Among the major Victorian writers sharing in a revival of interest and respect in the second half of the twentieth century, Matthew Arnold is unique in that his reputation rests equally upon his poetry and his prose. Only a quarter of his productive life was given to writing poetry, but many of the same values, attitudes, and feelings that are expressed in his poems achieve a fuller or more balanced formulation in his prose. This unity was obscured for most earlier readers by the usual evaluations of his poetry as gnomic or thought-laden, or as melancholy or elegiac, and of his prose as urbane, didactic, and often satirically witty in its self-imposed task of enlightening the social consciousness of England.
Assessing his achievement as a whole, G. K. Chesterton said that under his surface raillery Arnold was, "even in the age of Carlyle and Ruskin, perhaps the most serious man alive." A later summary by H. J. Muller declares that "if in an age of violence the attitudes he engenders cannot alone save civilization, it is worth saving chiefly because of such attitudes"—a view of Arnold's continuing relevance which emphasizes his appeals to his contemporaries in the name of "culture" throughout his prose writings. It is even more striking, and would have pleased Arnold greatly, to find an intelligent and critical journalist telling newspaper readers in 1980 that if selecting three books for castaways, he would make his first choice The Poetical Works of Matthew Arnold (1950), because "Arnold's longer poems may be an acquired taste, but once the nut has been cracked their power is extraordinary." Arnold put his own poems in perspective in a letter to his mother on 5 June 1869: "It might be fairly urged that I have less poetical sentiment than Tennyson, and less intellectual vigour and abundance than Browning; yet, because I have perhaps more of a fusion of the two than either of them, and have more regularly applied that fusion to the main line of modern development, I am likely enough to have my turn, as they have had theirs."
The term modern as used by Arnold about his own writing needs examining, especially since many readers have come to see him as the most modern of the Victorians. It is defined by Arnold in "On the Modern Element in Literature," his first lecture as professor of poetry at Oxford in 1857. This lecture, the first to be delivered from that chair in English, marked Arnold's transition from poet to social as well as literary critic. Stating that the great need of a modern age is an "intellectual deliverance," Arnold found the characteristic features of such a deliverance to be a preoccupation with the arts of peace, the growth of a tolerant spirit, the capacity for refined pursuits, the formation of taste, and above all, the intellectual maturity to "observe facts with a critical spirit" and "to judge by the rule of reason." This prescription, which he found supremely fulfilled in Athens of the fifth century B.C., is of course an idealized one when applied to any age, as is obvious when Arnold writes that Athens was "a nation the meanest citizen of which could follow with comprehension the profoundly thoughtful speeches of Pericles."
Such an ideal Arnold saw as peculiarly needful if his own age was to become truly modern, truly humanized and civilized. The views he developed in his prose works on social, educational, and religious issues have been absorbed into the general consciousness, even if what his contemporary W. R. Greg called "realisable ideals" are as far as ever from being realized. The prospect of glacially slow growth never discouraged Arnold. He could harshly satirize the religious cant which would have the "festering mass" of "half-sized, half-fed, half-clothed" children in London's miserable East End "succour one another if only with a cup of cold water"; he could more gently satirize the suicide of a Puritan businessman obsessed with the two fears of falling into poverty and of being eternally lost. But he believed above all in the need for a vision of perfection if faith in the possibility of a better society for all were to be maintained. The vision, as an eloquent conclusion to a call for practical reforms in education, suffuses the final paragraph of heightened prose in A French Eton (1864). The belief that sustained him and motivated his crusade on behalf of "culture" is soberly expressed in the late essay "A French Critic on Milton": "Human progress consists in a continual increase in the number of those, who, ceasing to live by the animal life alone and to feel the pleasures of sense only, come to participate in the intellectual life also, and to find enjoyment in the things of the mind."
When Arnold's poetry is considered, a different meaning must be applied to the term modern than that applied to the ideas of the critic, reformer, and prophet who dedicated most of his life to broadening the intellectual horizons of his countrymen—of, indeed, the whole English-speaking world. In many of his poems can be seen the psychological and emotional conflicts, the uncertainty of purpose, above all the feeling of disunity within oneself or of the individual's estrangement from society which is today called alienation and is thought of as a modern phenomenon. As Kenneth Allott said in 1954: "If a poet can ever teach us to understand what we feel, and how to live with our feelings, then Arnold is a contemporary."
The recurring themes of man's lonely state and of a search for an inner self; the rejection in "The Scholar-Gipsy" of "this strange disease of modern life,/With its sick hurry, its divided aims"; the awareness, at the end of the early poem "Resignation," "In action's dizzying eddy whirled" of "something that infects the world" make an impact a century and more later. Readers of the jet age may find wryly amusing these lines from "Stanzas in Memory of the Author of 'Obermann'" (1849):
Like children bathing on the shore
Buried a wave beneath,
The second wave succeeds before
We have had time to breathe.
But the speed of the destabilizing process of change is, after all, relative. On the other hand, no reader can fail to respond to Arnold's well-known lines in "Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse" describing himself as "Wandering between two worlds, one dead,/The other powerless to be born." Romantic nostalgia for idealized older worlds, or for simpler states of being, is at the emotional core of many of his poems, with the insistent pressure of the present creating a conflict only to be resolved by a shift to prose and to the role of midwife, or at least prophet, of a better world in the future.
Chesterton's view of Arnold as, in spite of his fun with the Philistines, basically the most serious man of his times was supported by the publication in 1952 of the complete Note-Books. This "breviary of a humanist" contains quotations in six languages, copied from books over a period of thirty-six years, that caught Arnold's attention, passages which held profound meaning for him and invited meditation and reconsideration. The Bible bulks largest, followed by moral, religious, and philosophical thinkers. Even an hour a day of serious as against mere desultory reading was, in Arnold's experience, immensely "fortifying." In a letter of 1884 to Charles Eliot Norton he characteristically blends observation and prediction: "You are quite right in saying that the influence of poetry and literature appears at this moment diminishing rather than increasing. The newspapers have a good deal to do with this. The Times, which has much improved again, is a world, and people who read it daily hardly feel the necessity for reading a book; yet reading a book—a good book—is a discipline such as no reading of even good newspapers can ever give. But literature has in itself such powers of attraction that I am not over anxious about it."
