Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. V. Browning to Rupert Brooke
Critical Introduction by Thomas Humphry Ward
Matthew Arnold (18221888)
[Eldest son of Dr. Arnold, of Rugby; born Dec. 24, 1822, at Laleham, near Staines; educated at Winchester, Rugby, and Balliol College, Oxford. Won the Newdigate Prize, 1843, with a poem on Cromwell. Published The Strayed Reveller, and other Poems. By A., 1849; Empedocles on Etna, and other Poems (same signature), 1852; Poems, First Series, 1853; Poems, Second Series, 1855. Elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford, 1857; re-elected, 1862 till 1867. It was as professorial lectures that his chief critical essays were first given to the world. He published Merope, a Tragedy, 1858; New Poems, 1867; and issued his collected poems in 1877, 1881, and 1885. His numerous prose writings were published between 1853 and 1888. He died suddenly, at Liverpool, on April 15, 1888.]
IT is with a sad appropriateness that we include in the definitive edition of The English Poets the poems of the eminent writer to whom we owe the General Introduction to the volumes.1 The fourteen years which have elapsed since their first publication have brought to a close the life of many a great Englishman, and to the poets they have been especially fatal. Rossetti went first, then Arnold, then his seniors, Browning and Tennyson. Sharing as Arnold did the greatness of the last two, there is a first and great distinction to be noticed between them and him. They were poets by profession, so to speak; they lived for poetry, and went on producing it regularly till the end of their long lives. He, on the other hand, was a busy public official, and from the year 1851 till his retirement from the Education Department in 1885, all the time that he could give to literature was saved from an exhausting daily round of work. Again, his literary vocation was not all poetical, as theirs was. It was as a critic that he was, in his life-time, most widely known, and that he had the most immediate effect upon his generation. But if the stream of his verse is scanty; if his three volumes look slight beside the sixteen volumes of Browning; if, during a wide space of his middle life he almost ceased to write poetryon the other hand, how little there is that one could wish away! A certain largeness of production is undoubtedly necessary before one can admit the claim of an artist to the highest place; but at the same time, excess of production is a commoner fault with poets than its contrary is. Instances of an over-chastened Muse like Grays, or in a less degree, like Arnolds, are comparatively rare among true poets. While of Dryden, of Wordsworth, of Byron, more than half might well be spared, there is scarcely anything in Arnolds volumesexcept perhaps Balder Deadthat has not a distinct value of its own, scarcely anything that ought not to be preserved. Of no poet is it more difficult to make a satisfying selection; and we may echo in serious earnest the answer that he used laughingly to make to the friends who complained that this or that favourite was excluded from the poems chosen by him for the Golden Treasury volumeIf I had had my own way I should have included everything!
Matthew Arnolds writings, in poetry and in prose, are their own commentary; at least, even those who knew him best can say little about their genesis or their sources beyond what they themselves convey. No man of letters was ever more genial, or more affectionate to his friends, and yet none ever told less, even in intimate private letters, about his literary work or about those inmost thoughts of his which from time to time found expression in poetry. As a rule, he composed in his head, like Wordsworth, and wrote down his verse on any scraps of paper that came handy; whereas his prose was always written methodically, in the early morning hours. He had the habit, almost the passion, of destroying whatever manuscripts had served their purpose; and at his death scarcely any scraps of his writings were found, and scarcely any of the multitudes of letters that he had received. Yet his letters to his family and friends remain, of course; and it is to be hoped that before long we shall have Mr. George Russells selection from them. This, though it will contain but few actual references to the poems, will naturally throw light upon them, and will show, as they do, how early his mind reached its maturity. The first little volume of poems, it will be remembered, was published in 1849, when Arnold was twenty-seven; but five or six years before that he had written letters containing judgments which he would have felt and expressed in just the same