Wednesday, March 26, 2003

Week 09, Matthew Arnold

Notes on Matthew Arnold

“The Buried Life”


This poem brilliantly analyzes what Arnold posits as a universal need to look within, to trace the operations of our inner being and to express them in a language commensurate with this inner life. In other words, Arnold is writing about the very stuff of romantic expressivism. The first few stanzas make it clear that the poet is unable in the present instance to make the connection with another he later posits as being necessary to the insight he seeks. In spite of that, the poem is one of Arnold ’s more optimistic efforts. A power he simply describes as “Fate” (30), has kept “The unregarded river of our life” from plain view to protect us from our own destructive frivolity, but this river of authentic being flows on nonetheless. The poet explains that no individual, looking within only himself or herself, can truly gained access to the inner springs of life and thought. Acting on our own, we cannot know from whence we have come or where we are going; we cannot grasp the purpose of our lives. And we cannot, it almost goes without saying, express a purpose we cannot even apprehend. From lines 55-66, the speaker suggests that most of what we do is a kind of self-deception—what we do and say, that is, conceals far more than it reveals about what we really are inside. Society demands no less of a charade. Even so, the speaker is by no means downcast: there are those rare moments when the voice, the gaze, or the touch of a beloved person gives us access to our being in all its authenticity. Arnold casts the result of this rarity in Wordsworthian terms: “The eye sinks inward, and the heart lies plain, / And what we mean, we say, and what we would, we know” (86-87). So it is possible on rare occasion, and with the help of another, really to look within and to express what we see there. This is, especially for a gloomy poet like Arnold, a cheerful thought, and it bears comparison to Wordsworth’s beautiful lines from “Tintern Abbey,” “with an eye made quiet by the power / Of harmony, and the deep power of joy, / We see into the life of things” (47-49). It is possible to achieve an epiphany of the self and to express the insight flowing from it. What is captured is not something static but rather dynamic and flowing, as the poem’s persistent river metaphor indicates. Some may find a note of hesitancy in the poem’s final lines, “And then he thinks he knows / The hills where his life rose, / And the sea where it goes” (96-98). But I don’t think the word “knows” connotes doubt in this case; the conjectural seeker may or may not know the last word about his origins or destination, but that seems less important than the knowledge of his present self the poem says can, in fact, be attained. We should not expect from Matthew Arnold a brash statement such as John Donne’s “She is all States, and all Princes, I; / Nothing else is.” What we get, instead, is a sort of quiet, wistful optimism in the midst of so many melancholy and contemplative utterances by this earnest mid-Victorian.

Dover Beach

The poem opens with the description of a beautiful natural scene, a seascape. Apparently it is a clear night in patches because the speaker can see the nightlights of France across the English Channel . And he catches something eternal about humanity in the effects of natural process—Sophocles, the poet says, heard the same sound attentively long ago, the sound of pebbles tossing back and forth in the surf with the tide and the waves. (In the play referenced, the Chorus speaks of something much harsher—the low moan that accompanies gale force winds as they beat against the seashore, a sound compared to the ruin and devastation of Thebes ’s royal house thanks to the anger of the gods.) what our speaker hears is the melancholy retreat of simple religious faith, a retreat that leaves Western civilization all but naked. It is evident that Matthew Arnold does not draw the same sustenance from nature that Wordsworth, a poet he much admires, was able to draw. Both the natural and human world before him in prospect are described as beautiful illusions—sights that seem to promise certitude and intelligibility, a sense that there is meaning out there, that there is “a place for us.” But the speaker is unable to put his faith in anything he sees or hears. He remains disillusioned, I think, even though he tries to cheer himself and his lover with the injunction, “let us be true / To one another!” The world remains hostile, dreary, and violent. It makes no sense in itself, and the knowledge that we can at least temporarily make a genuine human connection with someone else, and thereby create the meaning we seek, does not satisfy the speaker. This poem might be described as what Meyer Abrams would call a Greater Romantic Lyric—it begins in meditation, proceeds to analyze a spiritual problem, and attempts to offer an emotional resolution. The tenuousness of that resolution gives the poem its distinctive Arnoldian quality. The couple remain isolated from the world, withdrawn from the violence and confusion surrounding them. Religion no longer offers solace in such a situation, at least not for this particular Victorian couple.

“Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse”

As always, Matthew Arnold turns out to be a very poetical Eeyore figure. The young enthusiasts of science and progress that give the mid-Victorian period its characteristic feel are welcome to go about their cheerful way, and enter the bright world of striving and competition. They do not feel the death of Christianity, suggests the speaker, because they were not brought up deeply believing in the religion. Arnold ’s melancholy is characteristic of many Victorian intellectuals with respect to the ancient religion that had shaped so many generations before them. I don’t suppose Arnold is addressing the scientific studies that proved so devastating to the faith of many Victorians, although he writes at what we might call the “ground zero” of religious doubt—a time still before Charles Darwin’s fully developed evolutionary theory, but a time in which other scientists such as Sir Charles Lyell were confidently estimating the vast amounts of time necessary to the formation of the geological structures they examined and puzzling over the strangeness of the fossils they unearthed. I would put this point around the 1830s in the English context. No, Arnold ’s “rigorous teachers” are the Enlightenment’s finest rationalists—philosophers who, as the Norton note says, subjected the tenets and texts of faith to the rigors of reason and historical inquiry. Arnold ’s speaker can neither believe nor dismiss from his mind the desire to believe (or at least to find certitude and moral meaning). I think he feels special affinity with the monks who dwell in the monastery and cultivate their herb garden, faithfully and simply following the religion of beautiful sorrow, presumably oblivious to the unbelievers all around them in a changing world. All the same, he cannot enter the mindset that makes such a life possible. What on earth he is doing at such a gloomy place (66)? he wants to know.