The emphasis on religion and morality in the Note-Books is what one might expect of a son of Dr. Thomas Arnold, that strenuous Christian and scholarly clergyman-historian who fulfilled a prophecy that if elected headmaster of Rugby he would change the face of education "all through the Public Schools of England." But son Matthew was a more complex being, partly perhaps by virtue of genetic inheritance from his Cornish mother, Mary Penrose. There is evidence that the good doctor, whose avowed aim in education was to place moral and religious edification above mere intellectual attainment in order to turn schoolboys into young Christian gentlemen, felt some disappointment at times over the behavior of Matthew, who was less amenable, apparently, than were his brothers and sisters. Some of this "worldly" behavior, which puzzled and alarmed family and friends and caused great surprise at the serious tone and substance of his first published poems, was probably a sign of incipient polarities and conflicts. It marked his school and university days and to some extent his earlier years in the larger world, years illuminated not only by his poems but even more by his letters to Arthur Hugh Clough; the important collection of these letters published in 1932 gave fresh stimulus and direction to Arnold studies.
Following five years under tutors at Laleham and at Rugby, Arnold was sent for a year to his father's old school, Winchester College, presumably for discipline as well as instruction. At Winchester he won a prize for verse recitation with a passage from Byron and a barrage of potato peelings from horrified schoolmates who heard him casually telling the headmaster that the work of the school was really quite light. The fifth and sixth forms he spent at Rugby, where he did well without obvious effort, and where on one occasion he delighted his friends by making faces at them over his father's head from the position behind Dr. Arnold's chair that served for punishment. He won prizes for Latin verse and for English essay and verse--his prize poem Alaric at Rome (1840) was printed at Rugby--and climaxed his public school career with a scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford, in 1840. At Oxford he established an intimate friendship with Clough, the former Rugby student who had most completely fulfilled Dr. Arnold's aim of intellectual brilliance crowned by Christian fervor and moral earnestness. "I verily believe," Clough said, "my whole being is soaked through with the wishing and hoping and striving to do the school good"; he later transferred this compulsion to society, earning from Arnold the mocking title of "Citizen" Clough. There was a whole other side to Clough, as the satirical wit and realistic substance of many of his poems were to show, but his hyperactive conscience and often paralyzing dissection of desires and motives have frequently been adduced as the effect on sensitive natures of Dr. Arnold's standards of prayer and purity.
There was little evidence at this time of a similar influence on Matthew Arnold. The touches of mischief and resistance displayed in boyish years developed at Oxford into outright dandyism and independence, entertaining but also at times disturbing his more conventional friends. Clough records with amusement and reproach that "Matt is full of Parisianism; Theatre in general, and Rachel in special: he enters the room with a chanson of Beranger's on his lips--for the sake of French words almost conscious of tune: ... his hair is guiltless of English scissors: he breakfasts at 12 ... and in the week ... he has been to Chapel once." This Frenchiness extended to the reading of George Sand's novels, no doubt with a sense of daring in the Victorian atmosphere of rectitude and distrust of things foreign. In part it was a romantic response to vivid descriptions of nature and to a passionate gospel of freedom in human relations; in larger part it was a response to the element of social idealism based on a belief in equality, as recalled in his generous obituary tribute of 1877 to George Sand's greatness of spirit and her civilizing influence. Visiting her at her home in Nohant in 1846 and following the actress Rachel to Paris to see every performance for six weeks must have been seen by his friends, however, as Byronic and dangerous adventures.
In the years at Balliol a deeper source of concern to his friends than his rather extravagant dress and behavior was his careless attitude to his studies in the formally required subjects. Only prodding and coaching got him even a second class degree, though his general performance was apparently good enough to let him join Clough as a fellow of Oriel College. Clough had been expected on all sides to get a first instead of the second he also received, but in his case the distractions were part of that period of hectic religious strife. Young men at Oxford were, as Clough described himself, caught "like a straw drawn up the draught of a chimney" in the anguished debates swirling around the Tractarian or Oxford Movement and the dominant figure of John Henry Newman, who was soon to move on with some disciples to the Roman Catholic church. Differences between the Roman and Anglican positions and difficulties in subscribing to the articles of faith required of communicants in the Church of England were only the chief among problems exercising sensitive young minds at Oxford in those days. But the soul-searching and tormented inner debate which later led Clough, unwilling to subscribe to the Thirty-nine Articles, to resign his Oriel fellowship, were even then foreign to Arnold's cool and skeptical consideration of religious dogma. He was moved by the imaginative and spiritual eloquence of Newman, but he was after all the son of an aggressively liberal reformer in matters of Church and State. (Dr. Arnold, who died suddenly in 1842, had been appointed professor of modern history at Oxford in 1841, at a time when echoes of his searing attack on Newman and the "Oxford Malignants" in the Edinburgh Review were still reverberating.) The tone of a letter from Arnold to John Duke Coleridge in 1845 is noncommittal, even playful. Telling his friend not to let admiration for the sermons of Thomas Arnold reduce his admiration for Newman, Arnold said: "I should be unwilling to think that they did so in my own case, but owing to my utter want of prejudice... I find it perfectly possible to admire them both."
Arnold's behavior during those early years was a mask, enabling him to keep others at arm's length while he tried to make up his own mind, to explore his own nature and needs. His preferred reading is revealing. He shared the general enthusiasm of his friends for Carlyle's attacks on materialism and sham, and the exalting of great men and of character in Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841) may have inspired his own Oxford prize poem on Cromwell (1843). His preferences included Emerson, with his themes of "Self-Reliance" and "Trust thyself!"; Goethe, who taught that the main thing for man is to learn to master himself; and Spinoza, whose philosophy contains the idea that man's need is to affirm his own essence, to follow the law of his being. He had developed a strategy of detachment, as against Clough's commitment to the issues of the day; and the introspective analysis of his own nature and of his relations to men and ideas permeates the correspondence with Clough. He wrote to Coleridge in 1843 protesting against the general impression "as to my want of interest in my friends which you say they have begun to attribute to me. It is an old subject" and "the accusation, as you say, is not true. I laugh too much and they make one's laughter mean too much. However, the result is that when one wishes to be serious one cannot but fear a half suspicion on one's friends' parts that one is laughing, and, so, the difficulty gets worse and worse." When, seven years later, Charlotte Brontë met Arnold in Crabb Robinson's home, she found him striking and even prepossessing in appearance, but foppish, and added: "Ere long a real modesty appeared under his assumed conceit, and genuine intellectual aspirations, as well as high educational acquirements, displaced superficial affectations."
