The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Some Characteristics of the Poetry of Matthew Arnold

by R. H. Law
Volume 4, 1893/94, pgs. 258-269

[Rev. Robert Hartley Law "was a man of literary tastes, a wide and discriminating reader, and a contributor of verses to the 'Spectator' and other literary magazines." He was curate at St. John's in Windmere, and at Heversham Church; in 1893 he became vicar of Christ Church, Penrith. His 1937 obituary says he "was a man of literary tastes, a wide and discriminating reader, and a contributor of verses to the 'Spectator' and other literary magazines . . . a man of great personal charm and of many and varied interests. He is survived by his widow." One of his poems is called "To A Socialist Friend." It's on pg 83 of A Typical Day in a British Manufacturing Town, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire. and begins, "Because I cannot share your creed / You doubt my heart, insult my reason."]

The public is fond of labelling and cataloguing its leaders, and does not readily allow that the same man can achieve distinction in different kinds. Thus it is suspicious of literary tendencies in men of action, of interference in practical affairs by its spiritual and intellectual guides. A man has once made a joke, he is never to be taken seriously; another has made some contribution to ethical or political theory, in practical politics he is smiled at as a mere doctrinaire. Ne sutor ultra crepidam. ['Shoemaker, not beyond the shoe;' or, don't give opinions that are outside your field of expertise.]

Arnold was, during his lifetime, to some extent, the victim of this indisposition of the public mind to reconsider its verdicts. His fame as a poet suffered from his reputation as a critic. In his prose writings he had much that was interesting and even piquant to say on many--some of them very controversial--topics. Naturally his poetry was studied for further indications of his mind on these and kindred subjects. But many who were loudest in their praise of the subtle magic of his prose style, were captiously indifferent to the beauty of his verse; they would admit at most a certain lucidity of expression, a felicity of phrasing, a suggestiveness of thought, but little or none of the "fine frenzy" supposed inseparable from poetry. And it may be urged in their defence that the critical faculty, as popularly conceived, is the very antithesis of the poetic: the one being essentially analytic, destructive, tending ever to a nice discrimination to a careful and even meticulous qualification; the other consisting mainly in a glow of creative heat, having issue in the burning words the swirling tumultuous eddies of song. But the popular conception of the critic is inadequate, for it ignores one indispensable part of his equipment--Imagination. What makes a great critic, a [Charles Augustin] Ste Beuve or a [Edmond] Schèrer, is precisely his creative power, his knack of reconstructing imaginatively the writer with whom he is dealing: it is necessary to the justesse of his appreciation that he should be able to get inside his author, so to speak, see through his eyes as well as through his own. Had Arnold lacked this endowment of sympathetic yet creative imagination he would never have been our one great English critic.

But was not Arnolds', after all, the critical rather than the poetical imagination? Was not his poetry, when most significant and most sincere, merely criticism in verse? These questions will be best answered by a short consideration of the nature of poetry, its true Differentia, its place and influence and prospects in our modern world. To take the last question first: one is bound to note a certain suspicion or dislike of "poetry" at the present day. It is not that among the people the taste for "rhetoric," for high-flown diction, for "fine writing" and speaking is dead. Never was it so keen, though, alas, seldom so misguided: witness the popularity of Mr. Chauncey Depew's "oratory" (we shall soon be driven to substitute "transatlantic" for the obsolete "transpontine"), witness again the vogue of Mr. Lewis Morris. It is rather among the so-called cultivated classes that this dislike is most frequently to be observed. How often does one hear the unabashed confession "I can't endure poetry" from a man who would shrink from admitting that he had not taste for the fine arts? How much more rare is an ear for poetry than an ear for music. A refined and accomplished musician once remarked to me, "I think I should like Shakespeare if he were only in prose." But the distaste is not always due to a defective ear: if it were, then vindication were a hopeless task, mere lost labour, a pleading of the Muse's cause in the courts of Boeotia. It arises rather from a misunderstanding of the true function of poetry in modern life. Briefly--for I must not linger on this point,--the competition of the novel has rendered the epic (and perhaps also the dramatic) poem all but an impossibility for us of the 19th century. This was probably in [Edward] Fitzgerald's mind when hearing of Mrs. Browning's death, he uttered his famous "Then, thank God, there will be no more 'Aurora Leighs'." But it would be rash to assume that the prose romance and prose writing generally are destined to supersede poetry altogether. As a living poet reminded us but the other day:

      "Deep with the ancient
      Roots of man's nature
      Twines the eternal
      Passion of song."

