and to my cousin the Bhunlis Alp." Research has failed to provide further clues, but adding these to the names and places of physical details in the poems has allowed the majority view to prevail: the Marguerite of the Switzerland lyrics was indeed real, as was the anguish of the lover who could not surrender himself to passion. For a man who believed above all in self-control and integrity, the outcome of a conflict between the Platonic and the Byronic (or between the shades of Dr. Arnold and of George Sand) could not be long in doubt. There is as much of relief as of desolation in the poem "Self-Dependence." Standing at the prow of the ship bearing him back to England, "Weary of myself, and sick of asking/ What I am, and what I ought to be," Arnold sends "a look of passionate desire" (the only one on record) to the stars, and asks that they "Calm me, ah, compose me to the end!" The Socratic answer comes, that to live "self-poised" as the stars do, there is only one prescription:" 'Resolve to be thyself; and know that he,/Who finds himself, loses his misery!'"
Having survived exposure to the storms of passion in the Alps, Arnold still felt the need for a love and companionship compatible with the needs of ordinary human nature, and before long he was attracted by the charms of a more suitable English girl, the daughter of a judge. The conventional courtship which followed, and which produced some charming lyrics, was prolonged until Arnold could obtain a position with an income that would support a wife. He achieved this when Lord Lansdowne had him appointed inspector of schools in April 1851, and the marriage to Frances Lucy Wightman took place in June. Though his first volume of poetry, The Strayed Reveller and Other Poems (1849), and the second, Empedocles on Etna and Other Poems (1852), both published under the pseudonym "A.," received limited attention and were soon withdrawn from circulation in spite of praise from a discerning few, Arnold continued writing poetry. His reputation was established with his third volume, Poems: A New Edition (1853), the first published under his name. It omitted "Empedocles on Etna" and the early poem "The New Sirens," but contained two new poems which have been widely known and liked ever since, "Sohrab and Rustum" and "The Scholar-Gipsy." Most of Arnold's best poems are in these volumes--except "Dover Beach," which, though not published until 1867, has been convincingly assigned to 1851 by Kenneth Allott.
During this period in which Arnold moved from a studied aloofness through turbulence to the desired calm, though with an awareness that "Calm's not life's crown, though calm is well" ("Youth and Calm"), the letters gradually change in tone from the early touches of extravagance and badinage to exhortation and even reproach. Clough, unable to settle down to any one job, including those found for him by Arnold, is finally told that he is "the most conscientious man I ever knew" but "on some lines morbidly so." A letter commenting on this highminded (or irresolute) inability to find anything worth doing for long is both anxious and pointed: "The mental harass of an uncertain life must be far more irksome than the ennui of the most monotonous employment." That such concern for his old friend was a way of checking similar tendencies in himself seems apparent from a letter of 1849, when Arnold was breaking away from Marguerite: "What I must tell you is that I have never yet succeeded in any one great occasion in consciously mastering myself .... at the critical point I am too apt to hoist up the mainsail to the wind and let her drive."
Though he could generously concede in looking back "an invincible languor of spirit" compared with Clough's "genuineness and faith," Arnold by 1852 had arrived at a point where he could say firmly, "Nothing can absolve us from the duty of doing all we can to keep alive our courage and activity." A lightness of touch still appeared at times, as when he wrote from Fox How, the Arnold family home in the Lake District, while on holiday from the wearying routine of school inspecting and marking papers: "I for my part find here that I could willingly fish all day and read the newspapers all the evening and so live--but I am not pleased with the results in myself of even a day or two of such life." The words courage, duty, and activity suggest the voice of Dr. Arnold helping to point the direction Matthew was to follow after 1853. Yet the early poem "The Voice," attributed by Allott to the impact of Newman's sermons, should be related to the late essay on Emerson in which Arnold recalls the effect of Newman's eloquence, those "words and thoughts which were a religious music--subtle, sweet, mournful." The response to both sensuous and spiritual beauty which made Arnold a poet, and emerged at times throughout his prose, appears in the lines which tell of
Those lute-like tones which in the bygone year
Did steal into mine ear--
Blew such a thrilling summons to my will,
Yet could not shake it;
Made my tossed heart its very life-blood spill,
Yet could not break it.
