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A matter of ellipsis: love, strife, and the pressure for specialty in Matthew Arnold's "Empedocles on Etna".


In what has amounted to a definitive article on Matthew Arnold's "Empedocles on Etna," Walter Houghton claims that "No one can read [Empedocles'] existing Fragments, or what is known of his life and times, and imagine that Arnold was trying to recreate the man or his though or his environment" (312). And although Louis Bonnerot, Paull F. Baum and, more recently, R. Peter Burnham have made quiet claims that the actual writings of Empedocles provided Arnold with minor inspirational points, most defer to Houghton's 1958 judgement and generally maintain that "Empedocles on Etna ... has no need for the ancient philosopher's ideas-any Stoic's might have served as well" (Feshbach 271). (1) In short, most critics have been reluctant to apply the life and works of Empedocles--the man, poet and scientist--to the lengthy dramatic poem bearing his name. That the reluctance is attributable to nobody's knowing enough about Empedocles, as one critic has suggested (Hill 15), is not likely, since at least two others (Feshback, Neff) have been brave enough to claim the presence of Empedoclean cosmology in "Dover Beach." Far more likely it is that in the longer poem the real Empedocles, though present in a number of significant ways, is hard to locate for good reasons, one or two of which might also be at least partly responsible for Arnold's pulling the poem from the 1853 edition of his poetry and for his writing his anxiously defensive and enigmatic 1853 Preface. (2)

First of all, it is easy to understand why a critic might be unwilling to apply Empedoclean science to Arnold's poem, since Arnold in many places admits the limitations of his scientific knowledge. "[My] visits to the field of natural sciences have been very slight and inadequate," he said in his later years, "although those sciences have always strongly moved my curiosity" (Works IX, 55). And some even doubt he avowed curiosity. "As mere information," says one, "natural knowledge interested Arnold very little; now and then he revealed even a sort of contempt for the details of scientific fact" (Dudley 278). Nevertheless, as I intend to show, the "details of scientific fact" implicit Empedoclean cosmology and coming to be explicit in nineteenth-century England are essential to the richest interpretation of Arnold's poem. Further, Arnold's use of that particular philosopher/scientist Empedocles, a man who presumed to offer cosmic solutions for problems requiring a narrowing rather than an enlarging of focus, speaks to a major philosophical dilemma beginning in Arnold's time and carrying on into our own.

Fortunately, that Matthew Arnold apparently had no more than an educated layman's understanding of Empedoclean cosmology provides the reader with hope for understand as much of it as Arnold may have decided to use. According to those who have translated and studied the works of Empedocles, the ancient philosopher's view of the cosmos includes six major components: the four basic elements or "roots"--earth, air, fire, and water; and the agent-forces of Love and Strife, acting always in opposition to one another, fighting over control of the "roots" and resulting in evolutionary cycles covering vast spans of time. In the beginning, the four elements are united in a "Sphere of Love," described by Empedocles as follows: "No twin branches spring from its back, there are no feet nor nimble knees, no parts of generation, but it was a Sphere and in all directions equal to itself" (Gutherie 168). With the advance of Strife, as "Love loosens her hold, the tendency of each element to seek its like asserts itself, and they begin to draw apart" (172). In Empedocles' view, our world (which seems to include his, Matthew Arnold's, and today's) is in a period of Strife's dominance, when the elements have become separated and each element seeks it own kind. Love is always nibbling at the edges trying to get things back together into the "Love Sphere," but the best that Love can do is cause one kind of element (say, earth) optimistically to seek union with another (say, water). The paradoxical and poetic element in Empedocles' theory is that, once the "Love Sphere" is broken up by Strife at the beginning of time, both Love and Strife act as agents of both union and dissolution. The difference is that Love causes an element to seek variety in its composition, a mixture, whereas Strife drives "like unto like." Love dissolves part of "earth" to accept "water," in other words, yet ends up uniting the two in new combinations. Strife, by contrast, dissolves the major combination of earth-air-fire-water "Love Sphere" initially, and breaks up the hopeful combinations of Love subsequently, but Strife also united earth with earth and water with water, in stasis, a literal dead-end. (3)

Empedocles carries his theory beyond celestial abstractions, however, and brings it right down to the elements in plants and animals and man. Not hemmed in by the caution of the scientific method, the pre-Socratic scientist comfortably made cosmic correspondences everywhere. As an example of his far-reaching applications, consider the following fragment, taken from the philosopher's Physics:
 For all these--sun and earth and sky and sea--are one with the
 parts of themselves that have been separated from them and
 born in mortal things. In the same way, those that are more
 ready to combine are made similar by Aphrodite and feel
 mutual affection. (Wright 192)

Born under Love's dominance, then, a product of an earlier various mixture will seek further mixings; but if Strife reigns in the cosmic cycle, "such as are most different from each other in birth and mixture and in the molding of their forms are most hostile, quite inexperienced in union, and grieving deeply at their generation in strife, in that they were born in wrath" (192). In such a circumstance, Love exists, but only as the antithesis.

Any reader looking for the Empedoclean Love/Strife cosmology in "Empedocles on Etna" is first going to wonder what has happened to that half of the theory regarding "Love," since love in any form a reader might expect is missing from the poem, an omission that seems not only significant but intentional. In fact, my purpose is to demonstrate that the Love/Strife cosmology, far from being absent in "Empedocles on Etna," is essential to the poem, and that Arnold has incorporated the Love half of cosmology as a deliberate ellipsis, corresponding to the Empedoclean view of "Strife's dominance."

