A commonplace beginning for criticism of Matthew Arnold’s poetry is one or another of his many well-known critical statements that provide a basis for showing how well or how poorly the critic’s precept corresponds with the poet’s practice. One must remember, however, that most of Arnold’s best work as a poet preceded his finest work as a critic and that his letters reveal dissatisfaction with his poetic “fragments,” as he called them. He did believe that his poems would have their “turn,” just as Tennyson’s and Browning’s had, because they followed closely the trend of modern thinking. Indeed, Arnold’s modernity—his sense of alienation, moral complexity, and humanistic values—makes his work, both critical and creative, a continuing presence in the literary world.
The sense of alienation that carries so much thematic weight in Arnold’s poetry reaches back into his childhood. As a child, he wore a brace for a slightly bent leg. This had an isolating, restricting effect on a boy who enjoyed running and climbing. Also, he early realized the irony of numbers, because, as the second born, he found that his parents’ time and attention did not easily spread over nine children, and, at fourteen, he spent what surely seemed like a year in exile at Winchester School. The need for attention influenced his pose as a dandy, and he probably enjoyed his reputation as an idler, especially in his circle of family and friends who upheld and practiced the Victorian principles of work and duty.
Of course, the religious and social atmosphere in which Arnold approached adulthood conditioned his perception of the alienating forces at work in England: He entered Oxford during the Tractarian controversy that divided conservative and liberal elements in the Church of England, and he knew about the general economic and social discontent that separated the working class from the wealthy. With such factious elements at work—including the dispute between religion and science on the origin of earth and humankind—Arnold, facing his own lover’s estrangement in “To Marguerite—Continued,” could write with justifiable irony that “We mortal millions live alone.” With good reason, then, Arnold formed his ideas on the wholesome effect of order and authority, of education and culture recommended in his prose—evident alike in that quest for unity, wholeness, and joy which, in the poems, his lyric and narrative speakers find so elusive.
In addition to the poems discussed below, the following poems are considered among Arnold’s best work: “The Forsaken Merman,” “The Strayed Reveller,” “Palladium,” “The Future,” “A Dream,” and “A Summer Night.” Although Arnold’s work has been very influential, even at its best it contains elements which can bother the modern reader, such as the over-reliance on interrogative and exclamatory sentences, giving to his ideas in the former case a weighty, rhetorical cast and, in the latter, an artificial rather than a natural emphasis. There is, however, a consistency in the melancholy, elegiac tone and in the modern concern with humankind’s moral condition in a world where living a meaningful life has become increasingly difficult that makes Arnold’s poetry rewarding reading.
“To a Friend”
In the early sonnet “To a Friend,” Arnold praises Sophocles, in one of his memorable lines, because he “saw life steadily, and saw it whole.” “Wholeness” was the controlling thought behind the poet’s vision: “an Idea of the world in order not be prevailed over by the world’s multitudinousness,” he tells Clough in a letter critical of the “episodes and ornamental work” that distract both poet and reader from a sense of unity. This unity of idea, in perception and execution, is necessary for poetry “to utter the truth,” as Arnold says in his essay on William Wordsworth, because “poetry is at bottom a criticism of life . . . the greatness of a poet lies in his powerful and beautiful application of ideas to life,—to the question: How to live.” For Arnold, this question is itself “a moral idea.”
If Sophocles saw life “whole,” he also, according to Arnold, saw it “steadily.” For Arnold, Sophoclean steadiness implies two distinct but complementary processes. First, as physical steadiness, seeing is the broad sensory reaction to the range of stimuli associated with the poet’s “Idea of the world.” One may note, for example, the last six lines of “Mycerinus” with their heavy emphasis on auditory imagery—“mirth waxed loudest,” “echoes came,” “dull sound”—which perfectly conclude the preceding philosophical implications of six long years of reveling by King Mycerinus. These implications appear in a series of “it may be” possibilities, and the imagery underscores the essential uncertainty of the auditors (“wondering people”) because the sounds are really once-removed “echoes,” partly “Mix’d with the murmur of the moving Nile.” There is an attempt to match appropriately the sensations with the subject.
The second point, related to physical steadiness, implies a type of mental fixity on the part of the observer, a disciplined exercise of consciousness operating throughout the temporal context of creative urge and eventual artistic fulfillment. Explaining the difficulty of this exercise for his own poetic practice, Arnold writes to Clough that “I can go thro: the imaginary process of mastering myself and the whole affair as it would then stand, but at the critical point I am too apt to hoist up the mainsail to the wind and let her drive.” In short, Arnold recognizes a lack of mental fixity to accompany the poetic inspiration; he can, imaginatively, see the “whole,” but, at the critical point of artistic execution, he lets go, becoming, at the expense of the whole, too insistent or expansive in one thematic or descriptive part. The lyric “Despondency” addresses this problem in the typically elegiac tone of Arnold’s poetic voice. The lyric speaker says that “The thoughts that rain their steady glow/ Like stars on life’s cold sea” have “never shone” for him. He has seen the thoughts which “light, like gleams, my spirit’s sky,” but they appear “once . . . hurry by/ And never come again.” He laments the absence of that conscious persistence that preserves the “steady glow” of thought bearing directly on the moral vastness of “life’s cold sea.”
In a more general way, seeing life steadily allies itself to the “spontaneity of consciousness” for which Arnold praises Hellenism in Culture and Anarchy (1869). This spontaneity suggests a physical and mental alertness which instantly responds to “life as it is,” a consciousness prone to thinking but unencumbered by the predisposition to action that describes the force of “conduct and obedience” behind Hebraism, the other major tradition in Western civilization. Sophocles, the model Hellenist, possesses the “even-balanced soul” that holds in steady counterpoise the old dichotomy of thought and feeling, a pre-Christian possibility coming before the “triumph of Hebraism and humankind’s moral impulses.” Thus, as a letter to Clough shows, Arnold appreciates the burden of seeing steadily and whole for the modern poet whose subject matter is perforce a criticism of life, a burden compounded because “the poet’s matter being the hitherto experience of the world, and his own, increases with every century.” This “hitherto experience,” both Hellenic and Hebraic, overlaying Arnold’s own, accounts for his interest in remote, historical subjects such as “Mycerinus,” “Empedocles on Etna,” “Tristram and Iseult,” “Sohrab and Rustum,” and “Balder Dead”—which nevertheless contain critical implications for living morally, even joyfully, in the incipiently modern world of Victorian England.
This “then and now” conception of the human experience has its...
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