"They say that God is everywhere, and yet we always think of Him as somewhat of a recluse.” – Emily Dickinson
In 1882, Nietzsche put the following words into the mouth of one of his characters:
God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, murderers of all murderers console ourselves? … Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we not ourselves become gods simply to be worthy of it? (The Gay Science)
Despite the fact that Nietzsche chose a madman to utter this sentiment, it remains that the crippling effects of religious scepticism evident here had in fact been seeping across the world, certainly throughout Britain long before the Victorian era. Innovations in geology, German biblical studies, and translations of subversive material such as George Eliot’s of The Life of Christ meant that increasing numbers of Christians were finding it difficult to believe in the figure of Jesus Christ as a historical reality. R. L. Brett writes that “the Jesus of history has been replaced by a symbol” (10). The uncertainty in what was previously considered religious fact was pushed further with the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859. Theories of evolution by natural selection stood in stark opposition to the teachings of Genesis the literal truth of which had been called into question decades before Darwin. The concept of natural selection seemed to remove any purpose from history and any divine providence from the universe. Key to all these developments was the possibility and probability of biblical writers being fallible, thereby denying the belief of Divine Inspiration. A book that was central to the Christian faith was being transformed from a divine truth to a mere literary text. This had a huge impact on believers; Bishop Lee of Manchester insisted “All our hopes for eternity, the very foundations of our faith, are taken from us, if one line of that Sacred Book be declared to be unfaithful or untrustworthy” (Colenso, The Pentateuch and Book of Joshua Critically Examined,176). The perceptible decline in spirituality and the increasing acceptance of agnosticism and atheism is naturally apparent in the literature of the age. Of course, everyone did not react in the same way: some, such as John Keble, failed to recognise a disappearance of God; others, including Thomas Carlyle, George Eliot and John Stuart Mill, saw God’s retreat as an emancipating license for individuals to follow their own codes of morality. For poets such as Matthew Arnold and Gerard Manley Hopkins, however, the retreat, the possible disappearance or death of God was totally intolerable. J. Hillis Miller writes that “at all cost they must attempt to re-establish communication” (13). Despite the overwhelming emphasis placed on the Victorian era as the first period of real doubt, it is interesting to examine the fraught attempts of some to revive God, to ensure his survival. For Arnold and Hopkins it appears this is attempted through similar methods: reconnecting with fellow human beings and with nature, returning to the form of poetry and abandoning the Church of England.
Arnold and Hopkins both express a deep discontent with the isolated state of the Victorian person, believing him to be alienated from nature and other human beings. The barrier Arnold perceives between men is evident in his ‘Marguerite’ poems as he laments, “We mortal millions live alone” (ln. 4). This self-containment of man is a concept totally abhorrent to Arnold and interestingly recurs in ‘The World and the Quietist’:
Deafened by his own stir
The rugged labourer
Caught not till then a sense
So glowing and so near
Of his omnipotence (ll. 20-24).
The implication here is that man, so consumed in his personal travails and so alienated from companions, has begun to believe in his total independence. It would seem Arnold is heralding Nietzsche’s sentiment: because of the neglect of God’s presence man has begun to believe himself a god.
It follows that Arnold endorsed the need for a reunion of some sort. A. L. Rowse observes that companionship was central to Arnold’s beliefs, “love for others, considerations for their well-being, as much as one’s own: only this gives happiness and joy in life” (Matthew Arnold: Poet and Prophet, 168). Textual evidence is found in ‘Isolation. To Marguerite’, as Arnold writes of happier men,
– for they, at least,
Have dreamed two human hearts might blend
In one, and were through faith released
From isolation (ll.37-41).
Although Arnold continues to discern the implicit solitude of man he maintains it is eased by the union of two people. In perhaps his most well-known and acclaimed poem, Arnold implies that in the contemporary spiritual wasteland love is the only consolation:
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! For the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
… Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light. (‘Dover Beach’, ll. 29-31, 33).