To begin with, Louis Bonnerot remarks that Friedrich Holderlin had worked with Empedocles as a subject for a long poem fifty years before Arnold; but Bonnerot, unsure about whether or not Arnold has seen the Holderlin fragments, uses as grounds for skepticism some interesting differences surrounding both author's treatments of Empedocles' final scene at the summit of Mt. Etna. In Arnold's "Empedocles," Pantheia is a servant-girl whose apparent death has been reversed by the magic-man's miraculous powers, powers which Empedocles' follower and fan Pausanias attempts to inherit throughout the poem. But in Arnold's poem Empedocles has not legitimately raised Pantheia from the dead; according to the harp-player, Callicles, Pantheia "was subject to these trances from a girl" (1.1.136). (4) Further, continues Callicles, "Empedocles would say so, did he deign:/But he still sets the people, whom he scorns,/Gape and cry wizard at him, if they list" (137-39). Holderlin apparently had something different in mind. In the first two of his fragments, Pantheia is Empedocles's sister, and in the last fragment on Empedocles' death, several other characters appear on the scene, including an ancient chorus and Pantheia as Empedocles' wife (Bonnerot 77). Although Bonnerot points up these differences in order to caution us against assuming Arnold had even seen the Holderlin fragments, Fred L. Burwick has since convincingly established an indebtedness to Holderlin in Arnold's creation and concludes that "however little known Holderlin might have been in nineteenth-century England, Arnold was certainly one man who knew him well" (42). More than one reason may exist for making Pantheia "entranced" rather than dead. Her being merely entranced set up Empedocles' hiding of the fact as evidence of his own hubris. But to move Pantheia from sister/wife in the present and on stage to a servant-girl in the past and off stage could also illustrate the "like unto like" component of "Strife's dominance," in that the men are the only ones left. And whereas we might expect "Love" to appear, at least in some kind of Aristotelian masculine friendship, such an expectation is consistently thwarted throughout the rest of the poem.

As a matter of fact, one of the powers of Arnold's poem is its ability to seduce a reader into anticipating the appearance of love, only to be disappointed. The first example of this is brought in by the opening song of the harp-player, Callicles.

In introducing himself and the setting, Callicles sets up the ironic tone that his character provides thought. The reader's first impression is that Callicles is some sort of shepherd-choirboy, in correspondence not only with the freshness of a mountain morning-"One sees one's footprints crush'd in the wet grass,/One's breath curls in the air" (1.1.14-15); but with myth-as-religion--"O Pan,/ How gracious is the mountain at this hour!" (5) and, "Apollo!/ What mortal could be sick or sorry here?" (20-21). Unfortunately, the impression ends up not being reliable, as other critics have noted. (5) In the same speech, we find Callicles is to be followed by Empedocles, "half mad/With exile" and accompanied by "his sage friend," Pausanias. Upon Pausanias' entrance, however, we find that all three--Empedocles, Pausanias, and Callicles--have just come from what amounts to a Trimalchian orgy in the valley, where Callicles has been drunk and "praised and spoil'd by master and by guests/Almost as much as the new dancing-girl" (34-35). His "garland" is "spoil'd" and he has followed Empedocles and Pausanias up the slopes of Mt. Etna out of curiosity (41-45), thus any expectations of innocence we may have had regarding Callicles become quickly dashed and his "correspondences" begin to appear potentially fraudulent, despite his lyric pronouncements about the surrounding countryside. Nevertheless, during the pastoral delusion we experience throughout the opening speech, luring us into seeing the young harpist at one with the natural elements around him, the Love force has been introduced into the poem. That it disappears right away is appropriate; nor are we likely to get it completely back, since its purveyor has become, with his "soil'd garland," suspect. From this point on through the poem, all of Callicles' songs must be tinged with this irony. Further, Callicles' kinship with the other men turns out to be based on nothing much more substantial than the commonality of their sex. And though all three seek similar elements in one another, it seems clear that the mixtures are not going to gratify any of them. As it turns out, Empedocles's "sage friend" Pausanias has followed the philosopher/ scientist up Etna on a bribe. He has longed for the secret of Pantheia's miraculous return to life and has been promised he will have it by providing Empedocles company up the summit. Callicles mocks the bribe, however, and sullies his own innocent image even further in the cynical passage in which he castigates Pausanias for being superstitious and doltish in believing that the girl's "trances" are indeed death and that Empedocles has the power to restore life. Once Callicles thus commits to a rationalist position, his mythmaking appears more as entertainment than as a profession of faith. Before the leading character ever appears on stage, then, we see that the only two people in the vicinity of Empedocles' pilgrimage are a world-weary boy who earns his livelihood by promoting myth and song, and a mediocre physician who "hast some wrong from [his] own citizens" (1.1.142) and is trying to assimilate the greatness he misguidedly thinks is Empedocles' to give. Although absence of anything is difficult to demonstrate, it does seem that love (with or without the capital L) is significantly absent from Arnold's poem.

As purveyor of myth, Callicles is nevertheless a carrier of the "Love force," even though as a character he is more cynical and "soil'd" than anyone would want such a one with such a responsibility to be. However, as it turns out, the reason Callicles' songs fail to soothe is not due to his limitations, but to Empedocles' own loss of faith. When Callicles sings of Typho's raging at the base of Mt. Etna, Empedocles the scientist is hearing geology, not mythology:
 These rumbling are not Typho's groans, I know!
 These angry smoke-bursts
 Are not the passionate breath
 Of the mountain-crush'd, tortured, intractable Titan King--(2.95-98)

A major purpose of the myths in the poem, in fact, is to demonstrate Empedocles' sense of loss. "Empedocles," says Park Honan, "is 'dead' to faith--his grand comparativism extends to ethics and not at all to Gods of believers" (207). When he responds to the Typho myth with, "He fables, yet speaks truth!", he is indeed embodying what Ruth apRoberts points out as "Arnold's great theme, the exploration of metaphor and how poetry works, and how our great religious texts can retain validity when the literal 'belief is invalidated" (5). If Strife is dominant in the cosmos, our myths may not be able to overcome it, but they can at least continue to remind us of Love as a worthy adversary. Knowing that Love is only a whimper in his cosmic vision, however, and knowing that he cannot draw comfort from the myths as promoted by Callicles, Empedocles appears doomed to dive into the volcano.

