'The burden of ourselves': Arnold as a post-Romantic poet.
Arnold's reaction to the English Romantic poets involves a dual response of recognition and redefinition; his poems engage in an inexhaustible dialogue with the work of Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, and Keats. Sometimes he may seem to see 'all Romantic poetry' in terms of 'a psychology of expressive feeling', as Isobel Armstrong argues, against which he sets a would-be grand style. (1) But the work of the Romantic poets feeds copiously 'The central stream' of what Arnold, to use his own phrase, feels indeed. In describing that stream flowing 'below the surface-stream, shallow and light, Of what we say we feel', Arnold evokes a 'noiseless current strong, obscure and deep'. (2) In so doing, he calls to mind the Wordsworth for whom 'suffering' is 'permanent, obscure and dark, And shares the nature of infinity'. (3) The echo points up the complexity of Arnold's intertextual relations with the Romantics. Where 'infinity' prompts sublime intuitions of ultimate meaning for Wordsworth, the idea of the 'infinite' for Arnold throws up problems of unknowableness one associates more with the poetry of Byron or Shelley.
It would be wrong to schematize Arnold's response to the Romantics as drawing on Wordsworth for solace, but on Shelley and Byron for images of quest. All the Romantics elicit strong, elusive responses from him. In 'The Scholar-Gipsy', for instance, Keats supplies Arnold with a vocabulary for a state of imaginative receptivity, as in the second and third stanzas, where Keatsian sensuousness provides an atmosphere conducive to the 'quest' for the scholargypsy. The 'quest' associates itself with the verb 'come': 'Come, shepherd, and again begin the quest!' (l. 10), Arnold writes; 'again begin' suggests a repeated attempt to return to a condition of simplicity associated, via 'Glanvil's book' (l. 31), with the seventeenth century, but linked, too, by way of the echoes of Keats, with a condition of imaginative surrender that is one aspect of English Romantic poetry. The scholar-gipsy 'came to Oxford and his friends no more' (l. 40), escaping 'the sick fatigue' (l. 164) known by Arnold, but which, as he also recognizes, Romantic poets, such as Shelley with his rejection in Adonais of 'the contagion of the world's slow stain' (l. 356), were conscious of as well. (4) In the elaborate simile with which the poem closes, 'dark Iberians come' (l. 249) to undo 'the corded bales' (l. 250) bequeathed by 'the grave Tyrian trader' (l. 232).The comparison's ramifying suggestions include the welcome extended by Arnold's poetry to the legacy of Romanticism.
In 'The Buried Life', as in the earlier 'To Fausta', Arnold recalls Wordsworth's 'Tintern Abbey' when he asserts:
But often in the world's most crowded streets, But often, in the din of strife, There rises an unspeakable desire After the knowledge of our buried life; A thirst to spend our fire and restless force In tracking out our true, original course. (ll. 45-50)
'But oft' (l. 25), Wordsworth declares, describing his gratitude for the memory of 'beauteous forms' (l. 22) in a syntactical pattern which Arnold borrows,
in lonely rooms, and 'mid the din Of towns and cities, I have owed to them, In hours of weariness, sensations sweet. (ll. 25-27)
To point up the anity is to acknowledge difference. Both poets speak in Collective terms of individual feelings, but their employment of form underlies divergences of viewpoint and mood: Wordsworth uses blank verse in sustained verse paragraphs, which survive their often marked transitions to rebuild magnificent if always provisional affirmations; Arnold writes in rhymes that round out a series of inevitably incomplete positions. Here the last couplet must compete with the feeling of open-endedness created by the fact that 'streets' and 'desire' await their rhymes in the next paragraph, finding them in verbs which are themselves only markers of further forays into 'longing' and 'mystery': Arnold will speak of
A longing to inquire Into the mystery of this heart which beats So wild, so deep in us. (ll. 51-53)
Wordsworth tilts, never without tentativeness yet always tenacious of hope, towards recollection and re-creation of a quasi-mystical state in which 'We see into the life of things' (l. 49). Arnold suggests that 'desire', a decidedly Shelleyan condition, is both 'unspeakable' and potentially unsatisfiable. True, the paragraph ends with the phrase 'our true, original course', but there is an indication that this 'course' is yearned for rather than attained.
In finding a language for desire, Arnold echoes Shelley's praise in Adonais of 'The fire for which all thirst' (l. 485). Again, the Romantic poet's absolute, however much a matter of metaphor, has turned in the later poet into a psychological state, akin to that drive or compulsion which Byron treats with ambivalent admiration in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Canto iii. There, Byron speaks of those 'who aspire Beyond the fitting medium of desire' (ll. 373-74) as 'madmen who have made men mad' (l. 379). (5) Arnold, however, does not place restless longing on the unsure pedestal that Bryon raises. It is endemic to 'this strange disease of modern life' ('The Scholar-Gipsy', l. 203), less a means of achieving doubtful fame than an ineradicable feature of identity. Set against it is a Romantic 'unconquerable hope' ('The Scholar-Gipsy', l. 211), half escapist delusion, half supreme fiction; even if this hope derives ultimately from Milton's Satan, with his trust in 'the unconquerable will' (Paradise Lost, i. 106), it owes an immediate debt to Wordsworth's praise for 'man's unconquerable mind' ('To Toussaint L'Ouverture', l. 14).
