The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
IV. Matthew Arnold, Arthur Hugh Clough, James Thomson
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 5. His later poems
Several poems from the withdrawn volume of 1852 were reprinted in 1853; but only two or three of the more important ones can be noticed here. The most elaborate, and the finest, of these is Tristram and Iseult, a poem which seems to reveal the author in a peculiar mood of hesitation. He is here exploring the shores of old romance as if afraid of making a firm landing and of boldly occupying the fair country that opens out before him. The very frequency of his changes of metre in the poem produces an impression of uncertainty and of a shrinking from the full challenge which his subject gave him. Stanzas in Memory of the Author of “Obermann” is one of those personal and reflective poems which are characteristic of Matthew Arnold’s work, and which give us the most intimate revelations of his soul. It is strange to find a comparatively obscure writer like Sènancour classified with Goethe and Wordsworth as one of the three puissant spirits who, in “the hopeless tangle of our age,” alone seemed to the poet to “have attain’d to see their way.” But it was a somewhat morbid interest, after all, that the poet felt in Sènancour—A fever in these pages burnsBeneath the calm they feign;A wounded human spirit turns,Here, on its bed of pain.What, however, in this first Obermann poem is of most import are the brief passages which speak of Goethe and Wordsworth. Its sequel, Obermann Once More—written many years afterwards—is, as a whole, a more thought-compelling poem, not so much because of what is said about Sènancour as of what is revealed of Arnold’s own attitude towards the religious thought of his time. In Memorial Verses—another poem included in the 1853 volume—we have the poet’s elegiac tribute to his greatest English master, Wordsworth, and, incidentally, memorable summaries of the gifts of Byron and Goethe. Whether the critical estimate of Wordsworth embodied in these verses is complete or just at all points may be a matter of dispute; but no one can refuse to join in their felicitous parting note,Keep fresh the grass upon his grave,O Rotha, with thy living wave!Sing him thy best! for few or noneHears thy voice right, now he is gone.A Summer Night gives us as moving and as artistically perfect an expression of Arnold’s philosophy of life as anything to be found in his poetry. None of his poems opens in a finer imaginative strain, and in no other is the transition from the human interest suggested by the “moon-blanch’d street,” and its opposite vision of the headlands and the sea lit by “the same bright, calm moon,” to the central meditative passages more skilfully and yet naturally contrived. After comparing, in one of these passages, those who escape from this world’s prison with its “unmeaning task-work” to the tempest-tossed helmsman who clings to his “spar-strewn deck,”Still bent to make some port he knows not where,Still standing for some false, impossible shore,he ends up with a magnificent affirmation of the power and steadfastness of nature, asA world above man’s head, to let him seeHow boundless might his soul’s horizons be.
The so-called “second series” of poems, which Arnold published in 1855, included only one considerable new poem—Balder Dead, a work which the poet thought would “consolidate the peculiar sort of reputation he got by Sohrab and Rustum.” This poem, slightly longer than Sohrab, is cast in the same Homeric vein, and written in equally excellent blank verse. But the subject fails, somehow, to grip the reader as powerfully as does that of the earlier poem. To the year 1855 also belongs his next important poem, Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse, which was published in the April number of Fraser’s Magazine. These verses, in which Obermann again appears, are among the most pathetic of Arnold’s personal “confessions” in verse. Nowhere else does he give us a clearer, or a more poignant, articulation of his feelings as a solitary, and all but forlorn, wanderer from all familiar folds of faith than in the lines where, of the Carthusian “brotherhood austere,”Not as their friend, or child, I speak!But as, on some far northern strand,Thinking of his own Gods, a GreekIn pity and mournful awe might standBefore some fallen Runic stone—For both were faiths, and both are gone.Wandering between two worlds, one dead,The other powerless to be born,With nowhere yet to rest my head,Like these, on earth I wait forlorn.Their faith, my tears, the world derideI come to shed them at their side.
In 1858, a year after his election to the Oxford chair of poetry, Arnold published Merope, a Tragedy—with an elaborate preface, of which the most permanently interesting part is an exposition, admirably clear and concise, of some of the cardinal principles of Greek tragic art. Merope was not reprinted and included in his own authorised canon of his poetical works until 1885. As a drama, it lacks life; as poetry, it is certainly inferior to Empedocles. The rimeless choruses, upon which Arnold bestowed much pains, may, as he tells us, have produced on “his own feeling a similar impression to that produced on it by the rhythms of Greek choric poetry”; but they fall flat on an uninstructed ear and, despite their effort after correctness of structure, give a much less vivid impression of the general effect of Greek choric measures than does the “relaxed form” which Arnold wishes Milton had not adopted in Samson Agonistes.
The New Poems of 1867 included several by which Matthew Arnold is now best remembered, but none which can be said to excel the best of his previous work. They are, nearly all, of an elegiac or meditative character, and repeat the old familiar melancholy strain. Like The Scholar-Gipsy, Thyrsis is both an idyll of the Oxford country and a plaintive protest against the discordant spectacleOf men contention-tost, of men who groan.The landscape is pictured, once more, in lines as exquisite as those of the earlier poem, while no passage in all Arnold’s poetry surpasses in beauty the two stanzas which contrast the “tempestuous morn in early June,” with “the high Midsummer pomps” underdreaming garden-trees,And the full moon, and the white evening-star.Rugby Chapel, again, is another professedly elegiac poem, which is as much concerned with “the cloud of human destiny” as with the memory of the poet’s father. Though Rugby Chapel is charged with intense feeling, its rimeless verse has about it something hard and rhetorical, which is felt still more in Heine’s Grave. As a purely elegiac poem, A Southern Night, in which Arnold laments the death of his brother, surpasses all the others in tenderness and depth of feeling, and is not inferior to them in poetical expression. Westminster Abbey—a noble elegy on his father’s biographer and his own life-long friend, dean Stanley—and three other poems were the only efforts in verse Arnold attempted after 1867. Of these last three, the poem on his dead dachshund “Geist” is one of the most beautiful things of its kind in the language.