Memorial Verses: April

by Matthew Arnold

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What are the main points Matthew Arnold focuses on in his "Memorial Verses" for Wordsworth?

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"Memorial Verses" is an elegy of praise and lament to Wordsworth. It praises his ability to sympathize with nature and to evoke feeling through his poetry and it laments his death. Arnold compares Wordsworth to two other great poets (apparently these are Arnold's three favorite poets) in order to accentuate Wordsworth's greatness and contribution through the contrastive comparison to Byron and Goethe. Arnold devotes asymmetrical sections to Byron, Goethe and Wordsworth thus emphasizing their comparative value to the world. Byron has the shortest, Goethe has a medium space while Wordsworth has the largest share of the poem's space.

Since each section is devoted to one of these three poets and the significance of their work, it is not correct to say that Arnold speaks about "poetry in general." He makes no general comments: his comments are all directed toward Byron, Goethe or Wordsworth. The only section that might possibly be interpreted as referring to "poetry in general" are the lines that ask who will rise up after Wordsworth to make us feel the joy of nature and to make us forget about the power of fate over us. The unspoken answer, of course, is "Nobody." It might be said though that Arnold expresses his belief that poetry in general is meant to add value to life to make it easier or more joyful or more valuable or more comprehensible to traverse.

Others will teach us how to dare,
And against fear our breast to steel;
Others will strengthen us to bear—
But who, ah! who, will make us feel?
The cloud of mortal destiny,
Others will front it fearlessly—
But who, like him, will put it by?

Arnold's two greatest points are that (1) Wordsworth's poetry is the greatest Arnold ever experienced since Wordsworth's poetry is an experience in the art of feeling sympathy with nature, and that (2) no one can ever come along who will replace Wordsworth because no one will ever come along who will see and feel nature the way Wordsworth did.

Arnold's comparison between Byron and Wordsworth is that Bryon fought in strife between human passions and religious law that requires circumspect behavior and controlled passion:

With shivering heart the strife we saw
Of passion with eternal law;

His comparison between Goethe (great German poet who wrote Faust in two parts) and Wordsworth is that Goethe expressed the heartbeat of Europe and said clearly what was wrong and what was needed:

He took the suffering human race,
He read each wound, each weakness clear;
And struck his finger on the place,
And said: Thou ailest here, and here!
And headlong fate, be happiness.

Of Wordsworth, Arnold said that he had the power to heal the depths of humanity and the power to make us feel the majesty of nature that surrounds us:

... Wordsworth's healing power?
Others will teach us how to dare,
Others will strengthen us to bear—
But who, ah! who, will make us feel?

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