The 1853 Preface constitutes a sort of poetic manifesto, defining the ideals which Arnold proposed henceforth to keep before him. And, indeed, all of his poetry subsequent to 1852 should be read with the Preface in mind. At first the poet seems to have been persuaded that theory and performance are synonymous, and that he had hit on his rightful manner — a manner as native to his talents as it was to be salutary for the age. In the first glow of enthusiasm over "Sohrab and Rustum" he confesses to Clough in May 1853 a sense of regret for time wasted hitherto: "I feel immensely — more and more clearly-what I "want" — and what I have (I believe) lost and choked by my treatment of myself and the studies to which I have addicted myself." Yet by the end of this year during which he had also written his crowning work, "The Scholar-Gipsy," misgivings have again set in. Convinced that he had correctly prescribed for his times that kind of poetry which was needed, he still despairs of his ability to provide it. If he persists at all, it is solely because creative endeavor fortifies his spirits:
A thousand things make one compose or not compose: composition seems to keep alive in me a "cheerfulness" — a sort of Tuchtigkeit, or natural soundness and valiancy, which I think the present age is fast losing-that is why I like it.
I am glad that you like the Gipsy Scholar-but what does it "do" for you? Homer "animates"-Shakespeare "animates"-in its poor way I think Sohrab and Rustum "animates"-the Gipsy Scholar at best awakens a pleasing melancholy. But this is not what we want.
The complaining millions of men
Darken in labour and pain —
what they want is something to animate and ennoble them-not merely to add zest to their melancholy or grace [186/187] to their dreams.-I believe a feeling of this kind is the basis of my nature-and of my poetics.
From the foregoing quotation it is evident that Arnold held fast by the principles laid down in the Preface. Once announced, they henceforth formed the core of his artistic creed. An unusual capacity for self-criticism, however, harassed him into acknowledging his failure to live up to the standards which he had imposed on himself. As a result, there inhere in Arnold's work, as in that of Tennyson and Browning, evidences of a divided aim, a double awareness. Like Tennyson and Browning, Arnold sought to make his inner vision subserve ends dictated from outside; but to the extent that his temperamental alienation was more self-conscious, he lacked the saving faculty for compromise, for disguising his true intent under apparent meanings of a more ingratiating kind. In the 1853 Preface Arnold had set an impossible goal both for himself and for his readers; had he demanded less from either, his poetic career might have been prolonged.
With the ostensible purpose of calling a halt to the dialogue of the mind with itself, Arnold took up the most objective of all poetic forms: the narrative and dramatic. These modes, together with the elegiac, account for virtually all of the important poems which he wrote after 1852, If the elegy was to become his distinctive type of utterance, he did not revert exclusively to it until after he had first attempted to restore to poetic narrative and drama something of the dignity and elevation which they had enjoyed in ancient times. Yet "Tristram and Iseult," "Sohrab and Rustum," "Balder Dead," and "Merope" retain their interest not because of what they pretend to be, but rather because they throw so much light on the limitations of the Victorian literary sensibility. Endeavoring to rise above himself, the poet succeeded only in etching his own lineaments more ineffaceably on his work. Of the Tennyson of "Idylls of the King" and of the Browning of "The Ring and the Book," it can be said that they were fully equal to their themes as they conceived them. For all Arnold's [187/188] scrupulosity to keep himself out of his more ambitious poems, there remains a discrepancy between intent and achievement which reveals the artist's failure ever to sublimate the life of the imagination through the creation of objective equivalents for internal states of mind.
Arnold, like Tennyson, turns to myth and legend for inspiration. Indeed, Arnold's first long work in the heroic manner, "Tristram and Iseult," employs material which Tennyson was later to use in two books of "Idylls of the King." "Tristram and Iseult" was first published in 1852 along with "Empedocles on Etna"; but it reappeared in 1853 in a version so altered as to indicate that the author must have been putting the poem in final form at the same time that the Preface was occupying his thoughts. Arnold's treatment of the legend is in no sense traditional. Despite the blending of narrative and dramatic techniques, the sections devoted to the ill-fated passion of the lovers remain curiously lifeless. The poet's sympathies are reserved for Iseult of Brittany whose story is presented in an elegiac vein wholly at variance with the tragic intensity which seems to be aimed at elsewhere. The total effect is not unlike that made by certain of Tennyson's domestic Idyls. Since the heroine is confined to the role of passive onlooker, her situation can hardly be said to provide opportunity for the display of "an excellent action." It may be asked, indeed, whether her dilemma is not rather like that of Empedocles, one of those "in which there is everything to be endured, nothing to be done."
