Line 2: "Oxus," the chief river of west-central Asia, now called the Amu Darya, rises in the plateau of Pamir and flows north-east into the Aral Sea. The numerous geographic references in the poem, intended to create Homeric grandeur for the setting of the action, are mostly to places in the valley of the Oxus. The river, however, is not as central to the action of the poem as Troy's Scamander is to the conflicts of The Iliad.

Matthew Arnold's reference to the Oxus in the opening lines of the poem serves as a geographical framing device, defining the physical setting of the poem, and over the course of the poem establishes the river that forms the backdrop for the epic conflict as an image of the river of life, of death and rebirth according to the natural cycle. The gradual development of the river as a metaphor starts as early as lines 15-16:

Of Oxus, where the summer-floods o'erflow
When the sun melts the snows in high Pamere.

In December 2012 Tapan Kumar Mukherjee (Subhas Pallee, Burdwan 713101, West Bengal, India), sent the following additional commentary:

The poet uses the river as an image of natural purgation:

And the first grey of morning fill'd the east,
And the fog rose out of the Oxus stream. ["Sohrab and Rustum," lines 1-2]

The symbolic significance of the central Asian river Oxus in Matthew Arnold's 1853 epic fragment, a mere 892 lines, lies in the fact that it is related to the concept of Aristotelian catharsis. Symbolically, the Oxus river cleanses and purifies the tragic emotions of pity and fear that the episode of the father's unwittingly slaying his son in "Sohrab and Rustum" excites in the minds of the poem's readers. After cleansing the impurities and filths of the tragic incidents the river Oxus flows into the Aral sea, asserting reassurance and normalcy of life as it continues to flow after tragic upheavals and turbulence. This is the symbolic significance of the role of Oxus river in the Persian episode in which Arnold narrates the life and death of Sohrub and Rustum, the warrior father and son.

Line 5: Tartar camp: Although a Persian, Sohrab has taken service in the army of Arfrasiab, King of the Tartars.

Line 11: Peran-Wisa is the General of the Tartar army.

Line 15: high Pamere, the central Asian plateau.

Line 42: Ader-baijan is the province in north-west Persia where Sohrab's mother lived.

Lines 71-73: These lines were not in the first edition.

Line 101: "the fleece of Kara-Kul" means "sheep from the province of Bokhara."

Line 116: "Or some frore Caspian reed-bed," i. e., "frozen."

Line 160: sugared mulberries: "Burns says that the pedlars eat them in crossing the highest passes" (Arnold). Cf. Alexander Burnes, Travels into Bokhara (1834): "This great peak [Hindu Koosh] is visible from Cabool, and entirely enveloped in milk-white snow . . . . Its altitude must be considerable, for travellers complain of the difficulty of breathing, and carry sugar and mulberries with them, to ease their respiration; and the strongest of men suffer from giddiness and vomiting. Thousands of birds are also found dead on the snow, for it is believed that they are unable to fly from the violence of the winds; but it is more probable that they are prevented by the rarity of the atmosphere . . . . The greatest silence is preserved in crossing Hindoo Koosh; and no one speaks loud, or fires a gun, lest the reverberation cause a fall of snow: such, at least, is the reason assigned; nor does it appear to be destitute of foundation." Cf. "Rugby Chapel," 99-100 [note by A. D. Culler, pp. 556-57].

Line 237: "fence that weak old man," in other words, "protect that . . . man."

Line 452: that autumn-star: Sirius, the dog-star, the brightest star in the heavens, whose rising with the sun in midsummer was thought to bring the intense heat and numerous maladies. Sirius is visible in the late autumn and winter. Arnold probably had in mind the simile describing Achilles' armour, Iliad, XXII, 26-31:

like the star that comes forth at harvest-time, and brightly his rays shine amid the host of stars in the darkness of the night, the star that men call by name the Dog of Orion. He is brightest of all, yet he is a sign of evil, and brings much fever upon wretched mortals.

Line 596: "bruited," sounded, reported.

Line 861: "Jemshid," a legendary Persian king and founder of Persepolis, the capital of the Persian empire; Jemshid ruled for seven hundred years, according to the Shahnama.

Line 878: "Chorasmian waste," Kiva in Turkestan.

Line 880: "Orgunjè," a village on the River Oxus.

Line 892: "Aral Sea." According to Houghton and Stange, the function of the final paragraph, which is to create a feeling of quiet peace and reassurance after the tragedy, is achieved partly on the direct level by an image of natural beauty, partly on a symbolic level by the suggestion-- it is only a suggestion — that the Oxus stands for the stream of human life, which begins with the bright strength of youth, has to endure being shorn of its potentialities and foiled of its hopes, but finally reaches its "luminous home" (461).

Related Materials


Victorian Website Overview Matthew Arnold

Last modified 2 January 2013