In 'The Buried Life' Arnold democratizes Romantic longing, presenting it as an all-pervasive emotion. The special fate of the artist merges into depiction of a general lot. In this respect, Arnold is post-Romantic. It is not so much that he de-glamorizes Romantic suffering as that he voices it with the knowing belatedness of one who has foresuuered all: 'Ah yes' (l. 71), he says of 'the thousand nothings of the hour' (l. 69), 'and they benumb us at our call!' (l. 71). That opening exclamation speaks of the wish to be rid of 'inward striving' (l. 68). And yet, for all Arnold's apparent wish to have done with the spiritual heroics of the older poets, those heroics haunt him. When in the next lines he draws on Wordsworth's 'Ode: Intimations of Immortality' (see Allott, p. 290 n.) to describe the emergence from the 'soul's subterranean depth' (l. 73) of 'airs, and floating echoes' that 'convey | A melancholy into all our day' (ll. 75-76), he is wistful and evocative where the Romantic poet is sturdily assertive. Wordsworth may not be able to define 'Those shadowy recollections', but he states that they 'Are yet the fountain-light of all our day' (ll. 153, 155). Arnold, according to Swinburne, shows in the lines just quoted 'a subtle likeness to Wordsworth's purer notes, a likeness undefined and unborrowed', a likeness illustrated by 'the use of words usually kept back for prose (such as "convey")'. Certainly, there is here 'a memory and a resonance of the master's music', as Swinburne puts it. (6) If there is, too, a stopping short, a settling for 'melancholy' as being about as truthful a feeling as is possible, the emotion serves also as a means of making us aware of the possibility of states in which a man
thinks he knows The hills where his life rose, And the sea where it goes. (ll. 96-98)
That concluding triplet conducts the poem towards apparent answers and oceanic repose. However, 'thinks' points as much in the direction of possible error as of final truth. The poem allows for the chance of contact with the buried life when, partly through a loving relationship, 'A bolt is shot back somewhere in our breast' (l. 84). 'Somewhere' is as emotionally precise as it is anatomically unspecific, owing much to the example of Wordsworth's 'somethings'; yet whereas Wordsworth hopes to reach an indefinable presence beyond the self, Arnold places his trust in an unexplored region within the self.
In Empedocles on Etna Arnold analyses in Empedocles the case of a poet who knows only too well what the self and poetry have to offer. Arnold sets his hero against Callicles, a poet still in love with poetry, still to climb to the mountain's summit. For Frank Kermode, 'Empedocles is the Romantic poet who knows enough, Callicles the Romantic poet who does not know enough.' (7) The antithesis helps, even though what it is to 'know' is itself the subject of scrutiny. The work has the same subtitle as Byron's Manfred, 'A Dramatic Poem', and appears, initially, to share the Romantic poet's admiration for 'The mind, the spirit, the Promethean spark' (i. 1. 154). Manfred-like, Empedocles asserts, 'Mind is the spell which governs earth and heaven' (i. 2. 27). One might even hear in such a declaration the note of rational fortitude which Byron strikes in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Canto iv, stanza 127; there, his typical 'Yet' signaling a refusal to yield to the seductive spells of existential despair, Byron remarks,
Yet let us ponder boldly--'tis a base Abandonment of reason to resign Our right of thought--our last and only place Of refuge. (ll. 1135-38)
The critic in Arnold agreed with Goethe that Byron was a child '"the moment he begins to reflect"'. (8) Still, Arnold the poet shares Byron's commitment to 'Our right of thought'. But Empedocles will go on to exercise this right in a sombre chant that speaks of disillusion with Promethean optimism: his fractured hexameters mirror the distinctly post-Romantic view that 'Limits we did not set Condition all we do' (i. 2. 184-85). 'Distinctly post-Romantic': and yet Arnold's divergence from notion of autonomy towards a recognition of 'Limits' builds on a comparable awareness in Manfred, not to mention Shelley's The Triumph of Life. In other words, reading the Romantics with a critical eye, as Arnold does through the figure of Empedocles, is also a way of reading them with an alertness to what they have already incipiently realized. Byron's Manfred may look back to Hamlet for its sense of human beings as 'Half dust, half deity, alike unfit | To sink or soar' (i. 2. 40-41). But at such moments the poem dramatizes the darker underside of the hero's more vaunting assertions, and heralds Arnold's sense of human dividedness.
Arnold writes in 'The Function of Criticism at the Present Time' that 'the English poetry of the first quarter of this century, with plenty of energy, plenty of creative force, did not know enough. This makes Byron so empty of matter, Shelley so incoherent, Wordsworth even, profound as he is, yet so wanting in completeness and variety.' The indictment of the Romantics seems sweeping enough, for all its hints of ambivalence. Yet as one reads on, it turns out to be less the fault of the poets for not knowing enough than the age in which they lived for not providing 'a current of ideas in the highest degree animating and nourishing to the creative power'. This turn in the argument leads Arnold to review the influence of the French Revolution. Surely, he reflects, its 'immense stir' should have led to 'a crop of works of genius'. Arnold then proceeds to fault the Revolution's influence on two accounts: first, it moved people's passions; second, it moved from the 'intellectual sphere' into the 'political sphere'. It is hard to feel that the Romantics are not being scapegoated by Arnold; and yet his blame looks like praise, even as his praise tends towards blame: 'Nay, and the true key to how much in our Byron, even in our Wordsworth, is this!--that they had their source in a great movement of feeling, not in a great movement of mind'. That sentence sways unstably, pulled this way and that. 'Feeling' is inferior to 'mind', but Byron and Wordsworth participate in a 'great movement of feeling'; moreover, they are 'our Byron' and 'our Wordsworth'. They are the best 'we' have, and if one face of Arnold's critique is determinedly proleptic, anticipating 'the promised land, towards which criticism can only beckon', another face is elegiac, looking backward towards a real if incomplete greatness. (9)
The difference between Arnold and the Romantics is less a question of what the different poets knew than of what they do with their knowledge. Both Arnold and Shelley are aware of what the latter terms 'The limits of the dead and living world' ('Mont Blanc' (Version A), l. 113). But Empedocles differs from Shelley, say, in Alastor by grimly accepting rather than opposing the 'Limits we did not set'. Again, Wordsworth explores 'the burthen of the mystery' (l. 38) in 'Tintern Abbey', but he evokes less the weight of that burden than the momentary 'lightening' of its oppressive weight when the poet is visited by a 'blessed mood' (l. 41). By contrast, for Empedocles there can be no such lifting of the load since 'we feel, day and night, | The burden of ourselves' (i. 2. 126-27). Such solipsistic self-awareness has its authenticity; 'feel', a verb which promises transitive contact with an external reality, turns out to define an inner state, yet traces of the verb's physicality adhere to it, so that the abstract phrase 'the burden of ourselves' takes on a palpable existence. The lines are an acute critique of Romanticism and at the same time a clearing away of the clouds that trail in its wake until what can be seen as an essential subject of that literary movement ('the burden of ourselves') swings into view.