And what, we ask, is the real theme of Arnold's "Tristram and Iseult"? Does it come to anything more than a condemnation of that romantic love which had obsessed the poet as a personal problem in the Marguerite lyrics and "The New Sirens"? Can it not be said, in other words, that legend is here invoked simply as a means of dignifying and imparting an appearance of objective validity to an experience largely subjective in its implications? And even so, the mask of impersonality imposed too severe restrictions on the wearer. Not content to allow his narrative to carry its own implicit meaning, the poet must near the end step forward in person [188/189] to comment on what has happened. There are, the reader learns, two classes of individuals who waste their lives. The first is made up of the worldlings whose capacity for generous emotion has been blasted by "the gradual furnace of the world." The second category includes those self-corrupted beings who have become enslaved by their passions. (A similar distinction is made in "A Summer Night.") Here belongs Tristram as the prototype of emotional instability. Having just completed his portrayal of Iseult of Brittany's noble stoicism, Arnold is unable to restrain his indignation against the heedless agent of her suffering. The denouement brings on a spontaneous outburst of annoyance calculated to destroy any illusion of detachment built up in the foregoing sections. "And yet," says Arnold, "I swear, it angers me to see/ How this fool passion gulls men potently."
If the content of "Tristram and Iseult" fails to accord with the theories about subject-matter set forth in the 1853 Preface, the structure of the poem is equally at variance with the concept of form therein developed. Just as Iseult of Brittany takes no integral part in the action on which her fate depends, so the reader is kept a spectator, conscious at all times of barriers which discourage too great involvement in the tragic plight of the actors. In seeking ways to objectify his drama, Arnold forfeited that direct appeal to the human sympathies which, according to the Preface, is the test of an artist's mastery over his material. For example, in the concluding episode of section two, as rewritten for the 1853 volume, the huntsman in the tapestry is brought to life so that he can speculate about the meaning of the scene which confronts him. Clearly the poet intended in this way to heighten the tragic fact that Tristram and Iseult have died in each other's arms; but the actual effect is to transfer the reader's attention from the lovers to the knight whose role is that of a neutral onlooker lost in reverie.
Still more debatable as a structural element is the story of Merlin and Vivian which forms a sort of coda to the poem. As recounted by Iseult of Brittany to her children, this additional legend was obviously meant by the author to [189/190] reinforce the moral message of the principal narrative. Pretty certainly also, the device recommended itself as a means of externalizing Iseult's perceptions. But again we feel that the poet's too deliberate artifice sacrifices more than it gains. For the ambiguities that arise in trying to establish a direct equivalence between the Tristram and Iseult and the Merlin and Vivian stories fatally impair that "unity and profoundness of moral impression" which Arnold regarded as the indispensable component of all great art. Grant that both Tristram and Merlin are destroyed by reckless love; but what have Iseult of Cornwall and Vivian in common, the one as unrestrainedly passionate as her lover, the other so coolly adept in exploiting Merlin's folly? And how is Iseult of Brittany's situation in any way relevant either to that of Merlin whose faculty for self-delusion she certainly does not share, or to that of Vivian who is as much below as she is above the conventions of romantic love? The fact that the reader even asks these questions, much less that the answers should remain a matter for vague surmise, reveals Arnold's failure here to live up to the ideal of "accurate construction" prescribed in the 1853 Preface.
Iseult of Brittany, as Tristram's wife, is exposed to an emotional climate wholly foreign to her nature. After Tristram's death she withdraws altogether from the world, with only her children to relieve her solitude. Betrayed by her feelings, she experiences the same sense of isolation that sets the tone of Arnold's earlier poems on the subject of romantic love. "Sohrab and Rustum" is also a study in alienation. In this case, however, the line of descent is from "Mycerinus" and "The Sick King in Bokhara," works in which the individual's estrangement from his fellow beings suggests a wider, cosmic divorce.
