Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse Analysis

Matthew Arnold

The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Arnold had a gift for clarifying and dramatizing his often-complex ideas through the use of imagery and metaphor. The beginning of “Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse” is an example of his technique. On one level, the description of the trail to the monastery captures the reader’s attention. On another level, however, the images combine to suggest the poet-speaker’s state of mind. The time of day and the season both conventionally symbolize the approach of death. Furthermore, the stream below sounds “strangled”; the mists that arise from it are “spectral,” or ghostly. The frightening supernatural is further invoked by the description of the rapids below as a “cauldron.” The “scars” on the rocks and the “ragged” trees add to the total picture of fearful desolation, a desolation that is less objective than subjective. This is nature as perceived by a troubled and apprehensive human being.

In the description of the monastery that follows, Arnold again selects images that will emphasize his own reactions. At first, the monastery looks like a “palace,” and Arnold rejoices that “what we seek is here!” Literally, he means food and shelter, but more profoundly, his words suggest the faith for which he is searching. Even though the monastery is full of activity, however, the fact that its motivating force is dead, at least to the poet, is emphasized by references to silence, to cold, to the “ghostlike” monks, and to death....

(The entire section is 498 words.)