The burden is the main region of Empedocles' song, the burden of solipsism, reconceived by Arnold as at once the curse and the authentic aiction of Romanticism, both undermining and underpinning its positive declarations. Arnold seeks, in Empedocles' lines at least (Callicles' songs are another matter), to avoid easy mellifluousness, but affirmations of a kind, and a kind that sounds Romantic, obtrude. An example is the pantheism that surfaces when Empedocles argues that
we who rail are still, With what we rail at, one; One with the o'erlaboured Power that through the breadth and length Of earth, and air, and sea, In men, and plants, and stones, Hath toil perpetually, And travails, pants, and moans; Fain would do all things well, but sometimes fails in strength. (I. 2. 289-96)
'Travails' evokes St Paul and the suffering journey of creation towards a providential goal (Romans 8. 22); but the 'o'erlaboured Power' that toils perpetually through and beyond the 'breadth and length' of the stanza is a sadder, more exhausted relative of Shelley's 'Power' (l. 375) in Adonais 'Which wields the world with never wearied love; Sustains it from beneath, and kindles it above' (11. 377-78). Arnold's 'Power' is not capable of 'never wearied love' and lacks the attributes of transcendence which Shelley gives his 'Power'; Shelley's verbs sound in control; Arnold's do not. But when Shelley continues to speak of the 'one Spirit's plastic stress' (1. 381) that 'Sweeps through the dull dense world, compelling there All new successions to the forms they wear' (11. 382-83), he offers a view of creation as involving incessant toil that looks ahead to Empedocles' gloomier but not wholly pessimistic outlook. The final line of Empedocles' chant, 'Because thou must not dream, thou need'st not then despair!' (l. 426), has something of the harsher wisdom discernible in The Triumph of Life. It is The Triumph of Life which reaps the disillusion latent within phrases from Adonais such as 'new successions'; in the later poem, Rousseau lets the Narrator know that history is merely a series of 'Figures ever new' (l. 248), and he voices a harsh criticism of Romantic subjectivity when he explains (in terms often repeated by Arnold) the difference between the classical 'bards of old who inly quelled | The passions which they sung' (ll. 274-75) and Romantic moderns such as Rousseau himself who 'suffered what he wrote' (l. 279), making his words 'seeds of misery' (l. 280). Shelley will not allow that to be the last word on Rousseau: 'Not as theirs' (l. 281), says the Narrator. But the poem broods over the workings of subjective passion in Romantic poetry.
Arnold's implicit attack on aspects of Romantic poetry often reminds us that the Romantics at times took a distinctly proto-Arnoldian view of their own work, and incorporate within it severe self-censure. To fetch a further detail fromEmpedocles' chant, one might look at the repeated use of the phrase 'Born into life!' (l. 187). 'Life' and 'birth' are ambiguous nouns in Wordsworth's 'Ode: Intimations of Immortality' and Shelley's The Triumph of Life. In the former poem 'Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting' (l. 58), while custom's weight is 'deep almost as life' (l. 132); in the latter poem, which owes much to Wordsworth's 'Ode', 'life' is the source of perplexity and sorrow, until the fragment breaks off with the question '"Then, what is Life?", I said' (l. 544). However, if Wordsworth elegizes and offers difficult comfort, and Shelley drives on, questioning remorselessly, Arnold holds fast to a less subjective sense that 'The world is what it is, for all our dust and din' (l. 206). The hard-edged clarity of that alexandrine defers to what in 'The Motive for Metaphor' Wallace Stevens calls 'The weight of primary noon, | The A B C of being'. (10) 'The world is what it is' sets the implacable, chastening nature of 'is' against our self-important 'dust and din'. Empedocles teaches a moral alphabet that chastens desire. Like the Fury in Act 1 of Prometheus Unbound who asserts that 'The wise want love; and those who love want wisdom' (l. 627), he is alert to paradox and contradiction, and finds a language bare with scorn for human self-thwarting: 'We do not what we ought, | What we ought not, we do' (ll. 237-38). However, Arnold offers no escape from contradiction. Shelley does, allowing 'love' and 'wisdom' to flicker with a glow of hope that the remainder of the play will fan into flame. In Empedocles on Etna 'the suffering', as Arnold remarks in his preface to the first edition of his Poems (1853), 'finds no vent in action' since 'there is everything to be endured, nothing to be done' (Allott, p. 656). It is clear, however, from Arnold's poem that he recognized how in Romantic poetry 'the dialogue of the mind with itself has commenced; modern problems have presented themselves' (Allott, p. 654).
Callicles plays an antiphonal role in the poem. He may still be in love with poetry and serve in Schillerian terms as a naive foil to the sentimental Empedocles, but it is he who tells of Apollo's cruelty to Marsyas. 'Watching how the whetting went' (11. 164), alliteration connecting the gaze of power and indifference to suffering, Apollo is a brutalized version of the figure who, in Shelley's 'Song of Apollo', shows much self-admiration, and who, in the same poet's 'Song of Pan', is said to fall 'silent [...] | For envy of my sweet pipings' (ll. 23-24). Callicles cries out in pity, 'Ah, poor Faun, poor Faun! ah, poor Faun!' (11. 190) and, for once, does not induce a rejoinder or qualification from Empedocles. Instead, the older man sees Callicles' words as the cue for his own rejection of poetry:
And lie thou there, My laurel bough! Scornful Apollo's ensign, lie thou there! (II. 191-93)
Admittedly, this rejection occurs in a poem and involves repeated and tangled assertions:
Though I have loved thee, lived in honouring thee-- Yet lie thou there, My laurel bough! I am weary of thee. (II. 195-98)
The poetry mimes constriction, a longing to escape from a state where 'The air is thin, the veins swell' (II. 215). Empedocles seems trapped yet energized as he rehearses a recurrent tug between the solitude needed for poetry and the world, 'miserably bandied to and fro' (II. 230) between the two. His subsequent nostalgia for a time or stage when 'we could still enjoy, then neither thought | Nor outward things were closed and dead to us' (II. 239-40) elegizes a Romantic poetry thought of as bound up with celebration of 'pure natural joy' (II. 243), and repeats the lament of Romantic poems such as Coleridge's 'Dejection: An Ode' for the loss of 'joy'.
