The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 6. The qualities of his poetry
“The criticism of Dryden,” says Johnson, “was the criticism of a poet”; with even greater justice it may be said that Matthew Arnold’s poetry was the poetry of a critic. Although it is the fashion to call him the best of our elegiac poets, and although his verse consists mainly of short poems, we do not instinctively think of him as primarily, or pre-eminently, a lyric poet. There is scarcely one poem by him which is felt to be an outburst of unpremeditated, careless lyric rapture. There is, doubtless, an “emotion of the intellect,” which finds as glowing utterance in lyric poetry as the emotion of the heart; but it does not touch us in quite the same way. And it is just because of our consciousness of the predominance of the intellect over the heart, even in his simpler and more moving poems, that we miss the thrill which all really passionate lyric poetry forces us to feel. Requiescat, the Switzerland poems, Dover Beach— to name a few of his best known shorter pieces—are all either too “lucidly sad” or too palpably meditative to be classed as pure lyrics. His “second thoughts,” running always on the riddle of this painful earth, cloud his vision and stay his utterance. When he turned to poetry, Arnold—capable though he was of being gay and light-hearted enough in his prose—seemed to surrender himself to a melancholy apparently so bred in the bone as only to be explained as something constitutional. This it was that, most of all, froze the genial current of his poetic soul. His limitations, however, to whatever cause they may have been due, have not been altogether to his disadvantage, for few poets, at any time, have produced so much which is so uniformly excellent in style. Lucidity was what he aimed at, above all things—classical beauty and truth of phrase and image, suggesting always, in his own words, “the pure lines of an Ionian horizon, the liquid clearness of an Ionian sky.” This studied effort after perfection of form accounts largely, though not altogether, for “the quality of adhesiveness” which Sir Leslie Stephen found in Arnold’s poetry. It is poetry which, as the same critic adds, “learns itself by heart” in many places. But it could not do this, had it not, over and above this formal excellence, qualities that touch the heart and stir the feelings. Lovers of poetry less reticent and restrained than Arnold’s in the expression of emotion, less concerned with spiritual doubts and discords, and more abandoned in its indulgence in the more facile forms of sentiment, may find his poems cold, unsympathetic, even repellent. But those who look for the more abiding elements of poetical charm and power can never remain insensible to the intensity of feeling, “the sense of tears in mortal things,” the heroically austere temper and, above all, the feeling for nature and her chastening influences, which they will discover in all his best poems. In his view of nature, Matthew Arnold is not, as we have seen, quite Wordsworth’s disciple. For Arnold, nature’s “secret was not joy, but peace.” He loved her in her quieter and more subdued moods; he preferred her silences to her many voices, moonlight to sunlight, the sea retreating from the “moon-blanch’d land” with “its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,” to the sea in tumult and storm. The sea—“the unplumb’d, salt, estranging sea”—was, for him, the one element in which he discovered the deepest reflection of his own melancholy and sense of isolation. But, above everything, what he worshipped in nature was her steadfastness and calm, ever teaching the lesson of Self-Dependence.
By a strange irony, it was the lot of a poet who found these mighty consolations in the life of nature to “pine with nothing” the fever of his own soul to such an extent as to mark him out among the poets of the Victorian age as the one who articulates more distinctly than any other the cry of the maladie de siècle— the ”doubts, disputes, distractions, fears” of an “iron time.” He has no certain spiritual anodynes to prescribe for those who suffer from this sickness beyond a stoical recognition of the paramount claims of duty, and an effort to live “self-poised,” like the powers of nature, until we feel our souls becoming vast like them. But, in spite of these counsels of fortitude, we find the poet himself often possessed by a wistful yearning to “make for some impossible shore”—“agitated,” as he says of Marcus Aurelius, and “stretching out his hands for something beyond—tendentemque manus ripae ulterioris amore.