The romantic predecessors Byron and Shelley, as the speaker says, struck a defiant attitude towards what they considered the diminution of spirit in an increasingly “modern” world: they rejected traditional religious belief, but kept alive the passionate conviction that lies at the heart of faith. They believed in inspired utterance, in creative imagination, and in defying the oppressors who threatened to stamp out freedom of thought and action. They sought to remind us of what was truly enduring about us as human beings. But in the end they, too, passed, and the speaker, a true son of the romantics, is left wondering what good all that storming and stressing has done: after all, the people of the 1850’s are no less subject to the world’s cares as anyone in the romantics’ time. What good does describing and acting out our anguish in verse, no matter how fine it may be, do us? A latter-day Shelley would be no more apt to change the world than the original Shelley was. (A modern author responds eloquently to this downcast notion when, in his elegy “In Memory of William Butler Yeats,” he writes, “ For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives / In the valley of its making where executives / Would never want to tamper, flows on south / From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs, / Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives, / A way of happening, a mouth.”

Well, Arnold ’s speaker describes his own position as that of a man “Wandering between two worlds, one dead, / The other powerless to be born” (85-86). Where others may see a confident world re-forming itself in ever-new and exciting patterns, our speaker sees confusion and disarray—steeped in his desire for the moral and spiritual certitude of the past, and in the strivings of the romantic poets who preceded him, he feels himself a member of a tragic generation that can neither simply embrace the past nor smugly accept the present. But it is with the past that the speaker will dwell, however uncomfortably and equivocally: his place is with the contemplative and the reclusive, not with the proponents of modernity. Indeed, the concluding stanzas of the poem are clever and somewhat Tennysonian in their conjuring of colorful, bright medieval soldiering and hunting parties to describe a world of action and reality whose proponents would characterize as radically new. (See, in particular, “The Lady of Shalott.”) I suppose that in this poem, Arnold isn’t exactly writing the “poetry of action” he prescribes in his “Preface” to the Poems of 1853: his art is the kind that treats of problems it admits must remain insoluble because they are linked to the eternal, deep-down strivings and sorrows of humanity. In this sense, art (or, more broadly, culture), for Arnold , partly replaces religion, as so many critics have said.

Preface To Poems (1853)

Overview: Evidently, Matthew Arnold believes that the romantics, as some wag said about Thomas Carlyle, “led us into the wilderness and left us there.” Arnold seeks a balance between poetic form and expression; art should be oriented towards action, he believes, and it should not wallow in Hamlet-like, self-centered anguish or luxuriate in fine phrases and images. That kind of self-indulgence, he believes, has been the tendency since the early modern period. Shakespeare is wonderful, but Matthew Arnold by no means advocates taking him as your model if you want to be a writer. Modernity is a threat since it leads us away from what is permanent in us, and away from a unified sensibility and coherent outlook. The Greeks, according to Arnold are the best artistic models because they can help us fight modernity’s worst aspects, its threat of incoherence and its predilection for the part over the whole, its penchant for selfishness over what benefits the individual most genuinely and serves the community as well. The Greeks offer clarity, rigor, simplicity, and a balanced perspective on life. Like so many Victorians sages and culture critics, Arnold reasserts humanity’s need for some principle of excellence by which to think and live.

1505. “The dialogue of the mind with itself has commenced,” says Arnold . This dialogue cannot be wished away, but he is concerned about its negative effects on consciousness. Complexity is part of modern life, and the question is how to deal with it.Arnold declares himself against any representation that is, as he says, “vaguely conceived and loosely drawn.” We demand accuracy and precision in art; we demand that it should “add to our knowledge.” Or at least, that is what Arnold says we should demand of it; only if this is done, he implies, will it do what it really ought: “inspirit and rejoice the reader.” As always, Arnold draws much from German enlightenment and romantic authors—his descriptions, as he makes clear, are derived from Friedrich von Schiller, a great disciple of Immanuel Kant. The passage he cites is followed by The claim that the best art facilitates the free play of all the mind’s powers: “Der höchste Genuß aber ist die Freiheit des Gemüthes in dem lebendigen Spiel aller seiner Kräfte.”

Unfortunately, in his view, this sort of spirit-expanding free play is exactly what much modern art does not encourage. Instead, modern poetry gives us representations “in which the suffering finds no vent in action; in which a continuous state of mental distress is prolonged, unrelieved by incident, hope, or resistance; in which there is everything to be endured, nothing to be done.” This sort of artistic representation is not tragic in the high classical sense; it is not uplifting but is, he says, merely “painful.” The bottom line is that art should not give in to or merely reflect a particular era’s worst tendencies; it should challenge them, and generate a counter-balancing effect.