way twenty years later. From the beginning, in verse as in his intimate prose, Arnold gave evidence of a singularly clear, open mind, playing freely upon all the aspects and all the problems of life as they presented themselves to him in turn. That was his natural endowment; but from the beginning, also, he set himself to enrich it by the persistent study of the best that is known and thought in the world, as taught by the great writers of all times. Among these writers, the Greeks came first, and their influence penetrated deepest. Quite early in his poetical history he wrote his memorable sonnet To a Friend, in answer to his question, Who prop, in these bad days, my mind?; and the answer that he gave was to name two Greek poets and a Greek moralist, Homer, Sophocles, Epictetus. Companions of his youth, these influences remained with him to the end. One of the most surprising qualities of Arnolds mind was his power, in spite of the complexity of his own culturein spite of the Hebraistic elements in it, and of the cross-influences of his multifarious readinghis power of assimilating the Greek spirit in its simplicity, and of presenting ideas, characters, images, with the clearness of Phidian sculpture or of Sophoclean verse. None was more conscious than he of this disease of modern life, with its sick hurry, its divided aimsbut none was less personally infected by it. Lucidity, the subject of one of the latest and most brilliant of his public addresses, was his characteristic from the first; a sad lucidity perhaps, if we are to trust the bulk of his poems, but one that was never clouded by confusion. This critic clearness was doubtless a gift of nature to him, but it was developed by a study of Greek literature which, with him, did not end when he left the University. Why, especially after the great success of his Oxford lecture on Theocritus (Pagan and Mediæval Religious Sentiment)why he never carried out his scheme of a volume on the Greek poets, his friends never quite understood. He was not, indeed, a professed scholar, in the school and college sense of the word, but no writer of his day could have written so adequately of the poetical qualities of Sophocles and Pindar, just as none has written so suggestively of translating Homer.
Like Goethe, Arnold assimilated Greek forms in many of his writings. Even after his master, wrote Mr. Swinburne in 1867, 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. Such fragments as those from a Deianira and an Antigone are close imitations, while the lovely poem of The Strayed Reveller is as reminiscent of Greek form as of Greek matter. The special and characteristic Arnold metre, the unrhymed, lilting, quasi-anapæstic measure of Heines Grave and Rugby Chapel, is a sort of adaptation, too, from Greek choric metres. It must not indeed be supposed, wrote Arnold in the preface to Merope, that these last [he is speaking of the choruses there, but the words have a wider application] are the reproduction of any Greek choric measures. So to adapt Greek measures to English verse is impossible: what I have done is to try to follow rhythms which produced on my own feeling a similar impression to that produced on it by the rhythms of Greek choric poetry. The result is the metre of which we have spokenGreek and yet not Greek; like the Attic chorus, but very different.
But just as there is a difference between the Attic and the Hyperborean in form, so there is in matter. Strongly as Arnolds view of the world, his criticism of life, was influenced by Greek poetry and philosophy, there is a great, an essential distinction between him and his models. How comes it, people often ask, that he, over whose conversation, and over most of whose prose work, there played a delightful and a perpetual humour, should in his verse be so uniformly grave, so far removed from humour? How comes it that in his poetry he brings, not once nor twice, but perpetually, the eternal note of sadness in? The truth is, that verse was for him; except in two or three of the poems with which he amused some of his latest days, the expression of his gravest self, and his most abiding thought. And here there was, as it were, a permanent nostalgie of a simpler and earlier age; a pained sense that the modern mind, delight as it may in the forms that ancient art has left us, can never re-create for itself the moral atmosphere in which that art had its origin. Hence the almost tragic note that sounds through so much of Arnolds poetry; the sad reflexion that he, whom nature and training had endowed with Hellenic clearness of vision and utterance, should have to express the thoughts of an age in which all is confusion and perplexity.