Doomed never to 'clasp and feel the All' (ii. 353), to an eternity of being 'unsatisfied' (II. 355), Empedocles is, above all, a descendant of Byron's Manfred.
Both figures invoke the power of 'mind', yet assert the limits of that power. Manfred, a Romantic heir of Satan, proclaims that
The mind which is immortal makes itself Requital for its good or evil thoughts-- Is its own origin of ill and end. (III. 4. 129-31)
There, the syntax captures self-assertion and self-doubt. The first line has the mind making itself out of its own immortality, until, across the line-ending, an object emerges for 'makes itself'. This object, 'Requital', introduces a system of mental self-discipline, an exacting by the mind of appropriate suffering, the dramatic poem leads one to think, for 'good or evil thoughts'. Even the word order of 'Is its own origin of ill and end' places its emphasis finally on the mind's capacity to suffer what it creates. In 'On the Study of Celtic Literature' Arnold speaks of Byron as embodying 'the Titanism of the Celt', and of the hero of Manfred as 'self-consumed, fighting blindly and passionately with I know not what', (11) and the implication of his latter-day version of Byron's poem is that his hero, Empedocles, is more conscious of what he is fighting. What that is emerges when Empedocles speaks of human beings as 'prisoners of [...] consciousness' (II. 352); but even as he appears to settle for a more clarifed if defeated view of the mind than Manfred, and says that we are fated always to feel 'The ineffable longing for the life of life' (ii. 357), the Shelleyan echo in that last phrase (see Prometheus Unbound, ii. 5. 48) implies that we are right to pursue what will inevitably elude us. The .urry of subtextual armation brought into the poetry sustains itself in the following lines:
and still thought and mind Will hurry us with them on their homeless march, Over the unallied unopening earth, Over the unrecognizing sea. (II. 358-61)
Arnold means us to hear a post-Romantic strain of defiant courage in this unoptimistic 'march' of the mind; 'homeless' links the journey to Coleridge's 'homeless winds' in 'France: An Ode' (l. 98), among other Romantic antecedents, while 'unallied' owes a debt to Byron's 'Prometheus', and its depiction of our 'sad unallied existence' (l. 52). In Byron, humans have no alliance with a providential deity; in Arnold, the world we inhabit refuses to ally itself with our best hopes.
Empedocles takes the plunge into the crater in a moment of spiritual exaltation, and seeks to outpace 'the mists Of despondency and gloom' (II. 413-14), mists which seep out from the lines of Wordsworth's 'Resolution and Independence'. What makes Arnold's poem beautifully new is its final lyric, Callicles' hymn in praise of hymns of praise. The movement of this final lyric, its two-and three-stress quatrains alternating unrhymed and rhymed lines, conveys a serenity and acceptance which work ironically. The lyric rehearses the accents of praise, its due successions and pieties:
First hymn they the Father Of all things; and then, The rest of immortals, The action of men. The day in his hotness, The strife with the palm; The night in her silence, The stars in their calm. (II. 461-68)
It does so as though all life corresponded to some quasi-classical order. And yet the writing contrives to undermine, even as it voices, Arnold's hope, expressed in the preface, that the 'dialogue of the mind with itself' could annul itself through careful attention to the practice of Greek poets. The imagined sidereal calm contrasts affectingly with the turbulence of agitated suffering that has run through the poem.
The intertwining of calm and agitation lies close to the heart of Wordsworth's poetry, nowhere more so than in The Excursion, Book 1, in lines quoted or slightly misquoted by Arnold in a letter of 1873 to console his sister Frances after the death of their mother. 'It will be a long time', he writes,
before you feel of your grief, as you look out on the hills and the fern and the trees and the waters--
It seems an idle thing, which could not live Where meditation was--
and yet that is undoubtedly the right thing to feel, and that the thought of dearest Mamma should be simply a happy memory and not a gnawing regret.
This advice is itself alive to the difficulty of viewing the dead mother as 'simply a happy memory': if Arnold's syntax in 'the hills and the fern and the trees and the waters' mimics a soothing submission to natural comfort, his sentence ends, lightly but firmly, with the very thing against which he counsels, 'gnawing regret', and he goes on to suggest that Wordsworth did not succeed 'in complying with his own teaching when he lost Dora', even as he concludes that the older poet was 'right in his preaching for all that'. (12) His allusion misquotes Wordsworth, who wrote of sorrow, despair, and grief that they 'Appeared an idle dream that could not live | Where meditation was': (13) the change from 'Appeared' to 'It seems' and from 'idle dream' to 'idle thing' might indicate that Arnold has fused the account of Margaret's sad demise with the more enigmatic and yet more grieving evocation of Lucy's death in 'A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal', especially the phrase 'She seemed a thing' (l. 3). That entwining of effects pierces to the centre of Wordsworthian elegy, with its mixture of consolation and unassuageable loss. In the letter, the blend of practical firmness and alertness to impulses that slip away from firmness is typical of Arnold, and offers a clue to his subtly ambivalent response to a poet who, with Goethe, was among the most significant influences on his work.
Wordsworth himself writes of
Authentic tidings of invisible things; Of ebb and flow, and ever-during power; And central peace, subsisting at the heart Of endless agitation.