Tinker and Lowry have documented the fortuitous circumstance of Arnold's having written the first twenty-eight lines of "Dover Beach" on the back of a paper containing scribblings about the life of Empedocles (289). That the two works should have been sifting at similar times in the poet's mind comes as no surprise. Predictably, however, the Love/Strife cosmology is more easily identifiable in "Dover Beach" because Love is a controlling and a reassuring force in the shorter poem--the ellipsis has been canceled. "Love," Feshbach points out in his application of the Empedoclean cosmos to "Dover Beach," "can be felt only at the most human level while Strife, achieving dominance, is heard everywhere" (274). The direct address and plea for specialty in the Love relationship--"Ah, love, let us be true/To one another!" provides a redeeming descent from the barren slopes of Mt. Etna, of course. If Empedocles cannot find the big Love in the cosmos, and if he cannot preserve the force of it through myth, then the only thing that will suffice is a love that is singular and constant, and it seems certain that an hysterical servant (Arnold's portrayal of Pantheia) will not serve the purpose. If we look for unstated reasons for the removal of "Empedocles on Etna" from, and the nervous defense of that removal in, the 1853 edition of Arnold's poetry, one fairly simple explanation might be that Arnold has denied his leading character everyone's last hope--at least one person to love. In the "period of Strife's dominance," when Love on a cosmic scale seems lacking, it appears likely that the pressure for exclusivity, for a "specialty" in matters of love, is not predictable, but particularly strong.


With the appropriate muting of the Love half of the Love/Strife cosmology, then, "Empedocles on Etna" appears to be excluding the cosmology itself, and the strife that does exist looks to be no more special than the garden variety. However, it seems equally possible that what the poem contains is a "Strife" that is peculiarly Empedoclean.

Perhaps the most important biographical note about Empedocles (and the reason that "any Stoic" would not have served Arnold's purpose) is that he was a scientist with theories that were just barely pre-atomic. (6) His major study concerned the effluences of pores, these effluences resulting in something between plants, between animals, and between people that appears remarkably like what we might think of as chemical attraction or repulsion. And because he lived at a time when one could mix assumptions and discoveries about pores and could with impunity generalize what he found and thought into a theory of the cosmos, he could write with confident verve about such "mixtures." But he also lived in a time when science could give nothing more solid than myth and even became subsumed by myth, as the songs of Callicles and the false cure of Pantheia demonstrate. By Matthew Arnold's time, however, just the reverse was true in that myth was coming to be subsumed by science, with consequences the reader of "Empedocles" can begin to perceive as dangerous. If Empedocles' personal dilemma is one of knowing "too little, too late," as he himself bemoans, it is also that of knowing too much too soon. The real Empedocles' cosmic vision, a fusion of myth and science that makes the songs of Callicles appear as little more than artful stories camouflaging moral advice, offers a parallel to what nineteenth-century scientific discoveries were doing to the parables in the Bible.

Although "Empedocles on Etna" was published seven years before Darwin's Origin of Species, everyone up on current publication when "Empedocles" appeared could have been able to sense the tensions in the scientific arena and could have easily made some connections to the poem. Indeed, there is plenty of scientific allusion throughout "Empedocles" itself (Trilling 94). "By 1850," confirms Walter Houghton, "the evidence of paleontology made it possible to read the history of animal life as a great progressive development from the amoeba up through fishes to reptiles, to birds, culminating--so far--in man" (Victorian Frame of Mind 36). As an ancient paradigm of the speculative scientist, then, but without the nineteenth-century documentation, the real Empedocles has an imagination with few limits, and his resulting theories, though bizarre and fantastical to a modern audience, would seem to have some interesting applications to Arnold's poem.

First, on top of "Love and Strife" as the movers and shakers, there are two agents--Ananke (Necessity) and Tyche (Chance)--which determine the relative mixtures of the four elements. Although critics have been confused by the concept of Ananke in particular, and by its function in the Empedoclean system generally (Guthrie 162-63), an affinity between Empedoclean Ananke and Darwinian "struggle for survival" occurs easily in the imagination if not in fact. And as for Tyche, Guthrie documents as "most striking" that Empedocles uses "Chance as the sole explanation of favourable biological characteristics," and goes on to observe that the subject of Matthew Arnold's poem does indeed provide an "account of the evolution of animals by the survival of the fittest" (161).

Yet Empedocles no only applies his push/pull theory to groups, or varieties, but also to the individual. In other words, the same Love/Strife dualism exists microcosmically as well:
 This is well known in the mass of moral limbs: at one time, in the
 maturity of a vigorous life, all the limbs that are the body's
 portion come into one under love; at another time again, torn
 asunder by evil strife, they wander, each apart, on the shore of
 life. So it is too for plants, and for fish that live in the water,
 and for wild animals who have their lairs in the hills, and for the
 wing-sped gulls (Wright 194).

The Empedoclean fragments also account for mutations, the "hybrid creatures of myth":
 Here many heads sprang up without necks, bare arms were wandering
 without shoulders, and eyes needing foreheads strayed singly (211).

But the main thing about the Empedoclean cosmology is that it demonstrates, in pseudo-scientific fashion, not only that the "struggle nought availeth" but that the struggle is all there is; that Love's only remaining function is to ensure against complete fragmentation of all elements; that the Love-Sphere, that goal, cannot exist beyond the origins of life, since life is determined not by Love's dominance, but by the alternate power plays of Love and Strife, in the cosmos, among the "roots," between the sexes, in individual species, at different times, in different places.

Additionally, because the cosmology employs so many biological terms, the Empedoclean fragments gave Matthew Arnold's 19th-century moral question regarding the relationship of myth to science a physical metaphor to play off of, since these various Love-Strife dissolutions, unions, reunions can apply so easily to the myth/science union/dissolution taking place both in classical times and in the nineteenth century. In other words, we need not understand Empedocles' pore studies in order to see the relevance of his cosmic view to the cauldron of myth and science as it appeared yesterday and as it remains today.

