“Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse” is a philosophical poem of thirty-five stanzas, each of which contains six lines of iambic tetrameter verse, rhyming ababcc. The poem is deeply personal, describing Matthew Arnold’s own struggles to find a faith that would give his life meaning.
The poem begins as a narrative. The setting is a mule trail in the Alps, and the time is right before dark on a windy, rainy autumn day. Arnold, a guide, and an unnamed companion or companions are riding slowly up the trail toward the monastery of the Carthusians, who provide shelter and food to passing travelers such as those in Arnold’s party.
In the next segment of the poem, Arnold describes the ascetic way of life inside the monastery. The monks devote themselves to prayer, to penitence, and to the study of religious texts. Their only “human” work is growing the plants from which they make their famous liqueur, chartreuse.
At the monastery, Arnold thinks about two faiths that he has rejected: the Christianity represented by the Carthusians and the rationalism that the teachers of his youth presented as a substitute. Believing in neither, Arnold can only suffer. Arnold then thinks of Romanticism, which seemed to offer a new faith. Three Romantic writers—the English poets George Gordon, Lord Byron, and Percy Bysshe Shelley, and the French author of the romance Obermann (1804), Étienne Pivert de Sénancour—are all mentioned as examples of Arnold’s predecessors, who were willing to suffer to lead human beings to a better life but who left nothing but literary works describing their agonies.
In the final seven stanzas, Arnold defines his state of isolation and of intellectual uncertainty in dramatic terms. He and those who share his sense of alienation are compared to children who live in an abbey. Although they catch sight of passing soldiers, although they hear the sounds of revelry, they have been conditioned to live another kind of life. They cannot obey the calls to “action and pleasure”; they must remain in the cloister, to which they are accustomed.