Arnold's poetics, as revealed in the letters to Clough, show a gradual shift from a predominantly aesthetic to a predominantly moral emphasis. In criticizing Clough's poems he warns against a striving after "individuality" and, even more, against attempting to "solve the Universe." There is a "deficiency of the beautiful in your poems," which alone is "properly poetical as distinguished from rhetorical, devotional, or metaphysical" and which makes him "doubt your being an artist." The "sincerity" in all of Clough's poems must produce "a powerful effect on the reader," for "the spectacle of a writer striving evidently to get breast to breast with reality is always full of instruction and very invigorating." But these merits are not such as to produce the effect of "naturalness ... an absolute propriety--of form, as the sole necessary of Poetry as such: where the greatest wealth and depth of matter is merely a superfluity in the Poet as such." When form of conception and form of expression achieve congruity one has "the poet's highest result," but Clough's "mode of expression" seems to be "arbitrarily adopted." He seems to be trying "to get to the bottom of an object instead of grouping objects," which is "fatal to the sensuousness of poetry," and Arnold quotes a line from his own poem "Resignation" to affirm that "not deep the Poet sees, but wide." The end of poetry is to "attain the beautiful," which is realized when a poem "gives PLEASURE, not excites curiosity and reflexion."
As with the urging to self-mastery and to useful activity, Arnold is again talking to himself as much as to Clough. The italicized and capitalized earnestness hides a growing suspicion that for him a pure and autonomous aesthetic is not possible. He offers as one reason for the contemporary failure to reach poetic heights the feeling of "how deeply unpoetical the age and all one's surroundings are," an age he elsewhere describes as arid, blank, and barren, with our "spread of luxury, our physical enervation, the absence of great natures, the unavoidable contact with millions of small ones." The Architectonicè of form he speaks of can only be found among the ancients, because, as he says in the 1853 preface to Poems: A New Edition, "They, at any rate, knew what they wanted in Art, and we do not." The exquisite bits and images and the exuberance of the Romantics and the Elizabethans will not help us; only the grandly simple overall harmony of form, style, and substance will.
Arnold finally faces up to the fact that his classical ideal embraces much more than the aesthetic values he has been insisting on with Clough. Modern poetry, to serve the age well, "can only subsist by its contents: by becoming a complete magister vitae as the poetry of the ancients did: by including, as theirs did, religion with poetry." Poetry is something more than Keats's "Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty," of which Arnold was later to say that it is not "all ye need to know," though it is much. It is a source of moral therapy for the age and a surrogate for the weakening Christian faith. These views anticipate Arnold's lectures On Translating Homer (1861), in which "nobility" is seen as a major characteristic of Homer, and "The Study of Poetry" (1880), which proclaims that "the strongest part of our religion today is its unconscious poetry."
A parallel shift in emphasis is apparent in the definitions of style. It is at first simply "saying in the best way what you have to say," though Arnold adds that "what you have to say depends on your age." The thoughts expressed in an article by Carlyle are "every newspapers" it is "the style and feeling by which the beloved man appears" which make it "solemn" and "deeply restful." (A year later Carlyle becomes a "moral desperado," presumably because of his increasingly strenuous demands that we must do something and do it with all our might.) The new emphasis appears when Arnold declares that "there are two offices of Poetry--one to add to one's store of thoughts and feelings--another to compose and elevate the mind by a sustained tone, numerous allusions, and a grand style." Milton is mentioned, but the main points are the dismissal of Keats as an impetuous "style and form seeker," and the praise of Sophocles as exhibiting "the grand moral effects of style. For the style is the expression of the nobility of the poet's character, as the matter is the expression of the richness of his mind: but on men character produces as much effect as mind."