Arnold may allude to these lines from The Excursion, iv. 1144-47, in his sonnet 'Youth's Agitations'. In this poem Arnold deplores youth's 'tedious vain expense | Of passions that for ever ebb and flow' (ll. 3-4), but imagines that a time will come when he will 'wish its agitations back, And all its thwarting currents of desire' (ll. 9-10). Those 'thwarting currents of desire' develop out of the ebb and flow of passions; they reanimate the poem verbally in the act of formulating a characteristically self-canceling energy. The poem is, in fact, conscious of the work done by euphemism and rewording (as when the poet imagines himself calling 'this hurrying fever, generous fire', l. 12), and trains its eye not only on itself but on a poetic tradition deriving from the Romantics. Wordsworth finds 'central peace, subsisting at the heart Of endless agitation', where 'subsists' implies both existence and survival; Arnold is left only with the assurance of permanent 'discontent' (l. 14).
Wordsworth's presence in Arnold's poetry is pervasive; frequently, it marks the existence of recoil and poetic 'agitation'. 'The Youth of Nature' opens with what in the Longman edition is called a 'graceful allusion to Wordsworth's "Remembrance of Collins"' (Allott, p. 259 n.): 'Raised are the dripping oars', writes Arnold, 'Silent the boat!', recalling Wordsworth's tribute to the Collins of 'Ode on the Death of Mr Thomson'. As Herman Melville saw, the elegiac chain is linked in a way that is 'beautifully appropriate' (Allott, p. 259 n.). The resulting poem uses its largely three-stress, unrhymed verse paragraphs to pay eloquent but searching tribute to Wordsworth. Arnold feels 'Pain and dejection to-night' (l. 26) at the poet's death, mainly because Wordsworth reinterpreted life for his readers: 'we saw with his eyes, and were glad' (l. 55), Arnold asserts, entertaining the possibility that the insights into the world's 'wonder and bloom' (l. 54) embodied in Wordsworth's poetry are 'Like stars' (l. 72) which 'are lost when their watcher is gone' (l. 74). In a counterpointing movement, he ventriloquizes Nature as replying that 'the singer was less than his themes' (l. 89). Such an assertion should reassure, in that it leaves new work for Wordsworth's followers since previous poets, even the best, 'have beheld | Less than they left unrevealed' (ll. 105-06). Yet it also challenges the listener, since it implies the 'aching ignorance', to borrow a phrase from Keats's Hyperion (III. 107), afflicting Arnold's generation just as much as the Romantics. (14) Nature concludes, speaking of 'Race after race, man after man' (l. 129), that 'They are dust, they are changed, they are gone! | I remain' (ll. 133-34); the wording recalls Shelley's Adonais, line 460, 'The One remains, the many change and pass' (as noted in Allott, p. 264 n.), to point up a loss of poetic power, caught in the breakdown of any regular rhythm. Arnold's Nature asserts her superiority over poets, 'life itself' (l. 116) over 'the image of life' (l. 115). Shelley's declaration in Adonais implies the power of poetry over death, its capacity to find metaphorical and metaphysical stays against confusion. Arnold implies poetry's inferiority to Nature in a poem that is deliberately one-sided and consciously plays down the mind's force. In 'The Youth of Man' he redresses the balance, drawing on emphases to be found in Coleridge's 'Dejection: An Ode', as is suggested in the Longman edition (Allott, p. 266 n.). Coleridge urges that 'in our life alone does Nature live' (l. 48). (15) Arnold comments:
Nature is nothing; her charm Lives in our eyes which can paint, Lives in our hearts which can feel. (ll. 35-37)
This brave trust in 'hearts which can feel' is not the poem's final word, and Arnold goes on to show the flip side of the conviction expressed here: 'hearts which can feel' can become souls that 'grow old in darkness and pain' (l. 58). That, too, is not the poem's final position; what is clear is that its dialectic plays haunting variations on a predicament central to Romantic poetry.
'Stanzas in Memory of the Author of "Obermann"' implies Wordsworth's lack of interest in 'darkness and pain' when it asserts: 'But Wordsworth's eyes avert their ken | From half of human fate' (ll. 53-54). In those lines Arnold decisively cuts himself free from what he feels to be the limitations of Wordsworth's outlook. That the remark is itself limited is evident, and Arnold seems to have felt the need to attribute to Wordsworth an easier optimism than the older poet displays. The younger poet's response to his senior reveals a tone of admiring critique, apparent in his remark about 'Memorial Verses' that in the poem he has 'dirged W.W. in the grand style' (SL, p. 61). The remark indicates Arnold's confidence that he has found a style adequate to Wordsworth's greatness; indeed, the poem is striking for its panoptic sweep across recent cultural achievement, its setting of Wordsworth alongside Byron and Goethe. Arnold employs a rhyming octosyllabic form that serves the ends of measured judgement, as when he writes that 'Byron 'taught us little; but our soul | Had felt him like the thunder's roll' (ll. 8-9); the simile expertly captures the Romantic poet's love of storm and stress, and the emphasized 'felt' opens up a distinction between thought and feeling relevant to Arnold's sense of distance from the Byronic. In Wordsworth's case, Arnold finds a rare instance of poetry's ability to 'make us feel' (l. 67), where 'feel' means something different from the earlier 'felt': Byron makes a stunning impact, but Wordsworth has about him a 'healing power' (l. 63). Wordsworth brought his readers, so Arnold contends, the capacity to 'put [...] by' 'The cloud of mortal destiny' (ll. 70, 68). The comment implies an ability to set aside the facts of suffering that verges on myopic escapism. Arnold admires Wordsworth for renewing our sense of 'The freshness of the early world' (l. 57). But by seeing Wordsworth, for all his self-consciousness, as untroubled by the self-doubt that plagues later poets, Arnold hints here, too, at an aversion of the eyes on the older poet's part. Arnold does not deny Wordsworth's awareness of suffering; after all, it is he who in his essay on Wordsworth points to the power of the culminating line in 'Michael', 'And never lifted up a single stone'. (16) Yet he sees Wordsworth as untouched by what he touches. If such aloofness may seem remote, Arnold's memorializing turns finally from critique to admiration; so, the poem's close alludes to 'She dwelt among the untrodden ways' when it apostrophizes the River Rotha: 'Sing him thy best! for few or none | Hears thy voice right, now he is gone' (ll. 73-74). Wordsworth, the poem discovers at its end through that allusion, knew all along about depths of grief in relation to 'A Maid whom there was none to praise | And very few to love' (ll. 3-4). Arnold thought that Wordsworth's 'poetry, when he is at his best, is inevitable, as inevitable as Nature herself'. (17) It is his own ambition, in dirging the dead poet, to be as inevitable as Wordsworth himself. The poem gracefully concedes its debt and undercuts its claims to superior knowledge.