Although it is perhaps too strong to insist that Empedocles was the "first evolutionist," since several of his predecessors and contemporaries had speculated in similar veins on the origin and evolution of human life, he was for a variety of reasons more appropriate than these others for Arnold's purpose. (7) Empedocles seems to have had a sensibility that these others lacked, a perception that enabled him to have a micro/macrocosmic view of time and space; and such sensibility and perception point up a kinship he was to share with Charles Lyell, as an example, whose intuitions and subsequent discoveries would squeeze biblical time into the equivalent of a momentary lapse. (8) But it appears the real Empedocles, despite an initial popularity, ended up being run out of town, and there is evidence that Matthew Arnold (along with Lyell and many others) would have liked to do the same thing to Charles Darwin. In fact, it seems clear Arnold's attitude toward scientific discoveries was ambivalent. Although Lionel Trilling claims that the "stringent materialistic naturalism of 'Empedocles' ... is the inevitable result of [Arnold's] allegiance, tempered though it was, to contemporary science" (94), the poet's later attitude towards Darwin in particular seems to have been more than mildly disdainful. "I cannot understand," Arnold was heard to say long after the publication of "Empedocles," "why you scientific people make such a fuss about Darwin. Why it's all in Lucretius" (Judd 3-4). And when it was pointed out to Arnold that "Darwin had proved what Lucretius only guessed, Arnold rejoined that this power of intuition proved Lucretius the greater" (Dudley, n41; 279), a somewhat petulant and hard-to-defend response from a writer most have chosen to see as rational. That Arnold's resolve to "Chew Lucretius," as A. Dwight Culler points out, "antedated ... 'Empedocles on Etna'," and that his "notebooks and the register of the Oriel College Library show him reading Lucretius from 1845-47" (217), buoy up speculations about a connection that is evolutionary/scientific (if not specifically Darwinian), not only in the writing, but also in the subsequent un-publishing, of "Empedocles." (9) In such a context, Arnold's response mostly reflects a general resentment regarding sweeping cosmic answers, a resentment specifically, it seems, against those generalizations in danger of being propped by the scientific method. In fact, considering the Empedoclean cosmology, it seems possible that Arnold was aiming for more than "materialistic naturalism" in his dramatic poem, and that he was not only establishing his own modern links to the classical philosopher-scientists, but was differentiating between those in centuries B.C. who could only intuit and those in his own century who were beginning to prove: if the intuitions were alarmingly sweeping, the consequences of proving them could be worse. Sidney Feshbach, in his article on Empedoclean cosmology in "Dover Beach," remarks that "it is curious that Arnold did not make use of [Empedocles' theory] of botanical, embryological, and psychological evolution" (273). I believe it possible that the theory exists in "Empedocles on Etna" and, as the special Strife of that poem, anticipates the Darwinian "struggle for survival" which was to become knowledge available to the public within the decade. Along with Arnold, however, that public would be reluctant to substitute scientific far for cultural myth. It is right at the time that Arnold is publishing Empedocles on Etna and other Poems, in fact, that "the emotional attraction of belief is plainly counteracting the desire to question and examine" (The Victorian Frame of Mind 96-97). And although, unlike Empedocles, the scientists of the 19th-century had evidence behind their speculations, the scientific documentation made these speculations and their cosmic speculators, as far as the general public was concerned, no more popular and no less presumptuous.

And indeed, that Arnold did not choose Lucretius rather than Empedocles for the anti-hero of his poem seems to accord with the real Empedocles' legendary role as presumer. Another significant fact about the real Empedocles is that he was an aristocrat of Acragas who agitated for democratic reform, yet seemed somewhat ambivalent about his position. Evidence exists, in fact, to show that although he was seen by more than one ancient writer as "a champion of the people," the contrast between the character he revealed in political life and the proud attitude he adopted in his poetry was noted as well (Wright 6-7), an ambivalence and a contrast shared by Arnold himself, as is evident in the following often-quoted remark, written to Clough during the year Empedocles was published: "I am more and more convinced that the world tends to become more comfortable for the mass, and more uncomfortable for those of any natural gift or distinction" (Letters to Clough 122). In such a situation as the one Arnold observed, the concepts of presumption and humility change places in the canon of ethics, and the person with a "natural gift or distinction" who advocates a world "more comfortable for the mass" is setting up his own demise. It is along these lines that "Empedocles on Etna" appears most to be, as J. D. Shairp suggested, "the draped of [Arnold's] own thoughts" (Tinker and Lowry 287). Such a link would no doubt be particularly embarrassing to Arnold in the post-Reform Bill decades, and could be yet another reason for the withdrawal of the poem and the construction of the 1853 Preface, since the question of what presumption is, in a civilization beginning to decide that the idea of presumption is itself presumptuous, was a crucial factor both in Empedoclean biography and in Arnold's long poem. "In his penciled notes for poems to be composed in 1849, Arnold listed 'Empedocles--refusal of limitation by the religious sentiment'" (287). As it happens, the biography of the ancient philosopher reveals that he was a model of presumption. Park Honan provides a summary of sources, including Arnold's own notes:
 Born into an 'Illustrious family at Agrigentum in Sicily around 490
 B.C.,' he 'swam' as a young man 'in a swelling consciousness of his
 superiority.' While exchanging witticisms with his friends, he wore
 'long waving hair' and a golden circlet and a purple robe to show
 that he was a poet (183).

In other contexts, Arnold clearly had reservations about "The Reproach of Presumption," as he demonstrates in his essay on "God and the Bible." "The charge of presumption," he said, "... which is often brought against those who pronounce the old view of our religion to be untenable, springs out of a failure to perceive how little the abandonment of certain long-current beliefs depends upon a man's own will, or even upon his sum of powers natural or acquired." (Works VII, 369). In other words, Empedocles could not help himself. Nevertheless, a presumption Arnold might legitimately have viewed as damning in Empedocles' time, as well as in his own, was the claims of any individual to specialty in quite nearly everything. "Having found many new medical cures and invented Greek rhetoric, he charmed the winds and played the lyre so well that his music restrained 'a young man who [was] intent to kill a judge'" (Honan 183). (10) Appropriately then, in "Empedocles on Etna" when the young harpist Callicles cannot soothe Empedocles down off of his glum trek up the slopes, the singer offers the analogy of Typho, trapped and roaring at the bottom of the volcano as punishment for having offended Zeus: "Only to Typho it sounds hatefully" (2.41); only to the presumer to godhood do the stories of the culture's gods ring an abrasive tune. (11) Just as the real Empedocles appears to have been regarded as somewhat of a magic man, bringing corpses back to life and stopping winds and plagues, Arnold's Empedocles likewise has been presumptuous enough to use his advanced knowledge imperiously, without much regard for the consequences, resulting in his own grief and alienation. The problem for Arnold's Empedocles is that he is no mere charlatan, and can see that what he has of value to offer has not been what the people have most admired--a fluke "cure" of an hysterical girl. He warns his friend Pausanias to "Ask not the latest news of the last miracle" (1.2.106), but instead to "ask how such sights/May'st see without dismay" (110). Therefore, although it is as presumer that Empedocles has functioned as a recurrent literary figure--Milton, as an example, included him after Heraclides and Horace among his list of tenants in the "Paradise of Fools" as "he who to be deem'd/A God, leap'd fondly into Aetna's flames" (3.469-70)--Arnold's Empedocles is aware of his own presumption.