1506-07. Arnold insists that “The date of an action… signifies nothing.” There is no reason why we cannot derive as much pleasure and enlightenment from ancient works of art as from modern ones. This is no different from what many critics have said in their own way. Samuel Johnson, after all, wrote that the best art consists in “just representations of general nature” that have been highly esteemed for long periods of time, and he insisted that a painter should not “streak the leaves of the tulip” but should rather provide us with a general, universally recognizable representation. And Percy Bysshe Shelley, of course, writes in his “Defense Of Poetry” that poets write from a perspective beyond particular places or historical epochs. So the claim that art should deliver to us something of universal and eternal significance is nothing new. Arnold is asserting his neoclassical bent here: he derives from Aristotle’s Poetics the notion that literary art should be about “action,” about the construction of plot and story. Emotional expression is secondary to this imperative. As usual, Arnold is in dialogue with William Wordsworth, whose poetry he much admires but whose poetics he does not always agree with. We recall that Wordsworth, in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads, said that expression was the prime consideration and that action should simply be made to suit the expression. For Wordsworth, poetry is mainly an expressive vehicle; for Arnold , such a prescription is liable to result in morbid, unbalanced poetry. Somewhat like Thomas Carlyle, Arnold is telling us, “Close thy Byron, open thy Goethe.” As for the moderns in comparison with the ancients, Arnold writes that “with us, attention is fixed mainly on the value of the separate thoughts and images which occur in the treatment of an action. They regarded the whole; we regard the parts. With them, the action predominated over the expression of it; with us, the expression predominates over the action.” It is action, not expression, that delivers to us a sense of an intelligible cosmos. Arnold is therefore very interested in the formal qualities and integrity of a given poem; he emphasizes craftsmanship over intensity of expression.

1509.at this point in his argument, Arnold offers some rather harsh words about his fellow critics. He says that they not only allow unhealthy practices, they promote “false aims.” Such critics, he says, are mostly interested in “detached expressions,” and are quite an interested in demanding a sense of the whole in any particular poem. They treat poetry like what we would call “sound bites.” But to treat words and indeed entire works of art this way is to divorce language or whatever medium we are dealing with from the realm of action. While Matthew Arnold is a great believer in the integrity and autonomy of art, he does not promote the idea that the composition of a literary work should amount to navelgazing on the part of the artist. We do not, he insists, or rather we should not, favor a kind of art that amounts to “A true allegory of the state of one’s own mind.”

Also on this page, Arnold returns to the idea that a young writer must find suitable models. This advice obviously rejects the romantic idea that we can more or less dismiss our predecessors if we find them uncongenial and create something almost from nothing. What Arnold describes is not so much “the anxiety of influence” that, as Harold Bloom would say, caused romantic poets to struggle mightily against the overwhelming influence of John Milton. Rather, Arnold is pointing out that the sheer “multitude of voices counseling different things” threatens modern authors with a profound sense of incoherence when they most need clarity and balance. This is a prominent strain in Arnold ’s thinking on art and culture more generally, and even on politics. I think we can understand him without too much trouble because we live in a time with an even larger “marketplace of ideas” from which we may choose. So many ideas, many of them utterly incompatible—how is one to choose amongst them? To use a contemporary phrase, Arnold suggests that modern humanity is beset by “information overload.”

1510-11. But what about Shakespeare as a model? Why not make the greatest of English literary artists our model? Well, Shakespeare’s gift of “abundant… and ingenius expression” may be remarkable, but it is not what we need. In Arnold ’s view, Shakespeare was a bit too much in love with beautiful language and fine expression, so much so that it sometimes leads him away from sound construction and concentration on the actions with which his plays are concerned. Criticism on Shakespeare is punctuated by such gentle barbs—Ben Jonson essentially said he wished Shakespeare had had a good editor, that the man had “blotted out” more lines than he did. And Samuel Johnson lamented that the Bard was too fond of silly quibbles, too willing to let semi-obscene puns and the like mar the dignity and moral tenor of his dramas. I think what Arnold is getting at is that Shakespeare was a man of unparalleled artistry and genius who could give us both a complete action and fineness and intensity of expression, but when the other artists attempt to imitate his methods, the results fall short of the original’s mark. (By way of example, he mentions John Keats’s “Isabella, or the Pot of Basil.” It is a poem full of beautiful lines, Arnold suggests, but what is it really about?) Even so, I wouldn’t deny that Arnold is offering a pointed criticism: he says explicitly that Shakespeare’s “gift of expression… rather even leads him astray, degenerating sometimes into a fondness for curiosity of expression….” If this fondness proceeds too far, by implication, we will end up with a work of art that is more eccentric than universal in its appeal. He caps this argument with Guizot’s delicious quip that “Shakespeare appears in his language to have tried all styles except that of simplicity.” If we admire and emulate what is least worthy of such attention in Shakespeare, his art may please us, but it may not improve us or give us a holistic view of life; it may not contribute to our development as whole human beings.

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