Continually, Arnold's responses to the Romantics double and divide themselves. In a letter of 3March 1865, he writes:
No one has a stronger and more abiding sense than I have of the 'daemonic' element--as Goethe called it--which underlies and encompasses 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 round one, to keep pushing on one's posts into the darkness, and to establish no post that is not perfectly in light, and firm. One gains nothing on the darkness by being, like Shelley, as incoherent as the darkness itself. (SL, pp. 169-70)
This affecting apologia captures well what the older Arnold felt that he was doing in his criticism, seeking to 'keep pushing on one's posts into the darkness' by contrast with Shelley, represented as having immersed himself in the incoherent darkness. But his finest poems owe much of their power to their sense of the 'daemonic'. 'Dover Beach' begins with fitful illumination ('on the French coast the light | Gleams and is gone', ll. 3-4) and ends with a reversal of Milton's closing lines in Paradise Lost. The world 'which seems | To lie before us like a land of dreams' (ll. 30-31) turns out to be as illusory in its promises as that semantically slippery rhyme between 'seems' and 'dreams', even as that seeming sustains itself, as an illusory possibility, in the line 'So various, so beautiful, so new' (l. 32). In fact, the poem ends with a comfortless public vision, expressed through one of Arnold's vision-expanding similes:
And we are here as on a darkling plain Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, Where ignorant armies clash by night. (ll. 35-37)
Keats listened 'Darkling' in the 'Ode to a Nightingale' (l. 51); Arnold uses the word to depict a cultural and personal landscape of struggle and confusion. Victorian culture exists in the cities of the plain, not on the mountain tops. The central character of Ian McEwan's Saturday, hearing 'Dover Beach' recited by his daughter in extremis, decides that 'The poem's melodiousness [...] is at odds with its pessimism'. 'Melodiousness', however, turns into a harsher, dissonant and percussive music at the close. The poem that began with fitful light concludes in darkness, but its clipped and abrupt rhythm contributes to a diagnostic tone which anticipates Auden's poetry. Darkness informs the steadfast recognition of what McEwan's character calls 'the absence of joy or love or light or peace or "help for pain"', but through the very fact of that recognition a post has been pushed into the darkness. (18) The use of what might be called curbed epic simile, straight after the Miltonic allusion of lines 30-31, invokes a model of poetry at odds with Romantic 'incoherence'. And yet, for all the austerity of tone, the speaker is implicated in a condition involving 'struggle and flight', where the last word obdurately refuses to be 'fight', as the ear half-expects: half-expects because the poem seems to wish to struggle against the predicament it describes. The fact that it yields to the idea of 'fight' rather than vigorously committing itself to 'fight' suggests a sympathy with escapist longing. Further doubleness in relation to Romantic motifs shows in Arnold's impulse to locate himself and his beloved in a specific moment. Yet the phrase 'And we are here' loses its foothold as the line's camera pans outwards across that agoraphobic 'darkling plain'. Briefly Arnold recalls the Wordsworth of 'Tintern Abbey', who says to Dorothy, 'For thou art with me here upon the banks | Of this fair river' (ll. 114-15), lines which are themselves touching in their wish to claim presence. But Arnold's glance towards Wordsworth's poem only confirms how far he has traveled from the beliefs expressed in that poem. Even 'love' is exposed as less a force than an endearment.
Arnold's elegiac strain criss-crosses with his divided response to his Romantic forebears. In 'Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuese', he places himself in the midst of a sublime landscape of 'spectral vapours white' (l. 13), where 'through the cloud-drift something shines!' (l. 16). Arnold verges on the territory of Wordsworth's 'something evermore about to be' (The Prelude, 1850, vi. 608), but his octosyllabic stanzas, each composed of a quatrain plus a concluding couplet, rein in and offer a critique of any impulse towards the sublime. Arnold elegizes in the poem, recording cultural and imaginative losses. In the midst of the Grande Chartreuse, moved by 'The House, the Brotherhood austere' (l. 65), he asks, 'And what am I, that I am here?' (l. 66). His very presence 'here' is a reminder of exile from 'faith' (l. 68), an exile prompted by the 'rigorous teachers' (l. 67) of his youth who advocated pursuit of the 'high, white star of Truth' (l. 69). Those teachers, influenced themselves by Romantic poetry, have bequeathed hesitation as well as aspiration. Though Arnold uses the verb 'aspire' (l. 70), that 'high, white star' does not beacon with the imaginative pull of the soul of Adonais. Rather, it clarifies for its pursuer a sense less that he is an aspirant than a wanderer 'between two worlds, one dead, | The other powerless to be born' (ll. 85-86). Arguably, Arnold's famous self-definition derives from the cultural historicity central to Romanticism, and, again, a debt to Byron surfaces verbally. Arnold probably has in mind Don Juan, Canto xv, stanza 99: 'Between two worlds life hovers like a star' (see Allott, p. 305 n.). The state of being in between suits a poem which, like many of Arnold's best pieces, explores and is troubled by the question of what it really does feel.
