Themes

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 350

The main themes of Matthew Arnold's Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse are sanctuary, faith, knowledge, art, and the meaning of life.

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Sanctuary: The poem tells the story of Arnold's journey to the monastery of the Carthusians, a place where he hopes to find solace from his life. Arnold sees the monastery as a sanctuary away from the pain and destitution of life.

Faith: The theme of faith is seen in various ways throughout the poem. Most obviously is the fact that the place Arnold journeys is the home of monks, who are beholden to their faith. They take a vow of silence and dedicate their lives to prayer, generosity, and other tenants of their religion. Arnold himself had faith when he was young, which is torn away from him as he ages. He travels to the monastery in the hopes that he will find a way back into his faith.

Knowledge: Knowledge is interwoven with faith in the poem. It is Arnold's teachers who try to tear him away from his faith when he is young. It is also knowledge, that which Arnold has gained during a life in the real world, that helps Arnold to see his true path when he seems lost.

Art: Arnold turns to the poetry of some famous romantic poets to explore the ways they deal with grief and the sadness of the world. Through their words, Arnold sees that art is a coping mechanism as much for the creators as the viewers. He sees them as role models, men he should aspire to follow. In creating this poem, he does follow in their footsteps.

The meaning of life: Though Arnold has been looking for a place to hide away from the world, to find his way back to his faith, he instead sees that the meaning of life is in all the moments you don't hope or plan for. When he considers truly spending his life secluded in the monastery, he comes to realize that he'd be like a child locked in an abbey, only seeing the world through brief glimpses out a window.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 410

Explicitly and implicitly, in “Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse” the poet has explained the predicament of a person with spiritual aspirations in the modern world. Even though he respects the faith of the Carthusians and, by extension, of other Christians, Arnold cannot embrace it. As his images of the monks and the monastery suggest, the poet believes that faith is dead.

On the other hand, while Arnold still respects the teachers of his youth, their rationalism has not given him a basis for living. Similarly, he cannot see any lasting benefit from the passion of the Romantics, whose descriptions of their own pain did not in any way lessen the pain of future generations.

Evidently, the poet believes that his world is given over to the pursuit of pleasure and of material progress. In ironic phrases, he praises the men of action, who dominate nature, who “triumph over time and space.” Certainly, they are energetic, but as he politely rejects them, the poet is suggesting that all their pride and all their energy are purposeless and superficial.

Having rejected Christianity, rationalism, Romanticism, and materialism, Arnold seems to have very little left. He is in a kind of limbo, “Wandering between two worlds, one dead,/ The other powerless to be born.” Yet, the poem is not totally pessimistic. One must recall the poet’s identification with children in the imagined abbey, who “watch those yellow tapers shine,/ Emblems of hope over the grave.”

One source of optimism is the future. Perhaps an age will come when humanity can be wise but not hard-hearted, happy but not dedicated to trivial pleasures. Evidently, most of the great intellectual leaders of Arnold’s time placed their hope in such a future time. As the Greek hero Achilles retreated to his tent when he could not prevail against Agamemnon, these leaders have given up the fight; they “wait to see the future come.”

There is another source of hope in Arnold’s poem: the fact that there are still idealists in the world, people who yearn to believe. Above all, this is the significance of the final metaphor. Although the abbey is deserted, as long as the children of faith listen for “accents of another sphere,” they may hope to be rewarded. As long as there is a saving remnant of would-be believers who continue to keep their vigil, there will be a chance for humanity and for a new faith to make life meaningful.

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