It would seem Matthew Arnold has little faith in a universal recovery. He sees in the Victorian landscape a spiritual and emotional emptiness and while this cannot be removed it can at least be lightened by engaging in human love and relationship with others. This love is arguably analogous or can at least be compared to the love of God: as Rowse explains,
What is most revealing of him personally is a moving passage on the power of love, which he put forward by analogy with the religious spirit: ‘Of such a mysterious power and its operation some clear notion may be got by anybody who has ever had any overpowering attachment, or has been in love. Everyone knows how being in love changes for the time a man’s spiritual atmosphere, and makes animation and buoyancy where before there was flatness and dullness (166).
In his appeal in ‘Dover Beach’ and the consolation described in the Marguerite poems Arnold would appear to consider his subject as synonymous with experiencing the love of God. Only in finding companionship and rediscovering God’s love can the “strange disease of modern life” (‘The Scholar-Gipsy’, ln. 202) be eased.
Like Arnold, Gerard Manley Hopkins recognises a wearied modern man who is more concerned with profit and who is systematically ignoring God’s message:
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell (‘God’s Grandeur’, ll. 5-7).
The repetitions of ‘have trod’ reflect Hopkins’ disgust at the long-failing ignorance and selfishness of his fellow man. Similarly, the internal rhyme of ‘seared’, ‘bleared’ and ‘smeared’ mirrors modern man’s life, a repetition of dreary and progressively more sullied moments. The workers who are searing, blearing and smearing the world are obviously unaware how these destructive movements are nullifying any relationship with its creator. Hopkins also believed a reconnection with God’s creations would invigorate a relationship with the creator. While Arnold turned to the fulfilment of love between people, Hopkins looked to the beauty and intricacies of nature.
Hopkins’ sense of wonderment in the God-created world is evident in his various exclamations and ejaculations as he beseeches the reader to “Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies! / O look at all the fire-fold sitting in the air!” (‘The Starlight Night’. ll. 1- 2). What is particularly interesting to note is how Hopkins succeeds in invigorating repetition in this poem. Whereas in ‘God’s Grandeur’ the reader feels oppressed by the excessive recurrences of phrases and sounds, in this poem the reader is inspired by his amazement as he recognises the extraordinary in the everyday. This ability of Hopkins to find a heaven in a wild flower is abundant as he comments that “Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens” (‘Spring’, ln. 3) or as he cherishes the “lovely behaviour / Of silk-sack clouds” (‘Hurrahing in Harvest’, ll. 2-3). Hopkins explicitly states his admiration of nature in his journals, writing, “I do not think I have ever seen anything more beautiful than the bluebell I have been looking at. I know the beauty of our Lord by it” (Miller, 313). Hopkins’ joy, even euphoria, at re-discovering nature then is because he sees all things as created in Christ. Christopher Devlin points out that “[Hopkins] thinks of Christ’s created nature as the original pattern of creation, to a place in which all subsequent created beings must attain in order to be complete” (Miller, 312-3). This evaluation seems justified when we read the following verses: “I walk, I lift up heart, eyes, / Down all that glory in the heavens to glean our Saviour” (‘Hurrahing in Harvest’, ll. 5-6). Similar to Arnold’s belief that God’s love can be felt through fellow-feeling, Hopkins maintains through his journals and through his poetry that God remains omnipresent and that one simply has to look, really look at the beauty of nature to see the beauty of Christ.
After recognising that God is indeed still present in friendship, love and in nature, these poets express a preoccupation with how best to communicate with Him. For both, the medium of poetry was of vital importance for expressing religious belief. Arnold believed implicitly in the superiority of poetry for reflecting the divine. In his introduction of ‘The Study of Poetry’ (1888) Arnold writes of lost faith resulting from the failure of religious ideas and facts; but importantly he notes that
for poetry the idea is everything; the rest is a world of illusion. Poetry attaches its emotion to the idea; the idea is the fact. The strongest part of our religion today is its unconscious poetry (Brett, 77).