At the beginning of Arnold's poem we learn from Pausanias that Empedocles scales the summit of Etna often, and this time Callicles promises to say out of sight and play some music in an attempt to woo Empedocles out of "his present fierce, man-hating mood" (1.1.106). The term "man-hating" is allusive, not only to the dominance of "Strife" in the cosmology, but to the feast from which Empedocles has come. As such a banquet had by Matthew Arnold's time been established as a paradigm of democracy (in that the host of such banquets--Petronius' Trimalchio, Pope's Timon, among others--had traditionally been portrayed as newly rich boors with plenty of money for entertainment but no taste in its execution), in appearing at such feasts, in allowing the people "whom he scorns,/ Gape and cry wizard at him," Empedocles illustrates the backfiring of his own democratic ideals as well as his own presumption in perpetuating them. Arnold's own ambivalence regarding democratic reform is reflected in his argument for "the ancients" as models in the face of "a wave of more than American vulgarity, moral, intellectual, and social, preparing to beak over us" (Letters, 1848-1888 5). If the real Empedocles ever did come to have reservations about his political contributions, his hurryings-up of democratic principles, he was not to be the last to do so.

That historians ever since Empedocles' death have chosen to ignore the version that claims he lost the favor of his compatriots and "died an exile in the Peloponnese" (Guthrie 131) and have preferred the other version--an impetuous leap into the crater of Mt. Etna to affirm himself as a god and Etna's tossing back up one of his sandals--not only testifies to the power of immediately applicable (or entertaining) myth over fact or even likelihood, but also sets Empedocles up as the Mephistophelean presumer whom the gods reject. For Arnold's purposes, then, the character and biography of the real Empedocles--his aristocratic stature and leadership powers, his democratic leanings, his loss of political favor, his exile, his leap into Mt. Etna as a Typho-like presumer to godhood, his being resented enough so that his sandal gets thrown back up by the volcano, and finally, the fortuitous geological metaphor of Etna itself--all of these contribute to the choice of Empedocles over Lucretius or anyone else. "Any Stoic" would not have done so well.


For Matthew Arnold's Empedocles, then, and for the reader who sees Empedocles of Acragas in Arnold's work, the myths of Callicles carry all the wrong message. In one, the myth-purveyor is illustrating Chiron's teaching the young Achilles "all the wisdom of his race" (1.2.76). The Centaur instructs Achilles as to "where the glens are dry" (62) and "where the soaking springs abound" (64)--folklore preserved for the future. What Callicles is mouthing has been prompted by the Love-force, the drive to be at one with Nature instead of to analyze it; the drive to unite with subsequent generations by passing along what one knows. Although Arnold does not provide us with a point-by-point response to Callicles' song, we can see that the scientist has not been moved in the way Callicles intended. Empedocles picks up his harp and "in a solemn manner," paralleling the Centaur's gift to Achilles, imparts to Pausanias some "wisdom" of his own:
 The out-spread world to span
 A cord the Gods first slung,
 And then the soul of man
 There, like a mirror, hung,
 And bade the winds through space impel the gusty toy.

The cosmic view denies the anthropomorphic relationship of Charon and Achilles, and denies Love as a generative force; the motivation of "the Gods" behind the placing of the soul is mere entertainment.

The stanza above is one of seventy such spoken by Empedocles in this scene, interrupted finally by Callicles' second song. The disproportionate length of this section of Arnold's poem cannot fail to disturb anyone in search of aesthetic balance. (12) Essentially, Empedocles is giving Pausanias advice that the former has no intention of following himself, and the delivery in that sense is more than a little condescending; is, in fact. elitist. But contained within this poetic lecture are many illustrations of the Love/Strife entanglement, as well as the entanglement of myth and science. In effect, Empedocles encourages in Pausanias an intellectual as well as a spiritual resignation. As part of his argument, Empedocles uses what can only be construed as the Love/Strife forces, always working on the elements in evolving man:
 Born into free life!--man grows
 Forth from his parents' stem,
 And blends their bloods, as those
 Of theirs are blent in them;
 So each new man strikes root into a far-fore time.

 Born into life!--we bring
 A bias with us here,
 And, when here, each new thing
 Affects us we come near;
 To tunes we did not call our being must keep chime.

Then he demonstrates how even curious people give up on the will to know and turn instead to mythology:
 We rest our faculties,
 And thus address the Gods:
 'True science if there is,
 It stays in your abodes!
 Man's measures cannot mete the immeasurable All.' (337-41)

And he ends by encouraging Pausanias to aim his sights a little lower: "Because thou must not dream, thou need'st not then despair" (426).

The intensity of Empedocles' stance throughout is dramatically ironic, because if we are an informed audience we know Empedocles is going into that volcano. Further, we can see Empedocles as cosmic generalist who is taking seriously the responsibility of providing a coda for life to a man who is too curious to be absorbed by myth, but not capable of being sufficiently fragmented and alien to consider suicide.

It is important to remember here that Callicles the myth-purveyor cannot hear Empedocles at all, and when the philosopher abandons his harp, the boy down the mountain sings another song, this time about Cadmus and Harmonia. This section was lifted by Arnold from the rest and retained in the 1853 edition from which the larger poem was removed, and the lyric was one of Arnold's admitted favorites. And indeed, if the author had wanted a short piece which would evoke for him the whole longer effort, I think no other portion could serve as well.

Structurally, what follows Empedocles' lengthy and insistent tirade welcomes the reader:
 Far, far from here,
 The Adriatic breaks in a warm bay
 Among the green Illyrian hills; and there
 The sunshine in the happy glens is fair,
 And by the sea, and in the breaks. (1.2.427-31)

And Callicles goes on to sing the story of two who managed to escape Strife by being transformed, at the end of their lives, into snakes.

