Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse

by Matthew Arnold

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

"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.

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.

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