Arnold's drive to self-understanding and self-control may suggest a wish for a detached and self-sufficient position from which to contemplate human events and the historical flow, and could explain a change in the story of the young Egyptian king Mycerinus in Arnold's early poem of that name. Having heard from an oracle that he is to die in six years, although he has tried to atone for his father's selfish and unjust reign by a virtuous life and justice for his subjects, Mycerinus turns in scorn from his gods and his "sorrowing people" to spend the last years of his life in revelry. The possibility Arnold adds to that decision in lines 107-111 may be self-revealing:
It may be on that joyless feast his eye
Dwelt with mere outward seeming; he, within,
Took measure of his soul, and knew its strength,
And by that silent knowledge, day by day,
Was calmed, ennobled, comforted, sustained.
Arnold's appointment as private secretary to the elderly Whig statesman Lord Lansdowne in 1847, after a term as assistant master at Rugby School, gave him over the next four years a vantage point for observation of the "joyless feast" of nineteenth-century industrialism and class discontent and the revolutionary upheavals of 1848 throughout Europe. The striving to take "measure of his soul" is evident in poems and in the letters to Clough, as is the struggle to attain a state of peace and calm, a balance between withdrawal and commitment, a reconciliation of the claims of reason and the feelings and of the "two desires" which "toss about the poet's feverish blood. /One drives him to the world without/And one to solitude." Clough had committed himself to action and wrote Arnold from Rome describing his situation during bombardment of the city by the French armies. Arnold's reaction to Clough's reforming zeal appears in his two sonnets "To a Republican Friend." The first sonnet declares: "God knows it, I am with you" for "if to despise the barren, optimistic sophistries of comfortable moles" and "If thoughts, not idle, while before me flow/The armies of the homeless and unfed--/If these are yours, if this is what you are,/Then am I yours, and what you feel, I share." The second sonnet counsels a longer view, for "When I muse on what life is, I seem/Rather to patience prompted" than to the hope proclaimed by France "so loud." Necessity spares us "narrower margin than we deem," and the day when "liberated man" will burst through "the network superposed by selfish occupation" will not "dawn at a human nod."
Such sympathy with revolutionary aims but distrust of precipitate action could be expected of the young man whose "respect for the reason" sent him to Locke and Spinoza,and who already was turning from Beranger's "fade" Epicureanism to the stoic philosopher Epictetus. Arnold was especially attracted to the tragic dramatist Sophocles, whose "even-balanced soul," in the famous line from Arnold's sonnet "To a Friend," made him preeminently the writer "who saw life steadily and saw it whole." But though a philosophical overview, strengthened by classical art, could steady relations with the outer world, it was put to a much more severe test by the new experience that came Arnold's way on his travels. The powerful force of romantic love threatened to frustrate entirely the longing to take "measure of his soul" and so to be "calmed, ennobled, comforted, sustained."
The long dispute over whether Marguerite, the French girl Arnold fell in love with in Switzerland, was real or imaginary was settled by the publication of the letters to Clough. In a letter of 29 September 1848 he will "go to Thun" and "linger one day at the Hotel Bellevue for the sake of the blue eyes of one of its inmates." On 23 September 1849 he is in Thun "in a curious and not altogether comfortable state: however tomorrow I carry my aching head to the mountains and to my cousin the Bhunlis Alp." Research has failed to provide further clues, but adding these to the names and places of physical details in the poems has allowed the majority view to prevail: the Marguerite of the Switzerland lyrics was indeed real, as was the anguish of the lover who could not surrender himself to passion. For a man who believed above all in self-control and integrity, the outcome of a conflict between the Platonic and the Byronic (or between the shades of Dr. Arnold and of George Sand) could not be long in doubt. There is as much of relief as of desolation in the poem "Self-Dependence." Standing at the prow of the ship bearing him back to England, "Weary of myself, and sick of asking/ What I am, and what I ought to be," Arnold sends "a look of passionate desire" (the only one on record) to the stars, and asks that they "Calm me, ah, compose me to the end!" The Socratic answer comes, that to live "self-poised" as the stars do, there is only one prescription:" 'Resolve to be thyself; and know that he,/Who finds himself, loses his misery!'"
Having survived exposure to the storms of passion in the Alps, Arnold still felt the need for a love and companionship compatible with the needs of ordinary human nature, and before long he was attracted by the charms of a more suitable English girl, the daughter of a judge. The conventional courtship which followed, and which produced some charming lyrics, was prolonged until Arnold could obtain a position with an income that would support a wife. He achieved this when Lord Lansdowne had him appointed inspector of schools in April 1851, and the marriage to Frances Lucy Wightman took place in June. Though his first volume of poetry, The Strayed Reveller and Other Poems (1849), and the second, Empedocles on Etna and Other Poems (1852), both published under the pseudonym "A.," received limited attention and were soon withdrawn from circulation in spite of praise from a discerning few, Arnold continued writing poetry. His reputation was established with his third volume, Poems: A New Edition (1853), the first published under his name. It omitted "Empedocles on Etna" and the early poem "The New Sirens," but contained two new poems which have been widely known and liked ever since, "Sohrab and Rustum" and "The Scholar-Gipsy." Most of Arnold's best poems are in these volumes--except "Dover Beach," which, though not published until 1867, has been convincingly assigned to 1851 by Kenneth Allott.
During this period in which Arnold moved from a studied aloofness through turbulence to the desired calm, though with an awareness that "Calm's not life's crown, though calm is well" ("Youth and Calm"), the letters gradually change in tone from the early touches of extravagance and badinage to exhortation and even reproach. Clough, unable to settle down to any one job, including those found for him by Arnold, is finally told that he is "the most conscientious man I ever knew" but "on some lines morbidly so." A letter commenting on this highminded (or irresolute) inability to find anything worth doing for long is both anxious and pointed: "The mental harass of an uncertain life must be far more irksome than the ennui of the most monotonous employment." That such concern for his old friend was a way of checking similar tendencies in himself seems apparent from a letter of 1849, when Arnold was breaking away from Marguerite: "What I must tell you is that I have never yet succeeded in any one great occasion in consciously mastering myself .... at the critical point I am too apt to hoist up the mainsail to the wind and let her drive."
Though he could generously concede in looking back "an invincible languor of spirit" compared with Clough's "genuineness and faith," Arnold by 1852 had arrived at a point where he could say firmly, "Nothing can absolve us from the duty of doing all we can to keep alive our courage and activity." A lightness of touch still appeared at times, as when he wrote from Fox How, the Arnold family home in the Lake District, while on holiday from the wearying routine of school inspecting and marking papers: "I for my part find here that I could willingly fish all day and read the newspapers all the evening and so live--but I am not pleased with the results in myself of even a day or two of such life." The words courage, duty, and activity suggest the voice of Dr. Arnold helping to point the direction Matthew was to follow after 1853. Yet the early poem "The Voice," attributed by Allott to the impact of Newman's sermons, should be related to the late essay on Emerson in which Arnold recalls the effect of Newman's eloquence, those "words and thoughts which were a religious music--subtle, sweet, mournful." The response to both sensuous and spiritual beauty which made Arnold a poet, and emerged at times throughout his prose, appears in the lines which tell of
Those lute-like tones which in the bygone year
Did steal into mine ear--
Blew such a thrilling summons to my will,
Yet could not shake it;
Made my tossed heart its very life-blood spill,
Yet could not break it.
