“Sohrab and Rustum” is based on a historical event that took place in Persia about 600 b.c.e. Matthew Arnold acknowledges his source to be Sir John Malcolm’s History of Persia (1815) and states in his preface to the poem that he intends to “treat a noble action in a somewhat epic fashion.” In preparing to compose the consciously Homeric poem, Arnold reread his beloved Homer with the great admiration which he expresses in such poems as “To a Friend” (1849) and such prose works as On Translating Homer (1861) and “The Study of Poetry” (1880).
Clearly based on a Homeric model are Arnold’s elevated tone, ornate language, and elaborate extended similes, as well as the imposing stature he gives his two main figures, his use of an overriding fate working out their destiny, and his creation of a central dramatic episode of national significance. As an epic poem, “Sohrab and Rustum” is admired for its moving presentation of a dramatic conflict between father and son, its brilliance of language, and its richness of tone. In classical fashion, the poem involves one central action, which takes place in one day, and many critics have commented on the success of the poem’s many epic similes and on other parallels.
The main critical interest of the poem lies in its allegorical presentation of the moral and intellectual conflict characterizing the Victorian age and in its dramatization of Arnold’s personal dilemmas. The battlefield is Arnold’s poetic landscape—the “darkling plain” of the poem “Dover Beach” (1867), “Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/ Where ignorant armies clash by night.” The characters Sohrab and Rustum may be seen as the personifications of the warring elements within the hearts and minds of all Victorian writers, who are as two-souled as the narrator of “Dipsychus” (1850) by Arthur Hugh Clough, Arnold’s friend and rival for the admiration of his father, who died in 1842.
The single combat between the venerable father Rustum and his son has specifically personal parallels in the conflict between Matthew Arnold, the successful poet, and his father, Dr. Thomas Arnold, the renowned headmaster of Rugby school, who was known for instilling moral earnestness and devotion to duty in his pupils. In many ways, Thomas Arnold resembled the proud and invincible old warrior Rustum. Biographers have suggested that in a sense Arnold,...
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