What is particularly interesting about the Cadmean myth is that, despite Cadmus's introducing writing into Greece, in the myth neither he nor Harmonia seems to be indicated so much for overt presumption to godhood as for their connection to their children and grandchildren, all of whom have fared badly indeed, representing a family disaster not unlike that of Job's. The major effect of this myth is the question it continues to pose regarding whether or not the fate of this couple constitutes reward or punishment. The relief a reader feels on moving to this song from the tirade argues for reward:
 Therefore they did not end their days
 In sight of blood; but were rapt, far away,
 To where the west-wind plays,
 And murmurs of the Adriatic come
 To those untrodden mountain-lawns; and there
 Placed safely in changed forms, the pair
 Wholly forget their first sad life, and home,
 And all that Theban woe, and stray
 For ever through the glens, placid and dumb.

Here, at last, and only in myth, is the Empedoclean "Love-Sphere," illustrated by an old couple drifting about in forms which minimize their sexual differences, gliding in exile without memory, the future generation wiped out and not much left but numbness. Although the myth is, on the surface, "a green thought in a green shade" (Bush 256), most careful readers will respond, it seems to me, with a painful mixture of envy and cynical disdain: such absence of Strife, though wished for, is finally regressively dehumanizing. Empedolces, too, is moved, but he is not soothed. In this case, the myth of Cadmus and Harmonia can be seen as reminding both Empedocles and reader that the ideal "Love-Sphere" is, at best, a bore; and whatever love Cadmus and Harmonia share in their old age has not been transmitted with any positive result to the next generation. In the manner of Faust, Empedocles acknowledges that the myth's once having soothed retains for it a power, but the power is one the intellect has outgrown. The "Ah, love, let us be true/To one another!" of "Dover Beach" has its counterpart in the Cadmus/Harmonia pair, with the important difference that the two on the balcony are in an alliance that is consistently sensible of and vulnerable to the ignorant armies and the darkling plain.

At the start of Act II of "Empedocles on Etna," the shift from the slopes to the summit of Mt. Etna signals the letting go of Empedocles as "redeemable." He is, in effect, the thinking man who hankers after a cosmic theory, only to know as he hankers that such a theory turns the human struggle into something "placid and dumb." Callicles, with his fertile-valley aura, exists not only to declaim against any such theory leading to barrenness, but also to declaim against even the hankerings. And his lure, though strong, becomes less strong as the countryside grows more barren.

When Callicles' voice comes up the slopes in a final attempt to redeem Empedocles, the reader by this time interprets the myth as Empedocles would, given what we know of his state of mind and previous responses. Callicles begins by affirming his own power: "The music of the lyre blow away/The clouds which wrap the soul" (2.123-24). The "music of the lyre" here is synonymous with myth, as we see the analogy of the Pan/Marsyas conspiracy against Apollo unfold. The "Young Apollo" must affirm the superiority of the lyre over the "Phrygian flutes." As to the classical Greeks "Phrygian" was synonymous with "slave," the theme of presumption against the gods continues to dominate. Defeating the presumer is not enough for Apollo, however; he must maim him as well. And despite the pleas of the Maenads, Apollo turns "his beauteous face/Haughtily another way" (2.159-60) as he waits for the knife to get sharp enough; while Pan, the instigator, stands "aloof, on the lake-stand," watching his mentor in torment. The "Love-force" is distinctly absent in this particular song. The gods, after all, are not at all pleasant or forgiving about any form of presumption. To claim for Callicles here, as William Buckler does, a "firm and unembittered hold on the terrible beauty of the truth," and to claim correspondingly that Empedocles' "divergence" marks him "grossly if sincerely self-deceived" (141), is to validate not only the holding to the delusion that Callicles so liltingly mouths; such a claim validates the delusion itself. In fact, what "truth" is here belongs to Empedocles, and his vision is icy: the gods who receive men's worship are not, finally, at all worth of it. But such a truth is one that, in all its implications, neither Empedocles nor anyone else can live with in the end. Who, the Empedoclean presumer inevitably asks, would want to be this kind of god anyway? "Thou keepest aloof the profane," says Empedocles addressing Apollo, "Thou fencest him from the multitude--/Who will fence him from himself?." (2.207;211-12). The sad question reflects the loneliness of "the sage," and the ironic cruelty of having been gifted with superior qualities of leadership and intelligence, only to be paralyzed, through a cold knowledge, in the act of putting those talents to use.

The rest of Empedocles' lengthy final soliloquy consists of a listing of the particular dilemmas facing such a talent: the moving from company to isolation and finding neither satisfactory; the loss of hope as a by-product of the loss of youth; the anguish of the mind born too early or too late for "the times"; the impossible choice of being either a charlatan accepted by the "people of children" (2.112) or an unacceptable denouncer of such acceptance; the lack of a oneness with nature; the self-flagellation: "I alone/Am dead to life and joy, therefore I read/In all things my own deadness" (2.320-22); and finally, the inevitable and shameful egoism.

What follows this litany and prefaces his suicide is a return to the cosmology. Empedocles addresses and discusses the elements of earth, air, fire and water, and sees himself as "Nothing but a devouring flame of thought" (329) that is apart from these elements. Accordingly, the suicide is a suicide of mind, but a physical return to a physical universe. And, because "like" is seeing "like" in an elemental joining--"Receive me, save me!" are Empedocles' last words--the chief motivator is still Strife. Nevertheless, it is the "Love force" that ends the poem, contained in Callicles's closing song, which amounts to an argument for the power of mythology to bring together unlike elements:
 The day in his hotness,
 The strife with the palm;
 The night in her silence,
 The stars in their calm. (2.465-68)

That Callicles is world-weary is unfortunate, but not fatal, since his myths are still good. If Callicles's final song is, as Ruth apRoberts suggests, "a hymn" (5), it is also a tranquilizing lullaby and exists as the last word.