Its sphere has been restricted, its office specialised, that is all. So far from the poet's occupation being gone, never was he needed more than in our tangled bewildering and bewildered age. Arnold has a two-fold claim on our gratitude in that he was at once the first to recognise the new demands made upon poetry, and the first to grasp for the opportunity. His famous definition of poetry as a "criticism of life," is the key to the proper understanding of the view he took and the principle embodied in his own work. Of course, the definition, if taken without due qualification, is open to objection. Much profound "criticism of life" is not poetry: much excellent poetry cannot by any straining of the word be called criticism. But as serving to indicate the goal at which the best modern poetry--notably his own--is aiming, the definition is all that can be desired, only it must be remembered that such criticism must have an emotional--not a baldly rational--quality; its appeal is to the whole man, to heart and brain combined, not to the brain alone. But Arnold was fully conscious that he had laid upon poetry a difficult, well-nigh impossible task; to survey human life in all its infinite complexity, its varied movement; to have an eye for each vivid feature, to see the part in its individual salience yet not lose sight of its relation to the whole; to dissect life with the skill of an anatomist, yet handle it with the tenderness of a lover: and finally to so present it in his work that others shall not only see but feel. Surely this were no occupation for a careless hour, no slight service to render to a world requiring beyond all things to know itself. The man who should even essay such an emprise must be no "idle singer of an empty day."

In his "epilogue to Lessings Laocoon" Arnold sets himself to answer the question

      "Why music and the other arts
      Oftener perform aright their parts
            Than poetry?"

It is because the poet's work is more difficult, his material more overwhelming. The painter is busied only with (as Wordsworth has finely said)

      "One brief moment caught from fleeting time."

with what the two friends themselves see as they cross Hyde Park.

      "The passing group, the summer morn,
      The grass, the elms, that blossomed thorn,
      Those cattle crouch'd or as they rise
      Their shining flanks, their liquid eyes--
      These or much greater things but caught
      Like them, and in the aspect brought!
      In outward semblance he must give
      A moment's life of things that live,
      Then let him choose his moment well,
      With power divine its story tell."

So too the musician:

      "Some source of feeling he must choose
      And through the stream of music tell
      Its else unutterable spell:
      To choose it rightly is his part,
      And press into his inmost heart."

But what are the poet's tasks? How does it differ from these?

      "Onward we moved, and reached the Ride
      Where gaily flows the human tide.
      Afar in rest the cattle lay
      We heard afar faint music play:
      But agitated, brisk and near,
      Men, with their stream of life, were here."

After an animated description of the familiar scene

      "Behold at last the poet's sphere!
      'But who' I said 'suffices here!'"

The poet must

      "Be painter and musician too,"


      "The aspect of the moment show"

not perhaps so vividly as the painter,

      "The feeling of the moment know"

not perhaps explored with the depth of the musician's lore,"

            "But clear as words can make revealing
            And deep as words can follow feeling
            But Ah! Then comes his sorest spell
            Of toil--he must life's movement tell
            The thread which binds it all in one
            And not its separate parts alone."
      "All this eddying motley throng
      * * * *
      He (the poet) follows home and lives their life."

But who is equal to such an effort? Many are called but few chosen. Some catch transient glimpses, hear transient sounds of the mysterious stream, and these they render as best they can, "not as the painter can portray," "not as the musician well,"

      "And when at last their snatches cease
      And they are silent and at peace
      The stream of life's majestic whole
      Hath ne'er been mirrored on their soul."

Only to a few great ones is this boon been granted.

