Matthew Arnold Matthew Arnold World Literature Analysis

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Matthew Arnold World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Although great poetry should transcend the limits of time, Arnold’s poetry must be read in the context of his turbulent age if it is to be understood fully. He is a post-Romantic coming into full conflict with the British empire at the height of its expansion and industrialization. The effects of this conflict comprise the themes of his poetry: spiritual stasis and enervation, humankind as an alien figure in the cosmos, the absence in the modern world of spiritual and intellectual values, values largely subsumed by industrial growth and materialism. Arnold’s poetry, however, offers no solutions, nor is it particularly articulate on the exact nature of the dilemma. Among the English poets, his mentors were William Wordsworth and John Keats, both of whom influenced his style and aesthetic perspective. His best work, exemplified in poems such as “Dover Beach,” “The Scholar-Gipsy,” “Rugby Chapel,” “Thyrsis,” “The Buried Life,” and “Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse,” is outwardly calm and lucid, containing the same sincerity, dignity, and restraint that characterized his Romantic predecessors. It also pursues the same elusive serenity. It is a pursuit inherently complicated by the resulting tension between the temporal or “real” world of distracting sensory phenomena and the transcendent realm of the ideal.

Three social factors in the “real” world were largely responsible for the intellectual and spiritual division that Arnold felt so keenly and expressed in his poetry. Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859) brought new, scientific knowledge to the forefront, all but eclipsing the established authority of traditional beliefs. The Oxford Tractarians, following the lead of Newman, sought to bring English Christianity back to a more universal, conservative view, away from the “broad church” liberalism that, for many, threatened to become the secular bulwark of British Protestantism. The “Chartist” reform movements of 1832 and 1867, with recurrent calls for the expansion of suffrage, entailed a broadening of democracy that, for many, threatened the traditional stability of government guided by aristocratic values. In literature, the long popular Romanticism of novels by writers such as Sir Walter Scott, who extolled chivalric heroism, legend, and tradition, was gradually forced to give way before the realism of Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, George Eliot, and Anthony Trollope.

To all of this Arnold responded with a poetry of general lament for the divisions of modern life, for the sense of fragmentation that now pervaded the age. In “Stanzas from the Grand Chartreuse,” Arnold describes himself as “Wandering between two worlds, one dead,/ The other powerless to be born.” The “dead” world of innocence and natural joy was the freely received gift of nature, a world in which emotion and intellect remained counterpoised on either side of a spiritual fulcrum. “We had not lost our balance then,” he has the title character say in “Empedocles on Etna,” “nor grown/ Thought’s slaves, and dead to every natural joy.” The world into which the poet is “powerless to be born” is a world of serenity characterized by unity and order. Its genesis lies in the pursuit of “culture,” which Arnold defines in Culture and Anarchy as “a study of perfection, harmonious and general perfection which consists in becoming something rather than having something.” The optimistic quest for perfection is an objective with which Arnold deals extensively in his critical essays, but in his poetry he remains immersed in melancholy. What little hope there is for the future lies in a vaguely intuitive recognition of truth, which is stimulated by those elements of culture that awaken humankind and enrich the human condition.

In his prose, Arnold examines the issue of England’s societal malaise in even greater detail. Having all but abandoned poetry...

(The entire section is 3,966 words.)