To A Republican Friend "Mountains Of Necessity"

Matthew Arnold

"Mountains Of Necessity"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: After Arthur Hugh Clough had optimistically argued that the series of revolutions shaking Europe in 1848 would usher in an age of equality and freedom, Arnold addressed this poem to him. According to Arnold's determinism, man is not free to make a heaven on earth; quite the contrary, history shows that the violence of revolution most often ends in an avaricious tyrant's using the cry for freedom to further his own selfish ends. In fact, the essential condition of human life, according to Arnold in other poems, is suffering: the individual is trapped in a world that he neither wants nor understands. This condition makes men slaves to themselves; regardless of their desire for freedom, they cannot make the dream into reality. This quotation, therefore, refers both to the limitations of history that no group of men can alter and to individual limitations that make men incapable of realizing their fondest dreams.

. . . when I muse on what life is, I seem
Rather to patience prompted, than that proud
Prospect of hope which France proclaims so loud–
France, famed in all great arts, in none supreme;
Seeing this vale, this earth, whereon we dream,
Is on all sides o'ershadow'd by the high
Uno'erleap'd Mountains of Necessity,
Sparing us narrower margin than we deem.