The Poem

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The two powerful armies of the Tartars and the Persians are encamped along the banks of the Oxus River. It is night, and the soldiers are asleep, but daylight will bring a great conflict between mighty forces. To one Tartar, rest refuses to come. In the grayness of the early dawn, he leaves his bed and makes his solitary way through the black tents of the great encampment to the quarters of Peran-Wisa, commander of the Tartar army. He is Sohrab, the youthful champion of the Tartars. Hardly more than a boy, he develops into the mightiest fighter of the Tartar host. Young in years and famous in arms, he is nevertheless restless and discontented. Above everything else, he wants to find the father he has never seen, the incomparable Rustum, invincible chieftain of the Persians.

Rustum does not even know that he has a son. He is told that a woman of Ader-baijan, after his departure from that place, bore him a child, but that was years earlier. Rustum gives the matter little thought because he believes the child to be a girl. After Sohrab is born, the fearful mother, hoping to prevent her son from being taken from her and reared for war, deceives Rustum with that report. Nevertheless, Sohrab becomes a warrior, and his mother’s ruse avails nothing except to keep her son from a knowledge of his father.

Peran-Wisa awakens when Sohrab enters and asks an unusual favor of him: Sohrab wishes to challenge a leader of the Persians to single combat, the duel to occur as soon as arrangements can be made. He hopes that his fame as a fighter will thereby reach the ears of his father. Peran-Wisa urges patience and questions his wisdom in thus tempting fate, but at last he...

(The entire section is 687 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Central Asia

Central Asia. Scene of the battle between the forces of Persia and their Tartar enemies. Arnold wrote this poem in part to illustrate his theories concerning the superiority of the classical, objective, and affirmative epic over the Romantic, lyric, and melancholy poetry of his own time. By placing his poem in Central Asia, among Persians and Tartars, he achieves an emotional distance and objectivity that removes the poem from the Romantic intensity and lyrical sadness of the typical poetry of his age. Set in a distant and ancient place, the tragic tale of a warrior father who unwittingly kills his warrior son can be treated not as an occasion for sentimental tears but as an illustration of fate and its inevitability. Moreover, Arnold uses the places, landscapes, and customs of Central Asia as materials for the complex epic similes that are crucial to the poem’s epic style.

*Oxus River

*Oxus River. River upon whose plain Sohrab and Rustum fight. When Rustum slays Sohrab on the banks of the Oxus, Arnold ends with an elaborate and symbolic account of the Oxus, describing its origins, its troubled but continuous flow, and its final absorption into the tranquil Aral Sea. In this way, Arnold allows the setting of the action to comment on that action. Rustum’s killing of Sohrab is only one event in human destiny, which itself flows like a river. Human life persists, and every human life ends in the quiet Aral Sea of death.


(Great Characters in Literature)

Abjadian, Amrollah. “Arnold and the Epic Simile.” Étude anglaises 42, no. 4 (October-December, 1989): 411-423. A rhetorical study of Arnold’s use of epic similies in “Sohrab and Rustum.”

Cervo, Nathan. “‘Dover Beach,’ ‘Sohrab and Rustum,’ ‘Philomela,’ and ‘Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse.’ ” The Arnoldian 11, no. 1 (Winter, 1884): 24-31. Cervo discusses Arnold’s use of sea and stone imagery as they are related to the Oedipus complex.

Gouws, John. “Matthew Arnold’s ‘Sohrab and Rustum.’ ” Notes and Queries 30 (August, 1983): 302. This note establishes Goethe as another author whom Matthew Arnold deeply admired. The way Arnold uses his sources demonstrates his practice of measuring his own poetry against “touchstones” from the great literature of the past.

Roper, Alan. Arnold’s Poetic Landscapes. Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1969. Examines the degree to which Arnold achieves unity between human significance and literal landscape. In discussing “Sohrab and Rustum,” Roper focuses on the tragically fateful dichotomy in Rustum between the individual fulfillment of finding a son of who he can be proud and his public obligation to be a great warrior.

Thorpe, Michael. Matthew Arnold. New York: Arco, 1969. Contains a comprehensive treatment of the poem and of the manuscript. Also analyzes specific images and includes a comparison of “Sohrab and Rustum” with Arnold’s other poems.