The Poetry of Arnold Essay - Critical Essays

Matthew Arnold

Critical Evaluation

Matthew Arnold has often been called “the forgotten Victorian,” and it is certainly true that his poetry is much less read than that of his two great contemporaries, Tennyson and Browning. Their vast productivity tends, as it did a century ago, to overshadow his rather modest accomplishment. For even if we include his two prize poems written at Rugby and at Oxford, we find that his total adult production amounts to only 129 poems, none of exceptional length by Victorian standards. “Empedocles on Etna,” one of his longest, is less than a thousand lines. Also, after the publication in 1867 of his NEW POEMS, when he was only forty-five, Arnold wrote very little poetry. He turned more and more to prose, and his increasing fame as a critic of literature and of society soon drove his poetic achievement into the background, so that to modern readers he is familiar, if at all, only through a few standard anthology pieces, such as “Dover Beach” and “The Scholar-Gypsy.” Yet it has become almost a critical platitude to say that Arnold’s poetry, in its intellectual content, is much closer to the modern mind than is that of either Tennyson or Browning.

Arnold was quite aware of the limited audience to which his poetry appealed. In 1858 he wrote to his sister, complaining that the lack of public appreciation of his work deprived him of the stimulus needed for creative effort. To write poetry with the high quality of both content and craftsmanship that he demanded of himself was, he said, an “actual tearing of oneself to pieces”; moreover, his position as an inspector of schools did not allow him the time he needed for the writing of verse. He knew also that he lacked many of the qualities possessed by Tennyson and Browning that made them so widely popular; he did not have Browning’s intellectual vigor or Tennyson’s musical skill. He was not capable of the strenuous affirmations of the later Browning or of the final struggle to faith that Tennyson achieved in In Memoriam. He had only the “gray elegiac mood,” and this was not calculated to make a writer popular in nineteenth century England or America. There were Browning Societies everywhere in the English-speaking world, and Tennyson became a national institution. Arnold was ignored except by an intellectual elite.

The demands that Arnold made of poetry were high. In THE STUDY OF POETRY (1850) he wrote: “More and more mankind will discover that we have to turn to poetry to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us. Without poetry, our science will remain incomplete; and most of what now passes with us for religion and philosophy will be replaced by poetry.” Poetry must have “high seriousness”; it must be “a criticism of life”; it must exhibit “the application of ideas to life.” All of this is asking a great deal of poetry, perhaps asking more than it is capable of accomplishing. To expect that poetry will take the place of religion—even of “what now passes for religion”—is to place upon the poet an intolerable burden. Yet the question of religion is one that goes straight to the center of Arnold’s poetry and of his intellectual and religious predicament.

Like so many of his contemporaries, Arnold had been reared in the liberal Protestantism of the early part of the nineteenth century and had, upon reaching his middle years, found this faith to be completely unsatisfactory. At Oxford he had been exposed to Newman’s Tractarian Movement but had been little affected by it, perhaps because of the Low Church tradition of his youth. The crucial point in his whole religious situations may be found in the famous lines from “Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse”:

Wandering between two worlds, onedead,The other powerless to be born,With nowhere yet to rest my head ....

(The entire section is 1621 words.)