Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse

by Matthew Arnold

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Matthew Arnold's "Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse" narrates a trip Arnold takes to the famous Carthusian monastery, where he hopes to learn from the monks how to regain his faith. Arnold travels to the monastery with a guide. When he sees the peaks of the building over the horizon, he wonders if it might be some kind of castle.

At last the encircling trees retire;
Look! through the showery twilight grey
What pointed roofs are these advance?—
A palace of the Kings of France?

Upon entering the monastery, Arnold spends several stanzas describing the peace and beauty of the environment around him. He is taken with how organized and quiet it all is.

The chapel, where no organ's peal
Invests the stern and naked prayer—

In his attempts to regain his faith, Arnold hopes the monks will help guide his way. He prays to them, and to God, for the ability to see life as they do.

Oh, hide me in your gloom profound,
Ye solemn seats of holy pain!
Take me, cowl'd forms, and fence me round,
Till I possess my soul again;

Arnold reflects upon his school days, when his teachers focused their efforts not only on giving him knowledge but, by doing so, taking away his faith in God.

For rigorous teachers seized my youth,
And purged its faith, and trimm'd its fire,
Show'd me the high, white star of Truth,
There bade me gaze, and there aspire.
Even now their whispers pierce the gloom:
What dost thou in this living tomb?

Arnold has a great deal of admiration for the Romantic poets, particularly Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and Étienne Pivert de Sénancour. He lauds their efforts to manage pain and grief through art. He hopes to do the same.

Grace to your mood of sadness gave,
Long since hath flung her weeds away.
The eternal trifler breaks your spell;
But we—we learned your lore too well!

In his attempt to understand the world through the eyes of the monks, Arnold recognizes that they bring peace to the monastery through their silence. He remarks on the fact that this silence makes them some of the best people in the world.

Last of the people who believe!
Silent, while years engrave the brow;
Silent—the best are silent now.

Arnold continues to congratulate the poets on their ability to see and enjoy life.

You give the universe your law,
You triumph over time and space!
Your pride of life, your tireless powers,
We laud them, but they are not ours.

Ultimately, Arnold sees that if he chooses to stay in the monastery, he won't have a shot of living a life like Shelley’s or Byron’s. He compares that life to the lives of children, locked away in an abbey. He sees that if all he can do is peek at life from behind the walls of the monastery, he won't be able to live his life at all.

Fenced early in this cloistral round
Of reverie, of shade, of prayer,
How should we grow in other ground?
How can we flower in foreign air?
—Pass, banners, pass, and bugles, cease;
And leave our desert to its peace!

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