Arnold's poetics, as revealed in the letters to Clough, show a gradual shift from a predominantly aesthetic to a predominantly moral emphasis. In criticizing Clough's poems he warns against a striving after "individuality" and, even more, against attempting to "solve the Universe." There is a "deficiency of the beautiful in your poems," which alone is "properly poetical as distinguished from rhetorical, devotional, or metaphysical" and which makes him "doubt your being an artist." The "sincerity" in all of Clough's poems must produce "a powerful effect on the reader," for "the spectacle of a writer striving evidently to get breast to breast with reality is always full of instruction and very invigorating." But these merits are not such as to produce the effect of "naturalness ... an absolute propriety--of form, as the sole necessary of Poetry as such: where the greatest wealth and depth of matter is merely a superfluity in the Poet as such." When form of conception and form of expression achieve congruity one has "the poet's highest result," but Clough's "mode of expression" seems to be "arbitrarily adopted." He seems to be trying "to get to the bottom of an object instead of grouping objects," which is "fatal to the sensuousness of poetry," and Arnold quotes a line from his own poem "Resignation" to affirm that "not deep the Poet sees, but wide." The end of poetry is to "attain the beautiful," which is realized when a poem "gives PLEASURE, not excites curiosity and reflexion."
As with the urging to self-mastery and to useful activity, Arnold is again talking to himself as much as to Clough. The italicized and capitalized earnestness hides a growing suspicion that for him a pure and autonomous aesthetic is not possible. He offers as one reason for the contemporary failure to reach poetic heights the feeling of "how deeply unpoetical the age and all one's surroundings are," an age he elsewhere describes as arid, blank, and barren, with our "spread of luxury, our physical enervation, the absence of great natures, the unavoidable contact with millions of small ones." The Architectonicè of form he speaks of can only be found among the ancients, because, as he says in the 1853 preface to Poems: A New Edition, "They, at any rate, knew what they wanted in Art, and we do not." The exquisite bits and images and the exuberance of the Romantics and the Elizabethans will not help us; only the grandly simple overall harmony of form, style, and substance will.
Arnold finally faces up to the fact that his classical ideal embraces much more than the aesthetic values he has been insisting on with Clough. Modern poetry, to serve the age well, "can only subsist by its contents: by becoming a complete magister vitae as the poetry of the ancients did: by including, as theirs did, religion with poetry." Poetry is something more than Keats's "Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty," of which Arnold was later to say that it is not "all ye need to know," though it is much. It is a source of moral therapy for the age and a surrogate for the weakening Christian faith. These views anticipate Arnold's lectures On Translating Homer (1861), in which "nobility" is seen as a major characteristic of Homer, and "The Study of Poetry" (1880), which proclaims that "the strongest part of our religion today is its unconscious poetry."
A parallel shift in emphasis is apparent in the definitions of style. It is at first simply "saying in the best way what you have to say," though Arnold adds that "what you have to say depends on your age." The thoughts expressed in an article by Carlyle are "every newspapers" it is "the style and feeling by which the beloved man appears" which make it "solemn" and "deeply restful." (A year later Carlyle becomes a "moral desperado," presumably because of his increasingly strenuous demands that we must do something and do it with all our might.) The new emphasis appears when Arnold declares that "there are two offices of Poetry--one to add to one's store of thoughts and feelings--another to compose and elevate the mind by a sustained tone, numerous allusions, and a grand style." Milton is mentioned, but the main points are the dismissal of Keats as an impetuous "style and form seeker," and the praise of Sophocles as exhibiting "the grand moral effects of style. For the style is the expression of the nobility of the poet's character, as the matter is the expression of the richness of his mind: but on men character produces as much effect as mind."
Arnold's perception of beauty and greatness in art has shifted from the aesthetic impact of a unity in form of conception and form of expression to the moral impact of a unity of style and substance which exhibits and influences character. Poetry must convey the emotional warmth and spiritual power that religion was losing in an era of sectarian strife on the one hand and agnostic indifference on the other. "If one loved what was beautiful and interesting in itself [the collocation of terms is noteworthy] passionately enough, one would produce what was excellent without troubling oneself with religious dogmas at all. As it is, we are warm only when dealing with the last," and because warmth is a blessing and frigidity a curse, Arnold would have "most others" stay "on the old religious road."
This letter of 6 September 1853 foreshadows the Arnold of the 1870s who tried by humanistic reinterpretation to preserve the Bible and Christianity for the masses. What is pertinent here is the attempt to find in great poetry a supreme moral and spiritual influence as well as an ideal aesthetic form. In a letter written three months later, Arnold's rejection of Clough's praise for "The Scholar-Gipsy" is almost Carlylian in tone. "I am glad you like the Gipsy Scholar," he says, "but what does it do for you? Homer animates--Shakespeare animates--in its poor way I think Sohrab and Rustum animates--the Gipsy Scholar at best awakens a pleasing melancholy." But what men want is "something to animate and ennoble them ... I believe a feeling of this kind is the basis of my nature--and of my poetics."
The names of Homer and Shakespeare here, like the frequent praise of Sophocles elsewhere, suggest that for Arnold the high calling of poetry for the age could only be realized in the classical forms of epic and drama. Clearly set forth in the 1853 preface, the preference is further refined in his first Oxford lecture when he says that "the great poets of the modern period of Greece are ... the dramatic poets." Indeed, Arnold tried at that time to offer his English readers an example of the kind of poetry he still wished to write, and felt ought to be written. In a letter to his sister Jane he admitted that he had not succeeded, and could not succeed. Merope (1858) might exhibit perfection of form, but "to attain or approach perfection in the region of thought and feeling, and to unite this with perfection of form, demands not merely effort and labour, but an actual tearing of oneself to pieces." Though he blames the age and his occupation for not letting him devote his whole life to poetry as Wordsworth could, he adds that Shelley and Byron could also do this, "and were besides driven by their demon to do so." Driven by no such demon, but by a need to control impulse by reason (and later anarchy by culture), Arnold produced poems reflecting conflicts that were a genuine part of his emotional and intellectual experience, but not the poem of his ideal that would both illuminate and transcend experience in the artistic perfection of classical form.