Although cast in the form of heroic narrative, Sohrab and Rustum develops tension through a series of failures in recognition between father and son, as the two grope through a maze of hostile circumstance. It is fated that they shall not know each other until too late; but the destiny which holds them apart is a blind and unmotivated force, seemingly beyond [190/191] human comprehension. Sohrab acknowledges the inscrutability of man's earthly lot when he says:
For we are all, like swimmers in the sea,
Poised on the top of a huge wave of fate,
Which hangs uncertain to which side to fall.
And whether it will heave us up to land,
Or whether it will roll us out to sea,
Back out to sea, to the deep waves of death,
We know not, and no search will make us know;
Only the event will teach us in its hour.
And again in his death agony:
Father, forbear! for I but meet to-day
The doom which at my birth was written down
In Heaven, and thou art Heaven's unconscious hand.
Surely my heart cried out that it was thou,
When first I saw thee; and thy heart spoke too,
I know it! but fate trod those promptings down
Under its iron heel; fate, fate, engaged
The strife, and hurl'd me on my father's spear.
How many of Arnold's earlier and more personal poems invoke in similar terms the enigmatic power of the Zeitgeist to account for the spirit's loneliness and isolation! Rustum accepts his son's reading of life, and on the necessity for submission to an unintelligible order of things builds his philosophy of austere stoicism, which is so closely akin to the temper of mind in which Iseult of Brittany endures her bereavement. But Rustum's resignation is not without the deeper and more bitter perception that he is doomed never to harmonize his violent nature with the general life:
But now in blood and battles was my youth,
And full of blood and battles is my age,
And I shall never end this life of blood.
There can be no doubt that in both "Tristram and Iseult" and "Sohrab and Rustum" Arnold believed that he was working with themes of tragic grandeur. And as the following [191/192] passage from the 1853 Preface shows, the poet was fully cognizant of the Aristotelian concept of catharsis:
In the presence of the most tragic circumstances, represented in a work of Art, the feeling of enjoyment, as is well known, may still subsist: the representation of the most utter calamity, of the liveliest anguish, is not sufficient to destroy it: the more tragic the situation, the deeper becomes the enjoyment; and the situation is more tragic in proportion as it becomes more terrible.
Yet there is nothing in the situations of either Iseult of Brittany or of Rustum. to purge the emotions. Both are the innocent victims of a fatality which they have in no conceivable way invited. Our sense of their suffering is unrelieved by any intimation that they have transgressed and are undergoing a just punishment. They are, in short, pathetic, but they are not tragic figures. Rustum beside Sohrab's body, grimly aloof in the extremity of his grief, like Iseult hidden from the world in the solitude of her remote castle, exemplifies quite as much as Empedocles the spiritual desolation which "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."
The introspective bias which invalidates the epic pretensions of "Sohrab and Rustum" has its formal counterpart in the anomalous conclusion which Arnold attached to an otherwise straightforward narrative. The description of the river Oxus has been justly admired, but the noble qualities of these lines are most apparent when isolated from their context. As an organic part of the poem the passage is hardly more defensible than the self-contained episode which terminates "Tristram and Iseult." Here again Arnold seems to have been reluctant to let his story stand on its own merits. Out of an impulse to force on the reader a subjective interpretation, the author broke the bounds of artistic propriety. Rustum's tragedy, we must be made to realize, is that of the alienated individual, is in other words Arnold's own tragedy. [192/193] To fail to perceive that the poet symbolizes this alienation through his description of the Oxus as "a foil'd circuitous wanderer" is to miss the underlying significance of the entire work as a further revelation of Arnold's imaginative vision.