But if our vision of life is partial, it is at least something gained to have recognised its fragmentary character: to have escaped the error of mistaking the part for the whole, of dwarfing the world to the puny scale of one's own conception. Approaching the criticism of life in some such spirit of humility, the poet of our day may chance upon some delightful unexplored nook which has escaped the notice of the kings of song. For, after all, it is permissible to doubt whether Homer's, Shakespeare's world was co-extensive with the whole of life. The seer whose eye takes in earth and heaven in one imperious sweep may easily miss some delicate blossom shyly peeping at his feet. If one is unduly intent upon the work of the spheres one hardly notices, perhaps, the airy all--well worth listening to--of some dainty sprite who is hovering quite near.

Arnold is essentially the poet of those rarer, subtle moods of the soul which are so often suffered to "pass unregarded by," while the more vociferous passions absorb the attention. The loneliness, for instance, which each of us, in spite of friendship, spite of love, is doomed for ever to dwell.


            "In the sea of life enisled
      With echoing straits between us thrown
      Dotting the shoreless watery wild
      We mortal millions live alone."

How our hearts passionately protest

      "For surely once we feel we were
      Parts of a single continent."

And yet how vain the protest withal! for

      "A God, a God their severance ruled!
      And bade betwixt their shores to be
      The unplumbed salt estranging sea."

Or again, as in the beautiful story of "The Forsaken Merman," the pathos of being unable to share in the higher life of one we love.

Or once more in "Euphrosyne" we learn how

      "Souls who some benignant breath
            Hath charmed at birth from gloom and care,
      These ask no love, these plight no faith
            For they are happy as they are."
      "They shine upon the world! Their ears
            To one demand alone are coy;
      They will not give us love and tears,
            They bring us light, and warmth and joy."

Or, again, in "Growing Old," the contempt, half for ourselves, half for human folly--

      "When we are frozen up within, and quite
      The phantom of ourselves
      To hear the world applaud the hollow ghost
      Which blamed the living man."

A kindred trait is his preference for the shyer and more delicate graces of mind and character, rather than for the more blatant, rough and ready qualities which so often make for "success in life." Hear him tell in "Bacchanalia or the New Age," how

            "In the after silence sweet
      Now strifes are hushed, our ears doth meet
      Ascending pure, the bell-like fame
      Of this or that down-trodden name,
      Delicate spirits, push'd away
      In the hot press of the noon-day."

But for Arnold's most characteristic and therefore his greatest work we must turn to his Elegiac poems. In his hands the Elegy is no passionate heart-cry, such as thrills us yet in David's "lament over Saul and Jonathon." Nor is it like Lycidas, a beautiful pastoral which tells us little or nothing of the hero. Nor does it, like the splendid "Adonais" alternate between bitter invective and lavish praise. Arnold's elegies are criticisms, softened by regret, characterizations, touched with emotion; they are tender, pensive, and above all sincere. "The Scholar Gipsy" is dear to all Oxford men, for its exquisite pictures of Oxford country scenery, as

      "The stripling Thames at Bablock-hithe:"


      "Some lone homestead in the Camner Hills
      Where at her open door the housewife darns;"


            "The skirts of Bagley wood
      Where most the gipsies by the turf-edged way
      Pitch their smoked tents."

Or the distant view by night

      "The line of festal light in Christ Church hall."

Though it begins with a half playful motif, the Scholar Gipsy's own shadowy figure in his singleness of aim is used with consummate skill as a foil to our vacillating half hearted generation.

      "Of whom each strives nor knows for what he strives
      And each half lives a hundred different lives."

The strange fascination of our modern unsatisfying tormenting intellectual questionings is well hit off in the poet's warning,

      "But fly our paths, our feverish contact fly!
      For strong the infection of our mental strife
      Which, though it gives no bliss, yet spoils for rest;
      And we should win thee from thy own fair life,
      Like us distracted and like us unblest!"

A lighter note is struck again in the happy unexpectedness of the concluding stanzas, so abrupt, and yet so satisfying.