Believing in the special abilities of the poet, Arnold describes “the poet, to whose mighty heart / Heaven doth a quicker pulse impart, / Subdues that energy to scan / Not his own course, but that of man” (‘Resignation’, ll. 144-147). Not only are the faculties of the poet more acute, Arnold also bestows him with considerate selflessness. He reiterates this belief as his speaker insists “the poet more, than man…Deeper the poet feels” (ll. 204, 206). Looking to Arnold’s critical writing readers can discern a similar importance is placed on the role of poetry. In ‘Literature and Dogma’ he demythologises the New Testament and evokes instead the poetry of the biblical writing maintaining it is this that keeps God’s presence tangible. He writes of those who have discarded the Bible after learning of its apparent inaccuracies and impossibilities:
To these persons we restore the use of the Bible, if, while showing them that the Bible-language is not scientific, but the language of common speech or of poetry and eloquence, approximative language thrown out at certain great objects of consciousness which it does not pretend to define fully, we convince them at the same time that this language deals with facts of experience most momentous and real (126- 7).
Arnold ultimately believed that in the numerous discordant voices about God’s presence, the voice of the poet and the poetry he saw as implicit in religion could and should be the unifying force. And others responded to this belief; I. A. Richards maintained in his Principles of Literary Criticism that if the complete collapse of traditional beliefs should occur “we shall then be thrown back as Matthew Arnold foresaw, upon poetry. It is capable of saving us; it is a perfectly possible means of overcoming chaos” (Brett, 75). Conservative John Keble similarly argued that “Christian belief has a ‘handmaid’ in poetry: an essential theological tool to help bring Anglicans closer to God and the Church” (Scheinberg, 164). Some critics have gone as far as to suggest that Arnold, disillusioned with the state of Christianity, attempted to make a surrogate religion of poetry. This seems, however, too extreme a statement and Brett readily dismisses it, arguing that Arnold merely saw great poetry as “a glass in which men could discern an image of eternal truth…The Bible for him was the supreme example” (83). It remains that one of the most significant means for reconnecting with God, in Arnold’s eyes at least, was through the reading and writing of poetry.
Hopkins also saw poetry as the highest mode of reasserting God’s presence in the world. For Hopkins “any two things however unlike are in something like” (Miller, 277) and therefore they may also be said to rhyme. By poetically portraying the rhyme of Christ, Hopkins was not only paying homage to the deity that created these patterns but also saw himself as strengthening God’s presence in the world. He admits that “design, pattern or what I am in the habit of calling ‘inscape’ is what I above all aim at in poetry” (Miller, 281). Reading ‘The Windhover’, which Hopkins considered his greatest work, one is struck most powerfully by the highly patterned form of the poem. The conventional syllabic structure of the sonnet is broken as Hopkins orders his verses according to the number of accented syllables instead, a practice he termed “sprung rhythm”. Adjectives, verbs and nouns are obscured as he writes of the “daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn- drawn Falcon” (ln. 2). These words could be taken to mean that the dappled dawn light draws (i.e. sketches) the falcon so the speaker can see it, or that the dappled dawn draws (i.e. attracts) the falcon, or that the dappled falcon is attracted by the dawn (see Landow). It appears that Hopkins intended the reader to come upon these various meanings. The multifaceted sense characterises the unfathomable omnipresence of Christ in the world. Further, the “-ing” suffix used to rhyme the first eight verses is also present internally in the first stanza. The sound occurs in adjectives (“wimpling”, ln. 4), nouns (“wing” (ln. 4), “thing” (ln. 8) and verbs (“riding” (ln. 2), “gliding” (ln. 6) linking the different parts of the sentences together with intense unity. Again, Christ is represented in this unity. As well as the structure of the poem being assured in the terse arrangement of sounds and sense, the subject of the poem, that is the windhover, is actually explicitly linked to Christ. The “Brute beauty and valour and act” (ln. 9) of the bird “here / Buckle” (ll. 9-10) and are recognised as being subsidiary to Christ’s existence in the world. It is worth noting that when a falcon is in flight it becomes the shape of a cross and yet it cannot be compared to Christ, “my chevalier” (ln. 11) who is “a billion / Times told lovelier, more dangerous” (ln. 10-11). The poem is also, of course, offered ‘To Christ our Lord’. Hopkins aim in this poem as in others is to raise everyday objects and occurrences to the level of miracles, but through revelation rather than mere assertion. His inspiration is certainly his response to the omnipresence of Christ.