Arnold's perception of beauty and greatness in art has shifted from the aesthetic impact of a unity in form of conception and form of expression to the moral impact of a unity of style and substance which exhibits and influences character. Poetry must convey the emotional warmth and spiritual power that religion was losing in an era of sectarian strife on the one hand and agnostic indifference on the other. "If one loved what was beautiful and interesting in itself [the collocation of terms is noteworthy] passionately enough, one would produce what was excellent without troubling oneself with religious dogmas at all. As it is, we are warm only when dealing with the last," and because warmth is a blessing and frigidity a curse, Arnold would have "most others" stay "on the old religious road."
This letter of 6 September 1853 foreshadows the Arnold of the 1870s who tried by humanistic reinterpretation to preserve the Bible and Christianity for the masses. What is pertinent here is the attempt to find in great poetry a supreme moral and spiritual influence as well as an ideal aesthetic form. In a letter written three months later, Arnold's rejection of Clough's praise for "The Scholar-Gipsy" is almost Carlylian in tone. "I am glad you like the Gipsy Scholar," he says, "but what does it do for you? Homer animates--Shakespeare animates--in its poor way I think Sohrab and Rustum animates--the Gipsy Scholar at best awakens a pleasing melancholy." But what men want is "something to animate and ennoble them ... I believe a feeling of this kind is the basis of my nature--and of my poetics."
The names of Homer and Shakespeare here, like the frequent praise of Sophocles elsewhere, suggest that for Arnold the high calling of poetry for the age could only be realized in the classical forms of epic and drama. Clearly set forth in the 1853 preface, the preference is further refined in his first Oxford lecture when he says that "the great poets of the modern period of Greece are ... the dramatic poets." Indeed, Arnold tried at that time to offer his English readers an example of the kind of poetry he still wished to write, and felt ought to be written. In a letter to his sister Jane he admitted that he had not succeeded, and could not succeed. Merope (1858) might exhibit perfection of form, but "to attain or approach perfection in the region of thought and feeling, and to unite this with perfection of form, demands not merely effort and labour, but an actual tearing of oneself to pieces." Though he blames the age and his occupation for not letting him devote his whole life to poetry as Wordsworth could, he adds that Shelley and Byron could also do this, "and were besides driven by their demon to do so." Driven by no such demon, but by a need to control impulse by reason (and later anarchy by culture), Arnold produced poems reflecting conflicts that were a genuine part of his emotional and intellectual experience, but not the poem of his ideal that would both illuminate and transcend experience in the artistic perfection of classical form.
How much this ideal embraced was later to be seen in his praise of the Sophoclean power of "imaginative reason" and in his lectures On the Study of Celtic Literature (1867). He credits the Celts not with "great poetical works" but with poetry having "an air of greatness," for in poetry "emotion counts for so much," but "reason, measure, sanity, also count for so much." In a letter to his mother, referring to the poems of Jean Ingelow, he gives the simplest summary of his poetical creed: "It is a great deal to give one true feeling in poetry, and I think she seemed to be able to do that; but I do not at present very much care for poetry unless it can give me true thought as well. It is the alliance of these two that makes great poetry, the only poetry really worth very much."
Arnold noted in the preface to the second edition of Poems: A New Edition (1854) the charge that he had neglected the lyric, "that region of the poetical field which is chiefly cultivated at present." In his On Translating Homer: Last Words (1862) he was to make handsome amends. After asserting, and trying to illustrate by his own specimens, that English hexameters were best for translating Homer into English verse, he rejected the ballad as inadequate, saying of two lines from Macaulay's Lays of Ancient Rome (1842) that they were "hard to read without a cry of pain." But a case is then made for "purely emotional poetry," to which the question of suitability for narrative is irrelevant because it is "so powerful and absorbing in itself." He continues: "When there comes in poetry what I may call the lyrical cry, this transfigures everything, makes everything grand; the simplest form may be here even an advantage, because the flame of the emotion glows through and through it more easily." In Wordsworth and Keats the "lyrical cry" may transform a simple stanza or even a passage from an "ampler form." From this concession, Arnold's flexibility and growth as a critic were to carry him on to the isolating of lines revealing "natural magic" in his essay on Maurice de Guérin, to the "Celtic note" in his lectures, and finally to his famous "touchstone" method of detecting supreme poetic quality in single lines and short passages. Such lines or passages (one thinks again of the Note-Books) Arnold found from his own experience were capable of setting up aesthetic, moral, and spiritual resonances which echo in the mind and soul, achieving through style and interpretative power something of the "grand" effects he found in epic and drama, and blending into his final definition of poetry as a "criticism of life" under the laws of "poetic truth" and "poetic beauty."