In "Thyrsis" the poet celebrates the memory of his friend Arthur Hugh Clough. In the last stanza but one we have an instance of that perfect sincerity which has already been mentioned as one of the qualities of Arnolds' elegiac verse. All who know anything of Clough's life and poetry will appreciate the tender regretful truth of the lines.

      "What though the music of thy rustic flute
      Kept not for long its happy country tone:
      Lost it too soon and learnt a stormy note
      Of men contention lost, of men who groan
      Which tasked thy pipe too soon and tired thy throat--
      It failed and thou wast mute."

In the "Memorial Verses" on the death of Wordsworth we have perhaps the best criticism extant in prose or verse of Wordsworth and Byron, though the lines on Goethe may seem to us now just a little too favourable.

How true of Byron, how nobly this is said!

      "He taught us little: but our soul
      Had felt him like the thunder roll.
      With shivering heart the strife we saw
      Of passion with eternal law:
      And yet with reverential law
      We watched the fount of fiery life,
      Which served for that Titanic strife."

And if we do not quite agree with the estimate of Goethe we must still admire the terseness with which Arnold has given us his opinion:

            "Physician of the iron age
      Goethe has done his pilgrimage.
      He took the suffering human race,
      He read each wound, each weakness clear:
      And struck his finger on the place
      And said: 'Thou ailest here and here!'"

The criticism of Wordsworth himself has passed into a common place, but to Arnold belongs the praise, if not for having first felt, at least for having first adequately expressed the reason for Wordsworth's greatness.

      "He found us when the age had bound,
      Our souls in its benumbing round:
      He spoke, and loosed our hearts in tears.
      He laid us as we lay at birth
      On the cool flowery lap of earth,
      Smiles broke from us and we had ease,
      The hills were round us and the breeze
      Went o'er the sunlit fields again;
      Our foreheads felt the wind and rain.
      Our youth returned; for there was shed
      On spirits that had long been dead,
      Spirits dried up and closely furled,
      The freshness of the early world."

This is perfect as criticism, exquisite as poetry. In "Rugby Chapel" we have the noble tribute of a great son to a great father.

      "But thou would'st not alone
      Be saved, my father! alone
      Conqueror and come to thy goal
      Leaving the rest in the wild.
      We were weary and we
      Fearful, and we in our march
      Fain to drop down and die.
      Still thou turnedst and still
      Beckonedst the trembler, and still
      Gavest the weary thy hand."

One feels that the key to Dr. Arnold's whole life is in those lines.

But of all these wonderful elegies perhaps the most interesting is "Heine's grave."

They are interesting alike for their subject and for the felicity of treatment. How true, yet how often forgotten what Arnold says about Heine's brave endurance of his terrible malady!

      "Ah! Not little, when pain
      Is most quelling, and man
      Easily quelled, and the fine
      Temper of genius so soon,
      Thrills at each smart, is the praise
      Not to have yielded to pain,
      No small boast, for a weak
      Son of mankind, to the earth
      Pinned by the thunder to rear
      His bolt scathed front to the stars;
      And undaunted, retort
      'Gainst, thick-crashing insane
      Tyrannous tempests of bale
      Arrowy lightnings of soul."

It seems a little strange, however, to say with Goethe, that Heine of all people "had every other gift, but wanted love:" Heine! The writer of some of the most passionate love lyrics in the world's literature!

Heine! Whose lately published letters to his mother and sister, prove conclusively that the poet who wanted love was full of affection for mother, sister, and wife. Indeed who that has read his sonnet to his mother could suspect him of 'wanting love!' But we must pass on: here is a picture from the Reinbilden, when Heine relates how in descending from the Brocken at one point

      "Climbing the rock which juts
      O'er the valley, the dizzily perch'd
      Rock--to its iron cross
      Once more thou cling'st: to the cross
      Cling'st! with smiles, with a sigh!"

And here too is a theory to account for Heine and indeed for the rest of us also.