Arnold's meditations in a place of religious, specifically Catholic, certitude waver and return on themselves. He allows 'sciolists' criticism of his 'melancholy' (l. 99) as 'a past mode, an outward theme' (l. 100), yet he implies, in so doing, the superficiality of that criticism. If there are 'kings of modern thought' (l. 116), they relate in complex ways to those 'kings of thought' celebrated by Shelley in Adonais, lines 430-31, 'Who waged contention with their time's decay' (seeAllott, p. 307 n.). Shelley's mental monarchs fight; Arnold's 'are dumb' (l. 116), bereft of inspiration, too belated to contribute their tears to 'This sea of time whereon we sail' (l. 122). That image is Shelleyan, and prefaces a full consideration of the Romantic legacy, which conveys eloquently Arnold's divided views. The relevant stanzas, dealing with Byron, Shelley, and Senancour, admit the force of their work, but question its therapeutic value: 'What helps it now [...]?'; 'What boots it, Shelley! [...]?'; 'Or are we easier [...]?' (ll. 133, 139, 145). Arnold's questions are less decisively acts of repudiation than they may appear; indeed, he concedes, 'we--we learnt your lore too well!' (l. 156), evoking, to stay only with the English Romantics, the power of Byron's 'haughty scorn' (l. 134) and the beauty of Shelley's 'lovely wail' (l. 140), a loveliness whose 'Musical' (l. 141) nature is emphasized by the trochaic turn at the start of a line. To describe Byron as having displayed 'The pageant of his bleeding heart' (l. 136) is to imitate even as it is to ironize. It is a line that could be written only by someone who knew Childe Harold's Pilgrimage well. Similarly, many Shelleyan effects are condensed into a couplet that speaks of inheritance as well as distance: 'Inheritors of thy distress | Have restless hearts one throb the less?' (ll. 143-44). Here the writing evokes the 'inheritors of unfulfilled renown' in Adonais (l. 397) as well as lines such as the following from 'The Serpent is Shut Out from Paradise': 'Doubtless there is a place of peace | Where my weak heart and all its throbs will cease' (ll. 47-48). Arnold's allusions show how closely he has read Shelley. They confirm a sense of continuity in the act of regretting the fact that the legacy of Romanticism is ongoing restlessness and distress; indeed, the longing for unforthcoming peace signs itself as both Shelleyan and Arnoldian.
'A Summer Night' typifies the way that in Arnold's poetry ironic detachment from Romanticism collapses into or folds back into empathy. The poem's shape owes much to the structure of what M. H. Abrams calls 'the Greater Romantic Lyric', a structure in which 'mind confronts nature and their interplay constitutes the poem'. (19) As so often, Arnold uses varied line-lengths and a staple line that is shorter than the pentameter, doing so to avoid too mechanical a dependence on the rhythm of his Romantic forebears. But the poem teems with evidence of Romantic influence: the opening mimics a 'Tintern Abbey'-like recollection of the past, albeit of 'a far different scene' (l. 13); with its references to the 'same vainly throbbing heart' (l. 24) or to the spirit's 'fiery glow' (l. 29), the language shows Arnold conceiving of his post-Romantic dilemma in terms drawn from Romantic poetry; and the Longman edition is surely right to say of lines 51-73 that the 'tone betrays some involuntary admiration for the Romantic poet-outlaw who prefers "self-selected good", even if it entails destruction, to obedience to any law human or divine' (Allott, p. 285 n.). The 'pale master on his spar-strewn deck | With anguished face and flying hair' (ll. 65-66) derives from various Romantic figures and moments: Coleridge's mariner, among them, but also the Shelley whose 'spirit's bark is driven | Far from the shore' (ll. 488-89) at the end of Adonais (see Allott, p. 284 n.), or the Byron who identifies with 'wanderers o'er Eternity | Whose bark drives on and on, and anchored ne'er shall be' (Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, iii, stanza 70). Arnold's driving rhythms and rhymes convey the lure of 'some false, impossible shore' (l. 69), where 'impossible' wrestles with 'false' to recover the element of heroic if doomed striving in Byron and Shelley. True, the poem turns away from this Romantic extremism to gaze at the 'heavens' (l. 78) in the hope of discovering 'Plainness and clearness without shadow of stain!' (l. 76). Even here, when Arnold says that the heavens are placed 'above man's head, to let him see How boundless might his soul's horizons be' (ll. 87-88), a Shelleyan echo insinuates itself from the opening of Julian and Maddalo, where Julian speaks of tasting 'The pleasure of believing what we see Is boundless, as we wish our souls to be' (ll. 16-17). The strong recollection of the Shelleyan idea and verbal formulation (including an expressive rhyme between 'see' and 'be') reminds us that the wish to be free from desire is itself a form of longing.
There is validity in Stefan Collini's view that it is 'particularly characteristic of the post-Romantic sensibility in general and Arnold's in particular to blame the curse of reflectiveness for making certain kinds of pure or unmediated satisfaction permanently unattainable'. (20) Yet Arnold's dealings with the 'curse of re.ectiveness' often suggest that it is simultaneously a trait of the post-Romantic and central to the Romantic. Nowhere is the complicated doubleness of Arnold's response to the Romantics more evident than in 'To Marguerite--Continued'. Here, Arnold borrows a device from the start of the last stanza of Keats's 'Ode to Psyche', beginning with an exclamatory affirmation. But whereas Keats seizes on his freshly discovered role as celebrant of the mind, 'Yes, I will be thy priest, and build a fane | In some untrodden region of my mind' (ll. 50-51), Arnold confirms that our true condition is aloneness. But he does so in a poem suuused with 'longing like despair' (l. 13), longing which finds its way into the flowingly enjambed quatrains which begin each of the first two stanzas before they are disciplined by the couplets which close both stanzas. Arnold's image of isolation is remarkable for its collectiveness, 'We mortal millions live alone' (l. 4), he writes, his italicized word communicating surprise about the loneliness that we all share. The picture of human beings as being in 'the sea of life enisled' (l. 1) recalls but denies the latent optimism in Shelley's opening to 'Lines Written among the Euganean Hills': 'Many a green isle needs must be | In the deep wide sea of misery'. For Shelley, the 'green isle' offers refuge from the 'deep wide sea of misery'; for Arnold, the islanded state is an image for individual isolation. If Arnold desires 'the enclasping flow' (l. 5) of the sea, he also, the writing suggests, sees it as an end to individuality. Something of this duality is caught in the final couplet of the first stanza, 'The islands feel the enclasping flow, | And then their endless bounds they know' (ll. 5-6). Awareness of the flow is the source of knowledge, albeit knowledge of restriction; those 'endless bounds' point to the desirability of endlessness, and thus invoke a Romantic absolute, at the very moment that they assert that boundaries are without end. The poem captures a state in which Romantic yearnings are audible and their satisfactions only too desirable.