In the absence of large truths which reassure, specialty eases that lack; and in avoidance of large truths which do not reassure (such as no measurable "Love" in the cosmos), specialty relies on small truths which are committed to a reassurance that necessarily remains out of reach. Specialty, then, while putting a moratorium on the potentially destructive, perpetuates at least the idea of the ideal. In spite of the intellectual's disdain for systems, particularly cosmic systems, forming such generalized concepts gives form to what is otherwise a bewildering universe. For the "restless mind," deprived of the comparatively simple assurances of myth and incapable of narrowing the field of inquiry, the only other haven is an exclusive intimacy with another individual that permits a venting of and an accord with generalizations that would be irresponsible were they public. To alleviate his pain and to avoid suicide, then, the Empedoclean presumer needs either to stay with his pore studies or to find one good confidante. While it is no doubt true, as Honan suggests, that Arnold's "maturing intellect really found less outlet in his poetry after Empedocles" (279), that Arnold becomes a school inspector and an essayist, pretty much winding up his career as a poet, and marries at right about the same time he is working on "Empedocles" would seem also to indicate some calculated moves towards specialty, including the "specialty" of an exclusive relationship. In fact, were Arnold's Empedocles to have had a comparable humility in knowing he could not cover the same ground as myth, the despair he feels as he heads for the finer air as the summit of Etna would have no reason to exist. Further, if he could have been satisfied with simple evidence, rather than dominance, of the "Love force," he might have had a greater tolerance of the friendships, however limited, of Pausanias and Callicles. As it stands, though, Empedocles ends up a presumptuous generalist without anyone to talk to, an end product of the dirty work not only of "Strife" but of science, because it is the Empedoclean cosmic attempt to classify and divide the Love and Strife in the universe that alienates the speculator and ultimately does him in. "I too am now one of these," writes the real Empedocles in Fragment 107, "an exile from the gods and a wanderer, having put my trust in a raving strife" (Wright 270). In short, Empedocles' "tragedy" is not that he is, as John Coates suggests, "denied a context of intellectual support and left to face alone the burden of seeing the truth more clearly than others" (771); Empedocles' tragedy is one of discovery: that the "truth" he has demonstrated in his deterministic, largely Love-absent cosmos does everybody, himself included, a good deal more damage than good.

Many critics have theorized about Matthew Arnold's removal of "Empedocles on Etna" from the 1853 edition of his poetry, and have not quite trusted the explanation and defense which largely comprise the author's Preface to that later edition. In the Preface, Arnold essentially overstates the case for literature-as-uplift, and defends his elimination of "Empedocles" on the grounds that "it is not enough that the Poet should add to the knowledge of men, it is required of him also that he should add to their happiness" (Poems 655). But some have challenged this printed motive, guessing that the removal was prompted largely by those suspicions on the part of contemporaries that Empedocles was a veiled substitute for Arnold himself. Although it seems reasonable to see that Arnold might be embarrassed to be thus identifies with a legendary vain aristocrat/democrat who killed himself, in an 1867 letter to Henry Dunn, Arnold insists that he has retained the same sympathy he had fifteen years earlier "with the figure Empedocles presents to the imagination," but denies firmly that his own "creed" was ever "by any means identical with that contained in the preachment of Empedocles" ("Yale MS," Tinker and Lowry 287-88). Given that his motives remain murky and that the 1853 Preface is of a protesting-too-much length for what it claims to be doing; and that an addendum to that Preface in the 1854 edition, apologizing for the inadequacy of the earlier Preface and primarily defending his use of subjects of antiquity, does not do much to clear things up, it seems reasonable to accept at face value Arnold's own explanation for the removal. Yet because the Empedocles of Arnold's poem discovers that a pseudo-scientific cosmology, deterministic as it is, destroys the illusions necessary to preserve peace of mind--one can live more easily with the intuitions on Lucretius, however glum, than with the 19th-century scientific discoveries--Arnold may also have seen his work as presumptuous in the same sense as the Empedoclean cosmos, in that the poem, instead of corroborating the validity of those myths that provide people with "happiness," tacitly advocates the conscious dissemination of untruths to that calculated end. In any case, whatever Arnold's motives in writing the poem, withdrawing the poem, or restoring the poem, the end result is a piece of literature that documents that point in any civilization at which intellectual leaders are forced to specialize, in matters of Love as in matters of Strife, in order to preserve a careful balance, essential to survival, between presumption and between science and myth.

University of Hawaii at Manoa

Works Cited

apRoberts, Ruth. '"The Future of Poetry is Immense'." Arnoldian 4 (1976): 3-6.

Arnold, Matthew. Letters of Matthew Arnold, 1848-1888. Vol 1, ed. George W. E. Russell. New York: Macmillan, 1895.

--The Letters of Matthew Arnold to Arthur Clough, ed. Howard Foster Lowry. London and New York: Oxford UP, 1932.

--The Complete Prose Works of Matthew Arnold,, ed. R. H. Super, 11 vols. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1960-1977.

Barry, Josephine Maillet. "Goethe and Arnold's 1853 Preface." Comparative Literature 32 (1980): 151-67.

Baum, Paull F. "Empedocles on Etna." Ten Studies in the Poetry of Matthew Arnold. Durham, N.C.: Duke UP, 1958.

Bonnerot, Louis, ed. and trans. Matthew Arnold: Empedocle sur L'Etna. Paris: Aubier, 1947.

Buckler, William E. On the Poetry of Matthew Arnold: Esays in Critical Reconstruction. New York: New York UP, 1982.

Burnet, John. Early Greek Philosophy. 4th ed. London: A. & C. Black, 1930.

Burnham, R. Peter. '"Empedocles on Etna' and Matthew Arnold's Argument with History." Arnoldian 12 (1984): 1-19.

Burwick, Fred L. "Holderlin and Arnold: Empedocles on Etna," Comparative Literature 17 (1965): 24-42.

Bush, Douglas. Mythology and the Romantic Tradition in English Poetry. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1937.

Coates, John. "Two Versions of the Problem of the Modern Intellectual: 'Empedocles on Etna' and 'Cleon'." Modern Language Review 79 (1984): 769-82.

Coulling, Sidney M.G. "Matthew Arnold's 1853 Preface: Its Origin and Aftermath." Victorian Studies 7 (1964): 233-63.

Culler, A. Dwight. Imaginative Reason: The Poetry of Matthew Arnold. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1966.