Having exploited Celtic myth in "Tristram and Iseult" and Persian legend in "Sohrab and Rustum," Arnold turned for inspiration in his third long narrative poem, "Balder Dead," to the Norse sagas. The exploits of the gods offered material more heroic in scope than anything he had yet assayed; and in an endeavor to rise to the subject he invested the poem with a full array of epic trappings. Here is an action such as the Strayed Reveller had dreamed of being able to sing; yet in Arnold's hands it undergoes the same tempering down towards pathos that is observable in "Tristram and Iseult" and "Sohrab and Rustum." Again we sense an ulterior motive which reduces the implications of the action into conformity with some inner and private awareness. "Balder Dead," along with Arnold's other work in the narrative and dramatic modes, is best understood as a variation on the theme of alienation.
Balder, like Iseult of Brittany and Rustum, is guiltless, and therefore victimized by the circumstances which determine his destiny. Even Odin, father of the gods, does not pretend to comprehend the necessity for the death of his most radiant son:
But he has met that doom, which long ago
The Nornies, when his mother bare him, spun,
And fate set seal, that so his end must be.
There is significance in the fact that Balder had always occupied a place apart among the gods in Valhalla. The mourners at his funeral rites apostrophize him as the composer of strife, the friend of the betrayed, the gentle singer of peaceful pursuits. Almost, we feel, he has been translated because his spirit was too noble longer to endure the barbaric ways of the existing order. Hoder's blindness is a symbol for the general failure to appreciate all that Balder stands for. Like the gipsy boy or Mycerinus or the author of "Obermann," he is superior to his environment and hence a stranger in it. [193/194] His is the loneliness of the individual who lives in a society with the values of which he has no sympathetic correspondence, a society which cannot in any real sense recognize his excellence any more than he can adapt himself to its conventions.
The concluding episode of "Balder Dead," which was Arnold's original contribution to the story, supports this interpretation. On Hermod's return to the underworld he finds that Balder is not unhappy in his new sphere. He has been reunited with Nanna and Hoder, and his presence consoles the other shades. In a passage curiously reminiscent of Rustum's Weltschmerz, Balder confesses to Hermod his weariness with the fierce turbulence of terrestrial life, and then goes on to prophesy the eventual establishment of a happier and more humane society. There can be no doubt that Balder's vision is an outgrowth of Arnold's own sense of his unsatisfactory relationship to his age:
But not to me so grievous, as, I know,
To other Gods it were, is my enforced
Absence from fields where I could nothing aid;
For I am long since weary of your storm
Of carnage, and find, Hermod, in your life
Something too much of war and broils, which make
Life one perpetual fight, a bath of blood.
Mine eyes are dizzy with the arrowy hail;
Mine ears are stunnd with blows, and sick for calm.
Inactive therefore let me lie, in gloom,
Unarm'd, inglorious; I attend the course
Of ages, and my late return to light,
In times less alien to a spirit mild,
In new-recover'd seats, the happier day.
In 1858, three years after "Balder Dead," Arnold published "Merope," his most ambitious attempt to duplicate the manner of the ancients. Sophoclean tragedy was quite beyond his range, and the failure of "Merope" as a dramatic representation illustrates once more how unequal the poet was to the task of putting into practice the theories expounded in the 1853 [194/195] Preface. The tragedy survives as a shell, competent in form, but entirely lifeless for want of any central fire. Significant in this connection are the opinions which Arnold expressed in a letter to his sister, written in 1858 when he had only recently finished "Merope." The poet, conscious of a fatal diminution in his imaginative powers, has to resist the impulse to compensate for weakness of conception by relying on structural technique:
People do not understand what a temptation there is, if you cannot bear anything not "very good," to transfer your operations to a region where form is everything. Perfection of a certain kind may there be attained, or at least approached, without knocking yourself to pieces, but to attain or approach perfection in the region of thought and feeling, and to unite this with perfection of form, demands not merely an effort and a labour, but an actual tearing of oneself to pieces ...
"Merope" would hardly be worth lingering over were it not for the character of Polyphontes, who, as Arnold admitted, usurps the play's interest. The tyrant embodies a further aspect of the poet's interior consciousness. He is, of course, yet another alien, his strength deriving from a lonely temperament which is a law unto itself. Yet Polyphontes is apparently no better able than those most closely associated with him to comprehend his motive force. In "Parting," it will be remembered, Arnold bad asked the twofold question: "And what heart knows another?/ All! who knows his own?" The same enigma is posed at greater length by the chorus in "Merope":
But more than all unplumb'd,
Unscaled, untrodden, is the heart of man.