Arnold's criticism of Clough's poems, that they were arbitrary rather than inevitable in form, can be applied in large degree to his own poems, in terms of structure or pattern. For instance, there seems no good reason for a ballad type of stanza in the Obermann poems, or the Anglo-Saxon verse stresses in "Consolation," or in most cases for the choice of the sonnet form. Yet his patterns were original at times and could be appropriate to theme and mood, as is the adapted stanza from Keats's odes to the lonely musings and loving natural descriptions in "The Scholar-Gipsy" and "Thyrsis." The conventional structure of four octosyllabic lines followed by a couplet is effective where the pressure of emotion, usually elegiac, is strong enough, as in the two poems "To Marguerite" and in "Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse." Where the poem is essentially argumentative or rhetorical, as often in the sonnets, rhythms and sounds can result which read like Macaulay's revenge ("Who prop, thou ask'st, in these bad days, my mind?" or "A prop gave way! crash fell a platform! lo"). Exclamation marks and italics and the intrusive "Ah" are sometimes stumbling blocks for readers. Against such evidence that Arnold had no ear for euphony, much less music, one can place "The Forsaken Merman" and "Dover Beach," lyrics like "Longing" and "Requiescat," the ending of "Sohrab and Rustum," and the last section of "The Church of Brou."
Arnold's characteristic verse structures tend to depart from the traditional. Stanzas or verse paragraphs of varying length and of varying line length make him a forerunner of free verse practice, as in "A Summer Night" and "Dover Beach," in the romantically melancholy and melodiously rhymed "The Forsaken Merman," and in unrhymed poems such as "The Strayed Reveller" and "The Future." This last poem, and others of more conventional form such as "Human Life," "Self-Deception," and "Morality," all reflecting upon the human condition, help to explain the view of Arnold's poetry as thought-laden or "gnomic" or even, among hostile critics like Edith Sitwell and T. S. Eliot, as academic versifying. Such a view is confirmed for some readers by the solemn march of unrhymed three-stress lines in Arnold's "Pindarics": "Heine's Grave," "Rugby Chapel," "Haworth Churchyard," and, to a large extent, in "The Youth of Man" and "The Youth of Nature." (Clough, leaving for a temporary stay in America, advised his fiancée to console herself during his absence by reading Matt Arnold on "Morality," moving one to ponder the curious nature of Victorian courtship.) But perhaps the most Arnoldian verse form is that mixture of modes or genres which made it difficult for him to classify some of his own poems. The lyrical drama "The Strayed Reveller," the dramatic narrative "The Sick King of Bokhara," the diversity of verse patterns in his major work "Empedocles on Etna" all suggest a creative and original element in Arnold's poetics as well as an urge to "animate" and "ennoble" mankind. Of "Empedocles on Etna" Swinburne said: "Nothing can be more deep and exquisite in poetical tact than this succession of harmonies, diverse without a discord."
