Home  »  Volume XIII: English THE VICTORIAN AGE Part One The Nineteenth Century, II  »  § 3. Arnold’s “theory of poetry”

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

IV. Matthew Arnold, Arthur Hugh Clough, James Thomson

§ 3. Arnold’s “theory of poetry”

A survey of Arnold’s poems in their chronological order brings into prominence two outstanding facts—the early maturity of his genius, and his steadfast adherence throughout to certain very definite ideals of poetic art and to a singularly melancholy philosophy of life. We note, at once, in the first small volume of 1849, the predominantly Greek inspiration of its contents, both in matter and in style. As the poet himself avows in a famous sonnet, the three Greek masters who, most of all, “propped, in those bad days, his mind” were Homer, Epictetus and, especially, Sophocles—the latter a poet fulfilling Arnold’s ideal as one whom

  • Business could not make dull, nor passion wild;
  • Who saw life steadily, and saw it whole.
  • The title-poem, The Strayed Reveller, is itself Greek in both subject and form, its rimeless and irregular metre being an attempt to reproduce the effect of the choric odes of Attic tragedy. The Fragment of an “Antigone”—another experiment in unrimed lyric—Mycerinus, The New Sirens, The Sick King in Bokhara are all Greek either in subject, or in source, or in manner of treatment. Writing in 1867 of the Greek strain in Arnold’s poetry generally, Swinburne said,
  • Even after his master, this disciple of Sophocles holds his high place; he has matched against the Attic of the gods this Hyperborean dialect of ours, and has not earned the doom of Marsyas.
  • In his endeavours to attune our “Hyperborean dialect” to Attic music, Arnold was plainly influenced by the example of Goethe—another of his life-long masters, alike in art and in his “wide and luminous view” of life, who, for him, was “the greatest modern poet, the greatest critic of all time.” Goethe’s presence is felt in The Strayed Reveller volume, as, also, is that of the English master who
  • laid us as we lay at birth
  • On the cool flowery lap of earth.
  • The Greeks, Goethe, Wordsworth—these are the prime literary sources of Matthew Arnold’s poetical inspiration; and we are in as close touch with them all in the poems of 1849 as we are in those of 1867. The Wordsworthian “note,” as the poet himself might say, is clearly heard in Registration, To a Gipsy Child and Mycerinus. Distinct echoes of Laodamia are caught in Mycerinus, while the grave movement of To a Gipsy Child is quite after Wordsworth’s manner. But the influence of Wordsworth is most apparent in Resignation—at once a poem of nature and a cry from the depth of the poet’s own soul. No poem, however, illustrates better than this last the essential difference between Arnold’s feeling for nature and that of Wordsworth. There is a wide distance between the poet to whom, if he “might lend their life a voice,” hills, streams, rocks, the sky, “seemed to bear rather than rejoice,” and the seer who felt it was nature’s “privilege to lead from joy to joy” and who held the faith that “every flower enjoys the air it breathes.” Perhaps the most original poem in the 1849 volume is The Forsaken Merman, which is remarkable alike for its pathos and its metrical skill, and was singled out by Clough in a review published in 1853. Clough found The Sick King in Bokhara “rather strained.” Other critics have found it dull, whereas one whose literary judgment was never far at fault—R. H. Hutton—held that Arnold “never achieved anything so truly dramatic.”

    With the volume of poems published under his own name in 1853, Arnold, as already stated, issued a preface expounding some of the main principles of his “theory of poetry.” This preface, now easily accessible, deserves careful reading, as it is Arnold’s first published “essay in criticism,” remarkable alike for its ease and grace of style, which bears little trace of the marked mannerisms of his later prose, and for its clear exposition of a poetical creed to which its author, in the main, adhered, both in precept and practice, throughout his life. We find him definitely ranging himself as the apostle of a classical ideal of poetry, in opposition to the vagaries and excesses of the romantic school, of which England seemed to him then to be “the stronghold.” And more particularly, he denounces views like those of the critic whom he quotes as maintaining that

  • the poet who would really fix the public attention must leave the exhausted past, and draw his subjects from matters of present import, and therefore both of interest and of novelty.
  • Here is sounded the first note of that war-cry against the Philistines which he was destined, in later years, to send ringing through many grooves of the national life. When we examine the preface in the light of Arnold’s own poetical practice, it may be urged that he failed in his attempts to exemplify, on any large scale, one of its main theses. Empedocles and Merope are his two most ambitious efforts to represent “situations” after the manner of the ancients—the first, on his own confession, an unsatisfying achievement, the latter, in the opinion of the majority of even his admirers, a graceful, but somewhat ineffectual, academic exercise.