More than all secrets hid, the way it keeps.
Nor any of our organs so obtuse,
Inaccurate, and frail,
As those wherewith we try to test
Feelings and motives there. [195/196]
Polyphontes dies with his secret inviolate; and Merope, as she looks down at his corpse, can only ponder the mystery of individual being:
O Æpytus, my son, behold, behold
This iron man, my enemy and thine,
This politic sovereign, lying at our feet,
With blood-bespatterd robes, and chaplet shorn!
Inscrutable as ever, see, it keeps
Its sombre aspect of majestic care,
Of solitary thought, unshared resolve,
Even in death, that countenance austere!
According to Aristotle's "Poetics" the recognition scene between Merope and /Epytus in the lost tragedy of "Cresphontes" provided the best of all models for handling the technique of discovery. Perhaps this hint helped guide Arnold to his choice of a tragic subject; but in "Merope" the dramatic crux is a "failure" in recognition. Polyphontes, as has been said, is the true protagonist; and Merope's half-sympathetic efforts to understand him give the play such complexity and depth of meaning as it possesses. In fact, all four of the narrative and dramatic works at present under consideration present a romantic inversion of the classic device of recognition. Merlin's betrayal in the final episode of "Tristram and Iseult" results from impercipience; and something of the same sort may be attributed to Iseult of Brittany in her unhappy marriage. Balder dies through Hoder's blindness; Rustum, deaf to the promptings of intuition, slays his son.
The point here is that failure in recognition becomes a further means through which Arnold's sense of alienation carries over as a subliminal motif into poetry from which he had resolutely resolved to exclude all traces of introspection. In the Preface to the original edition of "Merope" the poet declares that the "state of feeling which it is the highest aim of tragedy to produce" resides in "a sentiment of sublime acquiescence in the course of fate, and in the dispensations of human life." Perhaps the capacity for stoic endurance which alike characterizes Iseult of Brittany, Rustum, Balder, [196/197] and Polyphontes may be accepted as illustrating this "sentiment of sublime acquiescence"; but such is the tone of the poems that the reader is little inclined to assent to so much innocent suffering. The tragic catharsis releases the feelings; but pathos constricts them and wrings a cry of protest. It is because the focal characters in Arnold's narrative and dramatic poetry are delivered out of his own self-consciousness that they seem pathetic rather than tragic. We cannot acquiesce to their plight, any more than Arnold could accept his own. It will be remembered that the poet had with unusual asperity rebuked a contemporary critic for asserting: "A true allegory of the state of one's own mind in a representative history is perhaps the highest thing that one can attempt in the way of poetry." But, the evidence of the 1853 Preface to the contrary, is not this disclaimer factitious? Does it not, in other words, seem to have been provoked by an uncomfortable sense of the statement's relevance to his own practice? Certainly, the poetry which accompanied and came after the Preface becomes fully meaningful only if, like the frankly subjective work of the earlier years, it is interpreted in the light of the author's obsession with self in an age devoid of poetic inspiration and hostile to the creative imagination.
In his search for a way to define the ambiguous tone of Arnold's narrative and dramatic poems, the reader might do worse than adopt the term "elegiac." He might do so the more confidently because the favorite form of the poet's later career was the elegy. Of the twelve poems, which Arnold gathered in his collected works under the title of "Elegiac Poems," none was written before 1850, and all but four were published after 1853. The fact that many of these poems appeared simultaneously with more ambitious efforts in the volumes of 1853 and 1855 furnishes additional proof in support of the foregoing argument that the poet had set himself a goal in the 1853 Preface that he was temperamentally incapable of achieving. For the elegies of these years sound an insistent note of discouragement; the author is more and more conscious of the distance which divides him [197/198] from his age, and less and less hopeful of finding artistic means of bridging the gap.