Arnold's twofold search for knowledge of himself and of the world was from the beginning philosophical in nature. Modern poets, Arnold told Clough, "must begin with an Idea of the world in order not to be prevailed over by the world's multitudinousness: or if they cannot get that, at least with isolated ideas." One must begin with a controlling principle or be overwhelmed by experience. But experience resisted this rational commitment to "the high white star of truth" and compelled the honest poet to record his frustrations and mental sufferings. To achieve understanding by embracing or surrendering to experience was for Arnold a dangerous course, for it involved risking the sacrifice of the reason to the senses and feelings. Yet any answer arrived at without the sanction of emotion was, he said, arid and incomplete. This conflict runs through much of Arnold's poetry, with his deepest feelings attaching to the unresolved debate, to the anxious questions and the ambiguous or dusty answers. Ideas in his case were to come from his own kind of immersion in experience, through professional work in education and the extension of criticism from literature to society and religion. The view of truth as multifaceted, the attempt at a synthesis in the phrase "the imaginative reason," the definition of religion as "morality, touched with emotion"--all these later formulations suggest acceptance and interpretation of experience as a better way than prior commitment to an Idea of coping with the world's multitudinousness.
A useful approach can be made to Arnold's poetry by recognizing three broad divisions. First, there is that large body of reflective or gnomic verse, where the poet's voice is freely heard but which shows varying degrees of detachment, in tones of questioning or stoicism or contemplation. Second, there are the lyric poems of intense personal engagement in the human situation, especially the love poems with their burden of longing and suffering and the elegies with their milder melancholy. Third, there are the narrative and dramatic poems, which attempt to achieve objectivity and distance by form, character, and plot, and by the remoteness of myth and legend. Qualities marking these categories respectively are notably present in "In Utrumque Paratus," in the lyric "Absence" from the Switzerland group, and in "The Strayed Reveller."
Walking, fashionable among the educated elite of the nineteenth century, had clearly long been a favourite pursuit of Oxford scholars. In Matthew Arnold’s 1853 poem The Scholar-Gipsy, the poet is lying on an attractive piece of meadow reading an ‘oft-read tale’, published two centuries earlier (in 1661) by Oxford philosopher Joseph Glanvill. The Vanity of Dogmatizing was a reaction to scholasticism, the rigid analytical methodology then in vogue in universities across Europe, and it features a poverty-stricken scholar, in Matthew Arnold’s words, ‘Who, tired of knocking at preferment’s door / One summer-morn forsook / His friends, and went to learn the gipsy-lore’, which Glanvill clearly regarded as superior to the drudgery of academe.
A few years later a couple of the scholar gipsy’s former peers meet him in a lane and enquire after his way of life. His somewhat evasive response is that ‘the gipsy-crew / His mates, had arts to rule as they desired / The workings of men’s brains / And they can bind them to what thoughts they will.’ The only catch is that the acquisition of these supernatural abilities requires ‘Heaven-sent moments’, which have not yet arrived. He then disappears and this is the last that is heard from him, though sightings abound.
Following in the footsteps of Arnold and The Scholar-Gipsy he appropriated is not straightforward. For one thing, the erstwhile Professor of Poetry was not in the business of writing guidebooks and provides neither maps nor descriptions of routes. In fact, he appears to be remembering any number of languorous afternoons with his friend and fellow poet Arthur Clough, so he can be forgiven for being hazy on the details, including the misidentification of his famous tree, the ‘signal elm’ – as Sir Francis Wylie comments in his Scholar-Gipsy Country, ‘this tree is, uncompromisingly, an oak’. Secondly, his scholar gipsy seems to pop up all over the place like some latter day Scarlet Pimpernel, so Arnold’s elegiac descriptions of the countryside are combined with a list of reported sightings of this aloof, romantic character which is rather reminiscent of a (stylistically unusual) police report.
Probably most remarkable in any revisiting of the landscape south-west of Oxford made famous by this poem is how little most of it has changed and how recognisable most of it is, even to the arboreally challenged elm. Thanks to the Oxford Preservation Trust (OPT), ‘Matthew Arnold Field’ has been saved for posterity and is inhabited appropriately, given Arnold’s preoccupation with isolation, by a solitary, though not unhappy, horse. It is a splendid field, though the views are now limited by woodland and the ‘distant cries of reapers’ have been replaced by the drone of the A34.