Dietrich, Manfred. "Arnold's Empedocles on Etna and the 1853 Preface." Victorian Poetry 14 (1976): 311-24.

Dudley, FredA. "Matthew Arnold and Science.: PMLA 57 (1942): 275-94.

Feshbach, Sidney. "Empedocles at Dover Beach." Victorian Poetry 4 (1966): 271-75.

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1957.

Guthrie, W.K.C. A History of Greek Philosophy, Vol.2. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1965.

Hill, John M. "Empedocles and Arnold." Review of Empedocles: A Philosophical Investigation, by Helle Lambridis. The Arnoldian 4 (1977): 14-15.

Honan, Park. Matthew Arnold: A Life. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981.

Houghton, Walter E. "Arnold's 'Empedocles on Etna'." Victorian Studies 1 (1958): 311-36.

--The Victorian Frame of Mind, 1830-1879. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1957.

Judd, John W. The Coming of Evolution. Cambridge, England: The University Press, 1910.

Lambridis, Helle. Empedocles: A Philosophical Investigation. University, Alabama: U of Alabama P, 1976.

Neff, D. S. "Love and Strife in 'Dover Beach'." Victorian Newsletter 53 (1978): 28-30.

O'Brian, D. Empedocles' Cosmic Cycle: A Reconstruction from the Fragments and Secondary Sources. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1969.

Osborn, Henry Fairfield. From the Greeks to Darwin: An Outline of the Development of the Evolution Idea. New York: Macmillan, 1905.

Ray, Linda L. "Callicles on Etna: The Other Mask." Victorian Poetry 7 (1969): 309-20.

Tinker, C. B. and H. F. Lowry. The Poetry of Matthew Arnold: A Commentary. London: Oxford UP, 1940.

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Wright, M. R., ed. Empedocles: The Extant Fragments. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1981.


(1) Bonnerot, in his Introduction to Empedocle sur L'Etna, claims that, although Arnold used Empedocles' Fragment 115 as a source, he altered the sense of it considerably (through such changes as substituting "l'esprit et la pensee" for "l'ame") and that the result cannot be at all compared with the original (21); Baum makes a tentative claim for one of Empedocles' Fragments as providing Arnold with the source for the conclusion of his poem (92); and though Burnham ackowledges "a few parallels" between Arnold's work and Empedocles' own "Poems of Nature," in which the "famous theory of the four elements and the eternal cosmic war of Love and Strife are advanced" (6), among these parallels Burnham does not specify connections with the Love/Strife cosmology. "In bare outline," he says, "it appears Arnold took the situation for his poem from 'Poems of Nature' ... and the mood from 'Purifications.' What he took, however, was little more than this" (6-7); William Buckler sees Arnold's Empedocles as "historically reconstructed" (132), and suggests no connection between Empedeclean cosmic theory and anything Arnold may have been attempting in the poem.

(2) See in particular Coulling and Dietrich for summary documentations of the critical to-do which has surrounded this Preface. For the Preface itself, see R.H. Super's edition of the Works, Volume I, 1-15.

(3) For Empedocles' Fragments and overviews of his life and cosmology, I have used Burnet, Guthrie, Lambridis, O'Brian and Wright. For briefer summaries of the cosmology applied specifically to Arnold's poetry, see Feshbach and Neff.

(4) All "Empedocles on Etna" references are to Miriam Allott's Second Edition of The Poems of Matthew Arnold.

(5) Though Empedocles' own observations of Pausanias' and Callicles' limitations are gentle, the critics have not been so kind. Park Honan says of Callicles: "Representing the power of art, he offers hope to Empedocles in Act I, before turning unwittingly into a nightmare boy and an inventor of lethal myths in Act II" (203); and Burnham claims "we can conclude that Pausanias is not only a credulous believer in miracles, but that he is also rather dim-witted" (10).

(6) Interestingly, Empedocles did not see the result of Strife's destruction as appearing in great chunks or globules, but rather saw the end products as minute. One might think he had launched atomic theory except that the early atomists saw the destructive process as finite, whereas "the division of the elements in Empedocles' theory never reaches to an undivided last member" (Wright 37).

(7) The earlier proto-evolutionists include Thales of Ionia: the ocean as life's origin; Anaximander: man as ambitious fish who learned to live on land; Anaximenes: humans as coming from a primordial slime; and Xenephanes: conclusions from fossils. (Osborn 36). But Aristotle drew on Empedocles' beliefs that "man-faced ox-progeny," ... "not organized ... in a fitting way," had "perished and continue to perish" (Physica 2.8).

(8) For an interesting observation on the Lyell/Empedocles connection, see Culler, 157.

(9) See Tinker and Lowry's discussion of the "Yale Manuscript" and "Arnold's List of Poems to Compose" in Commentary, 10-13.

(10) "Aristotle states that Empedocles invented rhetoric," notes M. R. Wright, and "two speeches on equality are mentioned by other sources" (9). And, "Empedocles is singled out for attack," Wright continues, "because he is a well-known example of a philosopher attempting to base medicine and physics on similar principles" (13).

(11) For a good study on Callicles' myths as specifically designed to remind Empedocles of his presumption, see Linda L. Ray's article. Says Ray, "The songs of Callicles ... define [Empedocles'] wrong as an attempt to overstep the bounds of human limitation and defy 'the will of the gods'" (311). Additionally, it seems clear Arnold was interested in art as a vehicle for admonishing those who would presume. In her article on Arnold's critical indebtedness to Goethe, Josephine Barry notes Arnold's interest in Lessing's Laokoon and in the sculpture itself--surely one of the more famous and enduring artistic indictments of presumption. Accordingly, it is not surprising that Arnold and Lessing appear to share a certain aesthetic sympathy for those legendary figures allowing themselves presumption on a grand scale. Further, both sculpture and poem engender in observer and reader that combination of pity and fear that results in the catharsis of tragedy.

(12) It is tempting, in fact, to consider these seventy stanzas as leanding themselves to satire of the "anatomical" variety as documented by Northrop Frye--the "creative treatment of exhaustive erudition" which includes (in Burton's paradigmatic Anatomy of Melancholy) "the digression of the miseries of scholars" (Frye 311).
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