‘The Windhover’ is but one demonstration of Hopkins’ use of poetry as the most articulate way of unifying his experience of the world and God. J. Hillis Miller provides a useful expansion on this thought:
beginning with a sense of his own isolation and idiosyncrasy, Hopkins turns outside himself to nature, to poetry, and to God. Gradually he integrates all things into one chorus of many voices all singing, in their different ways, the name of Christ. Poetry is the imitation and echo of this chorus (323).
Hopkins found that the most fitting way of expressing his devotion to Christ was through the inscape of words, his poetry. It helped bare a heart in hiding and was a means of fully recognising the reflection or rhyme of “Christ in ten thousand places, / Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his” (‘When Kingfishers Catch Fire’, ll. 12-13). It is clear, however, that Hopkins’ view of poetry was, on the whole, very different to Matthew Arnold’s. He struggled for some time with the belief that writing poetry was too individualistic and self-indulgent for a Jesuit priest and burned his early poems upon conversion to Catholicism. Even after he began writing again in 1875, Hopkins put his responsibilities as a priest before his poetry (see Everett). Unlike Arnold, who saw the poet as granted greater virtues and poetry greater intrinsic worth than the ordinary man or writing, Hopkins believed poetry was not something in itself to be idolised but a means for worshipping Christ and affirming his existence.
In his willingness to sacrifice his poetry, it becomes obvious that Hopkins allegiance to the Catholic Church was paramount in his life. Indeed, it appears that in order for Arnold and Hopkins to feel a real presence of God in their lives the doctrines of the Anglican Church had to be forsaken. In Hopkins’ case, he abandoned a High Church Anglican upbringing in his conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1866 (Everett). For Hopkins, the feeling of a real, tangible connection with God was central to the Catholic faith. The crucial difference was the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist compared to mere symbols of Christ’s body and blood in Protestantism. “The great aid to belief and object to belief,” he writes in a letter, “is the doctrine of the Real Presence in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar. Religion without that is sombre, dangerous, illogical, with that it is…loveable” (Miller, 312). The physicality of Christ and the notion of Him being really present are particularly tangible as Hopkins describes communion offerings being carried from the tabernacle as “Christ from cupboard fetched” (‘The Bugler’s First Communion’, ln. 10). The calm that he found on conversion to Catholicism is also reflected in his poetry. In the beautiful lyric ‘Heaven-Haven’, Hopkins deliberates upon his conversion desiring to go “Where springs not fail…Where no storms come” (ll. 2, 6). Catholicism is represented as a place of tranquillity where the difficulties and doubts of Anglicanism, “the swing of the sea” (ln. 8), can be abandoned. Hopkins also deliberates on the wretched condition of Britain due to its neglect of Catholicism. In ‘The Wreck of the Deutchland’ and ‘The Loss of they Eurydice’, Hopkins sees shipwreck, with its severe loss of life, as an analogy of England’s lapse from Catholicism, which he deplores:
Day and night I deplore
My people and born own nation,
Fast foundering own generation. (‘The Loss of the Eurydice’, ll. 86-88)
He compares the British people who do not attest to Catholicism to the lost crew, “in / Unchrist, all rolled in ruin—” (ll. 95-96). Although Hopkins did feel isolation in this choice of Christian denomination, evidenced in his lament “To seem the stranger lies my lot, my life” (ln. 1), it remains that Hopkins believed Catholicism to be the only and the ultimate truth and therefore the ultimate saviour of British faith.