How much this ideal embraced was later to be seen in his praise of the Sophoclean power of "imaginative reason" and in his lectures On the Study of Celtic Literature (1867). He credits the Celts not with "great poetical works" but with poetry having "an air of greatness," for in poetry "emotion counts for so much," but "reason, measure, sanity, also count for so much." In a letter to his mother, referring to the poems of Jean Ingelow, he gives the simplest summary of his poetical creed: "It is a great deal to give one true feeling in poetry, and I think she seemed to be able to do that; but I do not at present very much care for poetry unless it can give me true thought as well. It is the alliance of these two that makes great poetry, the only poetry really worth very much."
Arnold noted in the preface to the second edition of Poems: A New Edition (1854) the charge that he had neglected the lyric, "that region of the poetical field which is chiefly cultivated at present." In his On Translating Homer: Last Words (1862) he was to make handsome amends. After asserting, and trying to illustrate by his own specimens, that English hexameters were best for translating Homer into English verse, he rejected the ballad as inadequate, saying of two lines from Macaulay's Lays of Ancient Rome (1842) that they were "hard to read without a cry of pain." But a case is then made for "purely emotional poetry," to which the question of suitability for narrative is irrelevant because it is "so powerful and absorbing in itself." He continues: "When there comes in poetry what I may call the lyrical cry, this transfigures everything, makes everything grand; the simplest form may be here even an advantage, because the flame of the emotion glows through and through it more easily." In Wordsworth and Keats the "lyrical cry" may transform a simple stanza or even a passage from an "ampler form." From this concession, Arnold's flexibility and growth as a critic were to carry him on to the isolating of lines revealing "natural magic" in his essay on Maurice de Guérin, to the "Celtic note" in his lectures, and finally to his famous "touchstone" method of detecting supreme poetic quality in single lines and short passages. Such lines or passages (one thinks again of the Note-Books) Arnold found from his own experience were capable of setting up aesthetic, moral, and spiritual resonances which echo in the mind and soul, achieving through style and interpretative power something of the "grand" effects he found in epic and drama, and blending into his final definition of poetry as a "criticism of life" under the laws of "poetic truth" and "poetic beauty."
Arnold's criticism of Clough's poems, that they were arbitrary rather than inevitable in form, can be applied in large degree to his own poems, in terms of structure or pattern. For instance, there seems no good reason for a ballad type of stanza in the Obermann poems, or the Anglo-Saxon verse stresses in "Consolation," or in most cases for the choice of the sonnet form. Yet his patterns were original at times and could be appropriate to theme and mood, as is the adapted stanza from Keats's odes to the lonely musings and loving natural descriptions in "The Scholar-Gipsy" and "Thyrsis." The conventional structure of four octosyllabic lines followed by a couplet is effective where the pressure of emotion, usually elegiac, is strong enough, as in the two poems "To Marguerite" and in "Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse." Where the poem is essentially argumentative or rhetorical, as often in the sonnets, rhythms and sounds can result which read like Macaulay's revenge ("Who prop, thou ask'st, in these bad days, my mind?" or "A prop gave way! crash fell a platform! lo"). Exclamation marks and italics and the intrusive "Ah" are sometimes stumbling blocks for readers. Against such evidence that Arnold had no ear for euphony, much less music, one can place "The Forsaken Merman" and "Dover Beach," lyrics like "Longing" and "Requiescat," the ending of "Sohrab and Rustum," and the last section of "The Church of Brou."
Arnold's characteristic verse structures tend to depart from the traditional. Stanzas or verse paragraphs of varying length and of varying line length make him a forerunner of free verse practice, as in "A Summer Night" and "Dover Beach," in the romantically melancholy and melodiously rhymed "The Forsaken Merman," and in unrhymed poems such as "The Strayed Reveller" and "The Future." This last poem, and others of more conventional form such as "Human Life," "Self-Deception," and "Morality," all reflecting upon the human condition, help to explain the view of Arnold's poetry as thought-laden or "gnomic" or even, among hostile critics like Edith Sitwell and T. S. Eliot, as academic versifying. Such a view is confirmed for some readers by the solemn march of unrhymed three-stress lines in Arnold's "Pindarics": "Heine's Grave," "Rugby Chapel," "Haworth Churchyard," and, to a large extent, in "The Youth of Man" and "The Youth of Nature." (Clough, leaving for a temporary stay in America, advised his fiancée to console herself during his absence by reading Matt Arnold on "Morality," moving one to ponder the curious nature of Victorian courtship.) But perhaps the most Arnoldian verse form is that mixture of modes or genres which made it difficult for him to classify some of his own poems. The lyrical drama "The Strayed Reveller," the dramatic narrative "The Sick King of Bokhara," the diversity of verse patterns in his major work "Empedocles on Etna" all suggest a creative and original element in Arnold's poetics as well as an urge to "animate" and "ennoble" mankind. Of "Empedocles on Etna" Swinburne said: "Nothing can be more deep and exquisite in poetical tact than this succession of harmonies, diverse without a discord."
Arnold's twofold search for knowledge of himself and of the world was from the beginning philosophical in nature. Modern poets, Arnold told Clough, "must begin with an Idea of the world in order not to be prevailed over by the world's multitudinousness: or if they cannot get that, at least with isolated ideas." One must begin with a controlling principle or be overwhelmed by experience. But experience resisted this rational commitment to "the high white star of truth" and compelled the honest poet to record his frustrations and mental sufferings. To achieve understanding by embracing or surrendering to experience was for Arnold a dangerous course, for it involved risking the sacrifice of the reason to the senses and feelings. Yet any answer arrived at without the sanction of emotion was, he said, arid and incomplete. This conflict runs through much of Arnold's poetry, with his deepest feelings attaching to the unresolved debate, to the anxious questions and the ambiguous or dusty answers. Ideas in his case were to come from his own kind of immersion in experience, through professional work in education and the extension of criticism from literature to society and religion. The view of truth as multifaceted, the attempt at a synthesis in the phrase "the imaginative reason," the definition of religion as "morality, touched with emotion"--all these later formulations suggest acceptance and interpretation of experience as a better way than prior commitment to an Idea of coping with the world's multitudinousness.
A useful approach can be made to Arnold's poetry by recognizing three broad divisions. First, there is that large body of reflective or gnomic verse, where the poet's voice is freely heard but which shows varying degrees of detachment, in tones of questioning or stoicism or contemplation. Second, there are the lyric poems of intense personal engagement in the human situation, especially the love poems with their burden of longing and suffering and the elegies with their milder melancholy. Third, there are the narrative and dramatic poems, which attempt to achieve objectivity and distance by form, character, and plot, and by the remoteness of myth and legend. Qualities marking these categories respectively are notably present in "In Utrumque Paratus," in the lyric "Absence" from the Switzerland group, and in "The Strayed Reveller."