The second stanza builds on this state, using the image of nightingale song to express the longing to reach out to others and be 'enclasped' by 'life'. The nightingale song may issue from Keats's 'Ode'; it also recalls Shelley's metaphor for poets in A Defence of Poetry. But most clearly it alludes to the second semichorus in Act II, scene 2 of Shelley's Prometheus Unbound, which tells of the mutually sustaining song of the 'voluptuous nightingales' (l. 24). Shelley's nightingales sing from 'bliss or sadness' (l. 26); from their song spring feelings which, as in Arnold's lyric, are continually oxymoronic. In Shelley, 'Sounds overflow the listener's brain | So sweet, that joy is almost pain' (ll. 39-40). In Arnold, the pain of isolation leads to the desire for joy in such a way that what is produced is 'a longing like despair'. Shelley's nightingales, however, sing a prelude to a symphony; they anticipate a redeemed universe in which mankind is 'one harmonious soul of many a soul' (Prometheus Unbound, iv. 400). For all Arnold's cries of hope, 'Oh might our marges meet again!' (l. 18), he retains detachment from longing: the line just quoted may sound a note of personal involvement, may even mime the effect of what in 'On Translating Homer' Arnold calls 'the lyrical cry' which 'transfigures everything, makes everything grand', but it is grammatically part of the free indirect discourse that begins at line 15. (21) The movement into austere acceptance of emotional defeat, that most haunting of post-Romantic places in Arnold's poetry, occurs in the final stanza. Here the question 'Who ordered, that their longing's fire | Should be, as soon as kindled, cooled?' (ll. 19-20) returns us to the third person ('their longing's fire') and uses a favourite Shelleyan verb for the arousal of imaginative force ('kindled'), only to pour cold water on it in the next word 'cooled'. Fascinatingly, the poem shifts its view of the sea in its final image of 'The unplumbed, salt, estranging sea' (l. 24). In the opening stanza, the sea promised oceanic engulfment, comfort of a sort; at the end, it reminds us that we have no access to a power beyond ourselves that will in some way ease our discontent. Rather, we are told, 'A God, a God their severance ruled!' (l. 22), the repetition and indefinite article mocking Christian trust in providence. Yet the sea remains there to be explored, confirming Arnold in the comfortless freedom that is the hallmark of his post-Romanticism and the proof of his deeply engaged relationship with Romantic poetry.
(1) Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics and Politics (London: Routledge, 1993), p. 208.
(2) 'Below the surface-stream [...]', ll. 5, 1-2, 4, is quoted, as is all Arnold's poetry, from The Poems of Matthew Arnold, ed. by Kenneth Allott, 2nd edn, ed. by Miriam Allott (London and New York: Longman, 1979); hereafter Allott.
(3) Quoted from The Borderers, iii. 1543-44, in Wordsworth: Poetical Works, ed. By Thomas Hutchinson, rev. by Ernest De Selincourt (London: Oxford University Press, 1936). Further quotations from Wordsworth's poetry are taken from this edition, unless noted otherwise.
(4) Quoted from Percy Bysshe Shelley: The Major Works, ed. by Zachary Leader and Michael O'Neill (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003). Further quotations from Shelley's poetry are taken from this edition. For further discussion of Keats and Arnold, see James Najarian, Victorian Keats: Manliness, Sexuality, and Desire (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002).
(5) Quoted from The Oxford Authors: Byron, ed. by Jerome J. McGann (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986). Further quotations from Byron's poetry are taken from this edition.
(6) A review in Fortnightly Review, October 1867, in Matthew Arnold: The Poetry. The Critical Heritage, ed. by Carl Dawson (London: Routledge @ Kegan Paul, 1973), pp. 162-85 (p. 176).
(7) Romantic Image, corrected edn (London: Collins, 1971), pp. 25-26.
(8) 'Byron', in The Works of Matthew Arnold in Fifteen Volumes (London: Macmillan,1903-04), iv: Essays in Criticism, Second Series, Contributions to 'The Pall Mall Gazette' and Discourses in America (1903), 120-50 (p. 139); hereafter Works.
(9) Works, 111: Essays in Criticism, First Series (1904), 1-44 (pp. 8, 9, 10, 14, 10-11, 44).
(10) Quoted from The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (London: Faber, 1955).
(11) Works, v: On the Study of Celtic Literature and On Translating Homer (1903), 1-150 (p. 129).
(12) Selected Letters of Matthew Arnold, ed. by Clint on Machann and Forrest D. Burt (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993), pp. 241, 242; here after SL.
(13) 'The Ruined Cottage' (incorporated into The Excursion), ll. 523-24, quoted from The Oxford Authors: William Wordsworth, ed. by Stephen Gill (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984).
(14) Quoted from The Oxford Authors: John Keats, ed. by Elizabeth Cook (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990). This edition is used for all quotations from Keats's poetry.
(15) Quoted from The Poems of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. by Ernest Hartley Coleridge (London: Oxford University Press, 1912).
(16) 'Wordsworth', in Works, iv, 89-119 (p. 115).
(17) 'Wordsworth', pp. 113-14.
(18) Saturday (London: Cape, 2005), p. 222.
(19) 'Structure and Style in the Greater Romantic Lyric', in M. H. Abrams, The Correspondent Breeze: Essays on English Romanticism (New York: Norton, 1984), pp. 76-108 (p. 78).
(20) Matthew Arnold: A Critical Portrait (1988; repr. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), p. 30.
(21) Works, v, 153-327 (p. 318).
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|Title Annotation:||Matthew Arnold|
|Publication:||Yearbook of English Studies|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2006|
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