Analysis

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 356

"Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse" is a lyrical poem by English poet and critic Matthew Arnold. The poet, who became prominent during the Victorian period, uses the Grande Chartreuse, a Carthusian monastery in France, as a setting for his piece. This is a fitting setting because the poem, in its core, is an expression of Arnold's desire to find his faith.

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The poem starts off by painting an expansive landscape, the Alps, which the poet and his company are traveling through. This scene itself is an analogy for the poem's subtext. The poet is on a journey, physically, as he treks to the Grande Chartreuse. However, he is also on a spiritual or metaphorical journey in search for meaning in his life.

Arnold's description of the monks' daily lives shows that the poet admired their lifestyle. In particular, he observed how methodical their lives were. The monks' actions all had a purpose; no energy was wasted on trivial courses of action. The monks literally had a purpose in life, which is something that the poet partially reflections upon.

Another reflection is Arnold's Christian background, and his eventual departure from its teachings and ways. He also thinks about the rationalism that replaced the religious ideologies he grew up with. Arnold thinks back on what he was taught in school—subjects that emphasized logic over spiritual cultivation—and felt that those teachings were also unfulfilling. Therefore, Arnold is a man with no beliefs in the same way that a homeless vagabond lost in the world is a man without a country. Since he does not possess a solid philosophical foundation to guide his life, Arnold can only suffer like a spirit stuck in purgatory.

Arnold then wonders if Romanticism—the literary, artistic and philosophical movement—was the "religion" he has been looking for, but then realizes that it insufficient as well. He notes that famous Romantic era writers before him died as miserable, lonely people and that their legacies are poems that only articulate their agonies. The poem was as much about accepting one's disposition in life as it is trying to find a remedy for that disposition.

The Poem

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 346

“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

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 498

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. After the Mass, the monks bury their faces in their cowls; at night, they lie in the beds that will become their coffins. To the poet, as to his rational teachers, the monastery is in fact merely a “living tomb.”

Sometimes, instead of using clusters of images to dramatize his perceptions, Arnold explains his philosophical stance by the use of an extended metaphor. For example, he compares himself to a Greek, far north of his own land, looking at a marker in an ancient Germanic language, a marker that evidently is the remains of some long-vanished religion, such as that of the monks. The Greek remembers his own gods, as Arnold recalls the devotion of his rational teachers. To this Greek wanderer, however, those gods are in reality as nonexistent as the Germanic gods represented by the stone before him.

Similarly, in the final section of the poem, Arnold depends on a comparison to make his point. This extended simile is signaled by the opening words, “We are like children. . . .” The significance of the two groups who ride by is indicated in line 194: One represents “action,” the other “pleasure.” Both groups are on their way somewhere; both are purposeful, in pursuit of something. In contrast, the thoughtful “children” such as Arnold somehow lack the power to leave their refuge. Their alienation is suggested by the fact that they are “forgotten,” that they remain “secret” and enclosed, among the graves of the dead, in a “desert” dominated by the dead. Only the candles on the altar give them a glimmer of hope.

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