The first category most obviously anticipates Arnold's later development as critic, consisting as it does of poems in which differing views on man, nature, or art are balanced or contrasted, advanced or rejected. "In Utrumque Paratus" shows that as early as 1846 Arnold could contemplate with equanimity alternative answers to man's cosmic questions. The idealist hypothesis of the first three stanzas ("If, in the silent mind of One all-pure/At first imagined lay/The sacred world") is balanced by the materialist hypothesis of the last three stanzas ("But, if the wild unfeathered mass no birth/In divine seats hath known"). What emerges is a twofold moral reflection on the unifying theme of man's lonely state.
According to the idealist hypothesis, compatible with religious belief, man can achieve self-transcendence and a return to the divine by virtue of the divine element in himself, but only if a "lonely pureness" enables him to remount "the coloured dream of life." According to the materialist hypothesis, compatible with scientific thinking, man's unique self-consciousness, his "sun-bathed head," will separate him from his "still-dreaming brother-world" and make him "when most self-exalted most alone," in need of the sober warning "Be not too proud!" This is the Arnold who was later to stress the multiple approach to truth, to say in his literary and religious criticism that both physical science and metaphysics are inadequate to account for the nature and needs of man. The dominant emotion here is akin to that in the Marguerite poems. But there the echoing "alone" and "lonely" and "loneliness" are charged with the lyric cry of personal suffering; here, with the imagination employed in contemplative mood on the cosmic scale, the loneliness attaching to each philosophical alternative has a grave serenity.
Two of the more interesting themes considered in this exploratory and critical way are the relationship of man and nature and the conflicting claims of reason and feeling, the latter indeed omnipresent in Arnold's poetry. The first theme can best be examined with reference to several poems, the second within the limits of one poem, "The New Sirens," a poem which also makes a convenient transition to the second category.
In an age of increasingly complex views of man's relationship with nature, with the extremes marked by Wordsworth's "Let Nature be your teacher" and Tennyson's "Nature red in tooth and claw," it is not surprising that Arnold should express himself in the noncommittal terms of "In Utrumque Paratus." His later commitment to a dualistic psychological doctrine of two selves, with a higher human nature being the area of moral and religious truths, got him into difficulties reflected in his exclamation in Literature and Dogma (1873), "What pitfalls are in that word Nature!" In his poetry, however, the question of relationship with nature is generally dealt with by assuming a distinctive (not necessarily a higher) human nature, allowing man to select for emulation those aspects of nature which will promote his moral growth.
An angry outburst in one sonnet, "In Harmony with Nature," asserts that man can never be "fast friends" with a "cruel" Nature, but must "pass her" or else "rest her slave." Yet Arnold gave little heed to the ruthless aspect of nature as the scene of a struggle for survival, a theme in imaginative writing from In Memoriam to Jean Christophe and the subject of an essay, "Wordsworth in the Tropics," by his grandnephew Aldous Huxley. In fact, another sonnet entitled "Quiet Work" apparently contradicts the first by beginning "One lesson, Nature, let me learn of thee." The contradiction is resolved when the sonnet goes on to say that the lesson is one of "Toil unsevered from tranquillity," learned from "thy sleepless ministers." This is the nature of cosmic grandeur, of eternal law, compatible with the concluding lines of "Religious Isolation": "To its own impulse every creature stirs;/Live by thy light, and earth will live by hers." The lesson can be that learned in "Self-Dependence" from the stars and waters, from God's works "In their own tasks all their powers pouring." Or it can be that in "A Summer Night," where the pure heavens remain "A world above man's head, to let him see/How boundless might his soul's horizons be,/How vast, yet of what clear transparency." Though "The Youth of Man" and "The Youth of Nature" stress the separateness of man and nature, other poems convey a sense of oneness in terms of soul or spirit. In "Lines Written in Kensington Gardens" the poet, relaxing in the air of a "lone, open glade," begs an inner peace from the "Calm soul of all things." The elegy to Arnold's brother and sister-in-law, "A Southern Night," ends with an invocation to nature:
Mild o'er her grave, ye mountains, shine!
Gently by his, ye waters, glide!
To that in you which is divine,
They were allied.
When in "A Wish" the poet pleads, "There let me gaze, till I become/In soul, with what I gaze on, wed!" the reader may feel that, as in some earlier poems, elements from the Bhagavad Gita have mingled with those from the Stoics and Spinoza--an appropriate response in view of Arnold's admission that he lacked philosophical consistency and his nonchalant attitude that it did not matter.
The emotions in these poems that find peace or inspiration in a spiritual union do not derive from a resolving of the moral and philosophical ambivalences about man's relationship with nature. They come rather from one of Arnold's deepest sources of poetical feeling, his sheer pleasure in natural beauty, whether as bringing peace or joy, or as fit symbols for the imagination. Whether it is pictorial--"Pale, dew-drenched, half-shut roses gleam" ("Resignation"), or touched with metaphor--"old oaks, whose red wet leaves/Are jewelled with bright drops of rain" ("Tristram and Iseult"), or whether it blends the senses in a lyrical evocation of the loved one's voice--"has some wet bird-haunted English lawn/Lent it the music of its trees at dawn?" ("Parting")--Arnold's imagery shows a genuine delight in the world of physical objects. It is the source for his tribute to Wordsworth as one who "laid us as we lay at birth/On the cool flowery lap of earth."
On the level of symbolic fitness, Arnold could "yearn to the greatness of Nature" in her power to uplift man by his contemplation of the stars and the "cold lunar beams" and the "high mountain-platforms." Her gift of water, of dews and rain and clear-flowing streams, could suggest both a purity free of the world's contaminations and an appropriate symbol for the life of man. In his letters he speaks of his "passion for clear water" and of the "positive pain" of dry water-courses in Italy sending his mind back to the clear rivers of Scotland, of a charm "so infinite to me." He complained to Clough of the "curse" of dirty water, of "the real pain it occasions one who looks upon water as the Mediator between the inanimate and man."