      "The spirit of the world
      Beholding the absurdity of men--
      Their vaunts, their feats--let a sardonic smile
      For one short moment, wander o'er the lips,
      That smile was Heine!--for its earthly hour
      The strange guest sparkled: now 'tis passed away."

But if, as the poet goes on the say--

      Myriads who live, who have lived
      What are we all but a mood
      A single mood of the life
      Of the spirit in whom we exist
      Who alone is all things in one?"

--if this is so, it may be asked why should one mood indulge in sardonic smiles at the absurdity of the others? In "Stanzas from the Grand Chartreuse," and the two poems "To the memory of the author of 'Obermann,'" we have Arnold's gravest thoughts on the "Maladie du siecle." What pathos in the comparison of his own presence among "The House, the Brotherhood austere," to a Greek who

            "Thinking of his own Gods
      In pity and mournful awe might stand
      Before some fallen Runic stone--
      For both were faiths and both were gone!"

How beautiful his comparison of himself and those who have shared his training and now his doubts to

      "Children reared in shade
            Beneath some old-world abbey wall,
      Forgotten in a forest glade,
            And secret from the eyes of all."

Glances they catch through the trees of troops of gallant soldiers, of blithe hunters and "dames in sylvan green," but they are not to be tempted from their solitude by the bravery of flashing banners and bugle notes

                  "Too late for us your call ye blow
                  Whose bent was taken long ago."
      "Fenced early in cloistered round
            Of reverie, of shade, of prayer,
      How should we grow in other ground?
            How can we flower in the foreign air:
      --Pass, banners, pass, and bugles, cease
      And leave our desert to its peace"

Here again is his description of those "âmes d'élite," "the children of the second-birth"

      "Christian and pagan, king and slave,
            Soldier and anchorite,
      Distinctions we esteem so grave
            Are nothing in their sight."
      "They do not ask, who pined unseen,
            Who was on action hurled.
      Whose one bond is, that all have been
            Unspotted from the world."

We have most of us wondered at the strange transformation which the Christian faith has wrought on the world. In "Obermann Once More" Arnold contrasts the pagan and the Christian temper.

      "On that hard Pagan world disgust
            And secret loathing fell
      Deep weariness and stated lust
            Made human life a hell.
      "The brooding East with awe beheld
            Her impious younger world.
      The Roman tempest swelled and swelled
            And on her head was hurled."
      "The East bowed down before the blast
            In patient deep disdain;
      She let the legions thunder past
            Then plunged in thought again."

What could be finer, what truer than this description of the change which came over the "Victorious West," when she had learnt her lesson from "the brooding East"?

      "Lust of the eye and pride of life
            She left it all behind,
      And hurried torn with inward strife
            The wilderness to find.

      "Tears washed the trouble from her face!
            She changed into a child!
      'Mid weeds and wrecks she stood--a place
            Of ruin--but she smiled!"

Space forbids me to do more than mention "Empedocles on Etna" with its strange questionings. "Merope,"Arnold's attempt at a classical drama, it would have been interesting to have contrasted with Mr. Swinburne's essay in the same kind, "Atalanta in Calydon." But what I most of all regret is the necessity of passing by the longer narrative poems, especially "Tristram and Isuelt," and "Balder, Dead," and his last great elegy, "Westminster Abbey." It has sometimes been objected to Arnold's style that it is altogether too cold, too austere for poetry. No doubt his fastidious taste led him to practise a certain restraint and economy: probably also he aimed consciously at the old Greek ideal of simplicity and directness and temperance. And though at first reading some of his work may seem--to our modern sophisticated taste--rather deficient in colour, rather too statuesque, it would be difficult to point to any place where the glow, the hue, the movement could well be emphasized without marring the effect. For depicting the half tones, the finer shades whether of character or incident or natural scenery, the discriminating reader will often find Arnold more satisfying than many who paint with a bolder brush. And for a last word, Arnold is eminently a poet to live with.

Some of us who are perhaps soon wearied by the rush of Swinburnian Anapaests or cloyed by the mellifluous unction of Tennyson find in Arnold a perennial source of refreshment and delight.

Proofread by LNL, July, 2023