Hence, again, his fondness for certain types, repeating one another to a certain extent: Empedocles, who in his inability to live either for himself or in the world, plunges into the crater of Etna; the Scholar Gypsy, who seeks refuge among a primitive race from the torment of civilization; Obermann, retreating to the Swiss mountains to contemplate life and his own soul. That so much of Arnolds poetry is given up to this class of subjects and of thoughts is largely due to the fact that his early manhood, the time when his poetic production was most active, lay in those years of storm and stress, 1840 to 1850the years of Chartism, of the Oxford Movement, of continental revolution, of railway expansion, the years of Carlyles greatest activity, and of George Sands greatest effectiveness.
We have said that in counting up the literary influences that worked upon Arnold, the chief place must be given to the Greeks. He cared much less for the Latin than for the Greek writers, and was less touched by the charm of Virgil than Tennyson was; the lines to The Mantovano, indeed, would have found as little response in him as would the alcaics To Milton. In an Oxford lecture, famous at the time, but never printed, he called Lucretius morbid; another lecture, on Propertius, he often announced but never delivered. Of the author of Literature and Dogma it need hardly be said that the Bible, considered both as literature and as a storehouse of profound reflexions upon human life, had a strong and permanent influence upon him. Some of the Fathers touched him a good deal; he studied St. Augustines Confessions and the Imitation, and felt their power and charm; and the Introduction to these volumes of ours has put on record his view of Dante, that crown and flower of the mediæval Italian mind. But none of these were so much to him as the modernsShakespeare and Montaigne in their degree, Wordsworth and Byron of course, but most of all Goethe and some French writers of his own generation. One of his most treasured books was a fine copy of the thirty-volume edition of Goethe, which he had read through and assimilated as he assimilated the Greek classics in his boyhood. The wide and luminous view of the writer whom Arnold called the greatest poet of his time, the greatest critic of all times, had an extraordinary attraction for him. Sanity, the absence of capricethese were to him the essential things; he found them in the Greeks, in Goethe, and in the great French tradition from Molière to Leconte de Lisle, from Montaigne to Sainte-Beuve. It was because he did not find them in Victor Hugo that he could never bring himself to join the body of that poets votaries, and that he once said to the present writer, there is more in the one little volume of André Chénier than in the whole forty volumes of Hugo.
It is hoped that the following selections, though far too brief to represent fully work of a poet so rich in thought as Arnold was, will be found to contain the most perfect, and many of the most suggestive and stimulating, of his poems. Many old favourites, indeed, will be missed altogether, and in two or three instancesnot moreextracts have been given where the complete poems might have been expected or wished for. From a long narrative poem such as Sohrab and Rustum, this choice of a mere fragment was of course inevitable; and the Editor, after much consideration, has decided to exclude the whole of the beautiful early poem Resignation, except the famous page about the Poet. Arnold himself, though he never moved away from the conclusions of a poem which taught that the secret of life was not joy but peace, came to regard it as faulty in workmanship, diffuse, and immature. One of the most interesting of his poems, speaking biographically, the Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse, has also been shut out, on the ground of a certain monotony in its composition; and the same fate, merely for reasons of space, has befallen that vivid summary, as it may be called, of the spiritual history of Europe, Obermann Once More. We have printed Thyrsis, but have been forced to omit the poem which is, as it were, the introduction to it, The Scholar Gypsy, though it is one of the most characteristic of all, and though the long simile with which it concludes is as famous as anything the author ever wrote. Again, we have been forced to limit ourselves to one small fragment of Empedocles on Etna, the Song of Callicles, and have had to exclude the splendid monologue of the philosopher. Arnold for many years condemned it himself, and withdrew from publication the whole poem for the reasons which he gave in the celebrated Preface of 1853; but reflexion and the persuasions of his friends led him to cancel the sentence of banishment, and Empedocles reappeared in the New Poems of 1867. Since that time it has held its place in every edition, and the opinion of all readers of poetry has confirmed the inclusion of it, however true may have been the poets feeling that it was wanting in dramatic action, and was, for enjoyment, too monotonously grave.