Two letters are especially relevant to the kind of writing in this division of Arnold's poems, poems so often intellectual in impact and bare in style. A letter to Clough describes these poems as having "weight" but "little or no charm," and wonders whether "I shall ever have heat and radiance enough to pierce the clouds that are massed around me." Yet escape or isolation was impossible--"Woe was upon me if I analyzed not my situation" and "the modern situation in its true blankness and barrenness and unpoetrylessness." The other letter, to his mother on 3 March 1865, refers to the success of his newly published Essays in Criticism , and continues: "No one has a stronger and more abiding sense than I have of the daemonic element--as Goethe called it--which underlies and encompass our life; but I think, as Goethe thought, that the right thing is, while conscious of this element, and of all that there is inexplicable around one, to keep pushing on one's posts into the darkness, and to establish no post that is not perfectly in light and firm." The dominant effect conveyed by these letters is of an independent mind, the primacy of reason, and the compulsion to understand the world as well as oneself. The shift from poetry to prose, and from introspection to action of a suitable kind, was mainly a shift in emphasis. Yet reason and the moral will were never to have it all their own way. In the many-sided search for truth, the critic was never to lose entirely the poet's sense of the "daemonic" and the "inexplicable," the mystery of the buried life, or the darkness beyond the last lighted post."
If the poems Arnold is obviously referring to tend to be overly intellectual (one notes the word "analyzed"), they often compensate by a feeling of intimacy. They are poems of the speaking voice, sharing thoughts with the reader as he walks or stands or sits with the speaker, and if not intense in expression, the best of them awaken a response to ideas that have evoked emotion as well as thought in the poet. "Resignation," to his sister Jane--here called Fausta--is a sort of verse epistle. It considers diverse patterns in the life of man, theorizes about the nature of the poet in relation to his fellows, and comments rather bleakly on man's environment. Yet the reader finds it no mere academic exercise in verse, as he follows the poet's eye from the brook with its "clear, shallow, turf-fringed bed" down to the noisy town "capped with faint smoke," or sees the Gypsy children who "in dark knots crouch round the wild flame," or feels man's isolation from "the strange-scrawled rocks, the lonely sky," or shares the Vergilian mood when the poet contemplates the human and rural scene: "Leaned on his gate, he gazes--tears/Are in his eyes, and in his ears/The murmur of a thousand years."
This blend of participation and detachment, an aloof and considering stance modified by an engaged sympathy, is characteristic of Arnold, and is often a source of that charm which, in a depressed moment, he told Clough he lacked. Yet although Swinburne praised the poetic power of concrete imagery and modernized myth in "The New Sirens" and successfully urged its reprinting, Arnold's agreement with Clough that it was a "mumble" indicates his wish to be clearly understood in his line of thought. The poem presents opposing cases for judgment and comes reluctantly to a decision. It projects the dialogue in the mind, or externalizes it, without objectifying it in narrative or drama. It is tempting to see Arnold here as a kind of Greek chorus commenting on the processional movement and contrasting attitudes which he has evoked, but the effect is rather that of the poet interpreting the scenes and figures in a tapestry, finding allegorical meaning for the life of man and, ironically, for the state of his own mind. (Arnold rejects, in the 1853 preface, art which seeks to provide an "allegory of the state of one's own mind.") A more attractive and compelling poem than Arnold first thought it to be, "The New Sirens" nevertheless does have enough of a stage-managed debate about it to come marginally within this first category of his poems, as it weighs the opposing claims of feeling and reason to a dominant role in the life of man.
The new Romantic sirens are not the cruel sirens of old, luring men to destruction, but they are as seductive. They persuade men that there is "as staunch adherence/Due to pleasure as to pain," that the heart "gleans rarer secrets than the toiling head," and that "only, what we feel, we know." The poet has been a joyful member of their train. Yet he has heard "sounds of warning" as "the hoarse boughs labour in the wind," and even though before their pleading "all/Man's grave reasons disappear," they have nothing to offer when their "flowers are overblown" but the "folded palms" of ennui, or at best, in "mad succession/Fits of joy and fits of pain." Rejection does not bring serenity. The poet's thoughts stray "to where at sunrise" he had seen the sirens playing, and "if the dawning into daylight never grew," the roses and lilies need never be exchanged for yew and cypress. But the "cold nightair" and "north-wind blowing," bringing thoughts of "old age, youth's fatal morrow," cannot be countered by this "earthward-bound devotion."
This poem anticipates the essay "Pagan and Medieval Religious Sentiment" in its turning away from a life of "scent, and song, and flowers" because these will not suffice to bring "brightness" to the "sorrow-stricken day." It also stands in stark contrast to Keats's tribute to the fullness of pagan life, "rich in the simple worship of a day," which concludes his "Ode to Maia," a passage Arnold was himself to offer as a specimen of one kind of greatness in poetry. The romanticism of feeling in Arnold's poem takes the form of regret that what the new sirens have to offer is inadequate, a feeling hardly able to offset the insistent classical morality in the searching questions of the poem, but strong enough to keep him a practicing poet for a number of years. It appears in a letter of 25 January 1851, a letter that is virtually a commentary on "The Forsaken Merman": "The aimless and unsettled, but also open and liberal state of our youth we must perhaps all leave and take refuge in our morality and character: but with most of us it is a melancholy passage from which we emerge shorn of so many beams that we are almost tempted to quarrel with the law of nature which imposes it on us." When the dream sirens had so firmly been put in their place by the young moralist some half-dozen years before, this letter's continuing lament suggests the influence of a more tangible siren. Not only did Marguerite give substance to the shadow, the experience of love brought into sharper focus and painful reality the balanced musings of the earlier poem.
To make of the love poems and the elegies a second major division among Arnold's poems is to see them, first, as dominated by the need for self-discovery and for wholeness of personality, and secondly, as poems in which the contrasting claims on man's nature of passion and reason, and of solitude and society, find their most intense and personal expression. They are poems of confessional suffering and fractured sensibility, where the poet is too much involved in the emotional struggle to interpret experience in the light of philosophical alternatives or a dialectical process. They show the divided or alienated mind which so many, including Arnold himself, have seen as the marks of his early writing.
If all love poems are egotistical in seeing the loved one as the fulfillment in reality of the lover's dreams, Arnold's Switzerland lyrics are supremely egotistical in seeing the loved one as a means to the end of self-fulfillment. They are a study in attraction and repulsion, sometimes unfortunate in their effect as the poet blames God or Fate or Marguerite or himself for their inability to get together. In the lyric "Parting" the lover's gaze swings between the warm beauty of Marguerite coming in at the door and the snowy purity of the mountains seen through the window, until he flees with a cry of "our different past" from her arms to those of Mother Nature. He finds in "A Farewell" his "true affinities of soul" in "The hush among the shining stars/The calm upon the moonlit sea." Marguerite was a victim of Arnold's romantic attachment to a classical ideal of wholeness in life and art, and of his hope that sexual love might prove a way to find this intellectual integrity without sacrificing emotional vitality. The failure to achieve this transcendent union, to feel even the illusory happiness of men who have "dreamed two human hearts might blend in one," inspired the best and best-known of the Marguerite poems, with the true theme evident in the title "Isolation. To Marguerite," and in the uncompromising and paradoxical line of the companion poem, "We mortal millions live alone" ("To Marguerite--Continued"). The struggle itself, however, is most clearly seen in "Absence," where the necessary choice between feeling and reason, and the pain of making it, elicit a cry of anguish:
This is the curse of life! that not
A nobler, calmer train
Of wiser thoughts and feelings blot
Our passions from our brain.