Unlike Hopkins who found he achieved comfort in the ceremonies of Catholicism, Matthew Arnold believed it was necessary to divorce religious belief entirely from dogma. He suggested “dogma means not necessarily a true doctrine, but merely a doctrine or a system of doctrine determined, decreed, and received” (Blackburn, 313). For Arnold the real message of Christianity was fellow feeling and following a system of morality or what he termed “righteousness” (Brett, 80). These beliefs are reflected in his poetic as well as his critical writing. He comments on the inevitable failure of rationalising the divine, saying “Alas, too soon all / Man’s grave reasons disappear!” (‘The New Sirens’, ll. 89-90). And he pities the “exiles…false ones…Seeking ceiled chambers and a palace-hall” (‘New Sirens’, ll. 37, 39, 40); it seems here that those who return to the institution of the church are not only misguided but doomed to remain outcasts. This belief is further sanctioned in ‘The Scholar-Gipsy’ where Arnold comments on how those who remain “Light half-believers of our casual creeds” (ln. 172) will continue to “hesitate and falter life away, / And lose to-morrow the ground won to- day” (ll. 178-179). For any progress in communication or true connection with God, Arnold believed it was necessary to eliminate the casual creeds. This belief is explained most concisely and most powerfully in the following words:
God’s wisdom and God’s goodness! – Ay, but fools Mis-define these till God knows them no more. Wisdom and goodness, they are God! – what schools Have yet so much as heard this simpler lore? (‘The Divinity’, ll. 9-12)Although attempting to further oneself in wisdom and goodness was considered religious to Arnold, he still remained distinctive from others who proposed a religion of humanity or morality. He never reduced religion solely to morality; religion, he declared, was morality “touched by emotion”(Arnold, cited in Brett, 82). This phrase and another notorious remark that God is “a tendency not ourselves that makes for righteousness” (Arnold, cited in Brett, 82) brought Arnold derision and hostility. The philosopher F. H. Bradley and writer T. S. Eliot rejected Arnold’s logic, Eliot claiming that “the effect of Arnold’s religious campaign is to divorce religion from thought” (Brett, 82). This perhaps is an extreme reaction to what Arnold felt was the only natural progression for the state of religion in the Victorian era. Regardless of how he was received by his contemporaries, Arnold maintained the belief that in order to regain a real connection with God, it was important to discard dictates by the Anglican Church or any other.
To conclude, both Gerard Manley Hopkins and Matthew Arnold found the condition of God’s ever-quickening retreat from contemporary life intolerable and both continued to fight for a reconnection with God. This was to be achieved through the reconnection of the individual with his fellow man in love and friendship, and also through rekindling an intimacy with the natural world. Poetry was, understandably, key to both poets. Arnold maintained an almost religious-like faith to the spiritual power and significance that poetry possessed whereas Hopkins found the poetic patterns he created were the most developed way to represent the omnipresence of Christ in the patterns of the world. Finally for Hopkins the embracing of Catholicism was essential. Arnold on the other hand, fought against everything that organised religion peddled through their “nonsense beliefs” and base worldly rationalisations. He maintained that the kingdom and wisdom of God was within each individual and it was through acting righteously that one could attain to a spiritual ease. It remains to be seen, however, how successful these attempts to revive God were for the two men. Matthew Arnold, coming under much criticism from his peers, was perhaps condemned to remain in a state of limbo. He wrote in his preface to God and the Bible (1875), “At the present moment two things about the Christian religion must surely be clear to anybody with eyes in his head. One is, that men cannot do without it; the other, they cannot do with it as it is” (Brett, 77). It would seem that Arnold was, however, unable to find a fitting and effective resolution. He describes himself as “Wandering between two worlds, one dead, / The other powerless to be born” (‘Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse’, ll. 85-86). Hopkins on the other hand seems to be a poet and a man who succeeded in transcending quite completely the spiritual condition of his age. Even with the hesitation and the doubt of the so-called ‘Terrible Sonnets’ in his later years, Hopkins’ last words as he lay dying of typhoid fever on June 8, 1889, were, “I am happy, so happy” (Everett). Despite recognising the fallen state of man and nature, Hopkins continued to believe in the salvation of Christ and the ultimate joy of being reunited with God. He succeeds in the end in recovering for himself a world like that of Eden before the Fall, an accomplishment which, despite all his protestations and efforts, Arnold never wholly achieves.
- David De Laura on Arnold's Religious Beliefs
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Last modified 13 July 2007