Down the track is Sir Arthur Evans’ Jarn Mound, inspired by the poem and put up in 1930 as a viewing point but, what with subsidence and growth of trees around it, has been rendered unfit for purpose. Boar’s Hill, as it has been renamed, is a singularly nice place for a walk, even if the gipsies have long ago been pushed out by the millionaires, who pitch their tents here in great numbers.
The OPT has also bought Arnold’s view for everyone to enjoy. Plain to see are the ‘dreaming spires’ which have brought Oxford such fame and which Arnold celebrates so memorably in his sequel to The Scholar-Gipsy, Thyrsis (in which incidentally he, as well as this writer, has difficulty re-finding his tree: ‘That single elm bright / Against the west / I miss it! Is it a goner?’). The ‘festal light’ of Christ Church hall doesn’t leap out at one, though it is best viewed on a clear winter’s evening rather than through the torrential rain of an English summer. Certainly, the spires have been added to by the rather nondescript tower of Oxford’s John Radcliffe Hospital, but they are still essentially there unchanged and as Arnold would have seen them.
Unfortunately, having made it as far as Bablock Hythe, the walker is marooned on the bank of a Thames for which the description ‘stripling’ is glaringly inappropriate. The ferry (‘punt’) is beached forlornly on the opposite bank having been ejected from the river by floodwater in 2007, the £9,000 needed to restore it not having so far been forthcoming. The nearest bridge is at Eynsham, five miles away, reflecting the importance of the 1,000-year-old hythe (or crossing-place), and the only gipsy resonance is in the caravans of Bablock Hythe Caravan Park behind the Ferryman Inn.
Bagley Wood is fortunately owned by St John’s College, not known for its penury, so it presumably has a bright future as well as a blessed past. Probably best known today by the wider public for the corpses discovered there by Inspectors Morse and Lewis, it is as beautiful as ever, its paths dappled with the evening sunlight which is the unexpected climax to the remorseless downpour of the day. It would be a peaceful place from which to be exhumed.
Less peaceful is today’s Cumnor Hill, the ‘lone homestead’ having spawned numerous others, now fronted by marketing suites and advertising boards. Nearby Cumnor Hurst is being restored to its previous tranquillity by a combination of a Site of Special Scientific Interest designation (on the wooded ridge) and a charitable trust, who have returned it to community woodland. Its unlikely claim to fame post-Scholar-Gipsy was that a brick pit was dug there, unearthing, in 1879, the most complete Camptosaurus dinosaur in Europe, now found in the University’s Natural History Museum.
Not many scholars today decide to abandon university life to find fulfilment; indeed, the University’s Information Office reliably informs me that only 1.6 per cent of students leave without a degree. Today’s student loans do of course allow for the postponement of poverty until after graduation, an option presumably not open to the scholar gipsy, though gainful employment also seems to have eluded him. He watches others work with ‘dark vague eyes, and soft abstracted air’ and waits for ‘the spark from Heaven’, the appearance and timing of which cannot be relied upon. Arnold solves the problem by suggesting a Peter Pan-like immortality, gained by refusing to grow up and engage with the ‘repeated shocks’ of real life.
Today’s scholar gipsy, however, has to eat and has no time for such romantic notions. I have to report that she is a female Womble with a Cambridge degree in Philosophy. Her name is Katharine Hibbert, and her book Free: Adventures on the Margins of a Wasteful Society I can heartily recommend. Made redundant, she retires from society, much like the scholar gipsy, but stays in town subsisting on the things that the everyday folk leave behind, her days filled with freeganism (eating food thrown away by supermarkets), skipping (recycling stuff found in skips) and squatting. Arnold’s scholar gipsy by contrast seems rather lackadaisical.
Victoria Bentata Azaz (Lady Margaret Hall, 1985) is a freelance writer, editor and Oxford tour guide and her book City Walks: Oxford is out now from Crimson Publishing.
Forlorn Ferry at BH
Matthew Arnold Field
Matthew Arnold Field
Matthew Arnold field, horse, inscription
Thames at Bablock Hythe