But each day brings its petty dust
Our soon-choked souls to fill,
And we forget because we must
And not because we will.
I struggle towards the light; and ye,
Once-longed-for storms of love!
If with the light ye cannot be,
I bear that ye remove.
I struggle towards the light--but oh,
While yet the night is chill,
Upon time's barren, stormy flow,
Stay with me, Marguerite, still!
Of the lyrics belonging to the Switzerland group, this is the strongest in its diction and feeling, though the "longing like despair" in the two poems "To Marguerite" and the climactic power of "the unplumbed, salt, estranging sea" make them the more melodious and memorable. The repetition of "struggle," the bitterness that the "petty dust" of daily trivia and not "wiser thoughts" should blot out our feelings, the cold and painful choice, the longing for love free of those storms which are no help against the storms that whirl around modern man, all give an urgency and immediacy of impact. By comparison, the poem "Longing" from the "Faded Leaves" series tends to suggest the sighing lover and unkind mistress of the conventional sonnet cycle. But then, this whole group of lyrics addressed to the future Mrs. Arnold has something of the conventional about it: Arnold brooding on the fated parting of lovers in "Too Late"; Arnold the forbidden suitor gazing sorrowfully at "My queen" from among the idlers on the pier in "Calais Sands"; Arnold trying manfully to say in "Separation" that if parting must come let it be clean and quick, but spoiling the effect by the anapestic jingling quatrain to which he was, unhappily, occasionally inclined.
This is not to say that his love for Lucy was not genuine, or something caught on the rebound; it was rather that Arnold had revised his expectations. Having failed to transform Marguerite into an Alpine Beatrice, he was now at the more realistic level of seeking emotional security in marriage, in the Wordsworthian ideal of the perfect woman who is yet "not too good/For human nature's daily food." The most vital lyric in this series is "The River," where the lovers glide in their boat down the Thames. The unusually loving and lingering description of Lucy's physical appearance and movements conveys a yearning and a need that find expression in the last three stanzas, with even a decorous Arnoldian variant on the old carpe diem theme. Most revealing of all, however, is "A Dream," which is not part of either series. As Arnold and his friend Martin sail "down a green Alpine stream" through scenes of rich natural beauty, Marguerite and her companion Olivia greet them from a balcony, with "white arms, waved eagerly," while "more than mortal impulse filled their eyes." Suspended for a moment's longing gaze, their boat poised "on the rapid's top," the poet and his friend are swept away by the "darting river of life." But this is no rationalized turning away from the symbolic new sirens of romanticism to the superior wisdom of reason; this is the melancholy memory of a flight from the warm promise of real sirens, down a river leading to "burning plains, bristled with cities."
Two other poems which stand apart from both groups of love lyrics, and yet may be related to them, are "The Buried Life" and "Dover Beach." The former reveals more of the need and the search in Arnold's love poems. As the lovers hold hands and exchange bantering words, "a nameless sadness" overcomes the poet. He gazes into the beloved's eyes with "A longing to inquire/Into the mystery of this heart which beats/So wild, so deep in us," to see whether love will disclose to him something of his hidden or "genuine self." For once, the hope is not seen as utterly futile, as Arnold develops his favorite image of the flowing stream. At "rare" times "a beloved hand" and "the tones of a loved voice" will help us, through "another's eyes," to become aware of our "life's flow" and of its "winding murmur" in the meadows, bringing an air of coolness and "an unwonted calm." The poet's experience is an illusion: "And then he thinks he knows/ The hills where his life rose,/And the sea where it goes." But he is content to leave it at that and to be for a moment one of those "happier men" envied in the poems to Marguerite, who "at least/Have dreamed two human hearts might blend/In one," and so to be released from "isolation without end/ Prolonged."
If "The Buried Life" illuminates one side of Arnold's dual search, hinting at a fleeting possibility of happiness through self-discovery in love, "Dover Beach" offers a somber picture of a world that has defeated all attempts at comprehension. The words "Ah, love, let us be true to one another!" are a heartfelt cry in the surrounding darkness where "ignorant armies clash by night." Against the Sophoclean echo of "the turbid ebb and flow of human misery," and hearing the retreating sea of faith, Arnold in his most modern poem finds himself in the dead end of a wasteland. "Dover Beach" is only momentarily a love poem, in the single cry which gives it pathos. It is the supreme expression of Arnold's elegiac mood, induced by the failure of oracles old and new to help modern man escape the "confused alarms of struggle and flight," or to enunciate a principle to help in understanding the causes of the darkness and in promoting growth toward the light.
The elegies in general extend the theme of struggle between withdrawal and commitment from the love relationship to the relationship of the individual and the world, from the need for self-discovery to the need for a certainty of some kind as a base for operations in life. In "Stanzas in Memory of the Author of 'Obermann,'" the self-imposed solitude appeals to one desire in the poet's "feverish blood," but the claims of duty are too strong for one "who in the world must live." In "Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse" the poet begs forgiveness of the "rigorous teachers" who showed him the "high white star of Truth," yet there is the yearning for another kind of truth as he asks the "cowled forms" to "fence me round/Till I possess my soul again," and as he nostalgically catches the "accents of another sphere." And in "The Scholar-Gipsy" the reproach to modern life with its "sick hurry, its divided aims" reflects the appeal of a time when it was possible to have "one aim, one business, one desire."
In the elegies as in the love poems can be seen how congenial to Arnold were themes of loss and longing--of the light that failed, the frustrated search, and the love that never was. But the compulsions that drove him can also be seen--the ingrained call to duty that made him bid "a sad farewell" to Sénancour, the need for calmness of spirit that allows a feeling of kinship with the Carthusian monks, the search for unity of mind and purpose in the fellow-feeling for the Scholar-Gipsy (a theme recurring in "Thyrsis" when Arnold recalls the symbolic force for him and Clough in Oxford days of "that lone, sky-pointing tree").