Between "Stanzas in Memory of the Author of 'Obermann'" (1852) and "Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse" (1855) Arnold had been travelling a lonelier road than might be guessed from a superficial reading of "Tristram and Iseult," "Sohrab and Rustum," and "Balder Dead." In the first Obermann poem the poet's self-engrossment is still counteracted, as in the case of Empedocles, by a reciprocal drive towards the outside world; but the speaker in "Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse" has made a virtue of estrangement. It must be remembered that the poet is not here seeking out the Carthusians from any innate sympathy for the ascetic life, but rather because he perceives an equivalence between his own isolation and that of the monks whose type of faith is equally anachronistic in the mid-nineteenth century. In analyzing his own situation, Arnold likens himself to a pagan lingering on after the decline of classical culture.* And for the humanist the monastic ideal does not offer an acceptable alternative to the spiritual void of a materialized society. At best, the anchorite and the latter-day Greek participate in a common exile:
Not as their friend, or child, I speak!
But as, on some far northern strand,
Thinking of his own Gods, a Greek
In pity and mournful awe might stand
Before some fallen Runic stone —
For both were faiths, and both are gone.
Wandering between two worlds, one dead,
The other powerless to be born,
With nowhere yet to rest my head,
Like these, on earth I wait forlorn
. Their faith, my tears, the world deride —
I come to shed them at their side. [198/199]
"The Memorial Verses" of 1850 had celebrated the great romantic poets for their lonely but indomitable opposition to the spirit of the, times. In "Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse" Byron reappears. He is no longer in the company of Wordsworth and Goethe; his companion spirits now are Shelley and Senancour. Together they form a trio of defeated voices crying in the wilderness. If messages such as theirs fall on deaf ears, what recourse has the poet of succeeding times but to remain mute? The culminating image of these Stanzas speaks for a lost generation of artists, likening them to
children rear'd in shade
Beneath some old-world abbey wall,
Forgotten in a forest-glade,
And secret from the eyes of all.
The busy world calls, but the summons is to an alien life:
Fenced early in this cloistral.
round Of reverie, of shade, of prayer,
How should we grow in other ground?
How can we flower in foreign air?
— Pass, banners, pass, and bugles, cease;
And leave our desert to its peace!
There is a certain irony in the fact that the 1853 volume, which offered "Sohrab and Rustum" in support of the Preface, should also have contained in "The Scholar-Gipsy" a conclusive refutation of nearly everything that Preface stands for. Little disposed as the poet was to entertain any such notion, the solution to his artistic dilemma lay not in escaping out of himself, but rather in deeper self-immersion; not in ignoring, but in frankly accepting the limitations of individual consciousness. The material of "Sohrab and Rustum" is derivative; we feel how unequal the author was to making it his own. Despite its source in "Glanvil's book," "The Scholar-Gipsy" is a wholly original poem. Just because he apprehended the theme out of his own experience, Arnold here created an action closer to the dimensions of myth than ever resulted [199/200] from attempts to force his imagination into epic or tragic moulds. In the Theocritan pastoral elegy_ the poet found an extremely flexible form congenial to his melancholy temper of mind-a form, furthermore, designed to give free play to his faculty for inducing mood through beauty of descriptive language. "The Scholar-Gipsy" is Arnold's closest approximation to that ideal fusion of content and manner contemplated in the Preface.
But what of the theme as the fusing agent? In "The Scholar Gipsy" the poet imaginatively confronted his dilemma, and as a result called into being a lasting personification of the alienated artist. The lines of conflict between the individual and society are drawn with dramatic sharpness. For once Arnold achieves a complete disassociation between the two halves of the divided awareness, and in so doing emancipates his artistic vision. The central intent emerges only by gradual degrees, however, so cunningly has the poet played variations on the conventional appurtenances of the pastoral elegy.
In the opening stanzas the artist locates himself, and the reader, in peripheral relationship to the workaday world. We are thus prepared to sympathize with the disillusioned Oxford scholar when he forsakes the trodden path and casts in his lot with the gipsies. As elsewhere in Arnold's poetry, the gipsies epitomize freedom from social restraint, but here their way of life holds out an additional inducement. In response to questions about his choice, the scholar answers
that the gipsy-crew,
His mates, had arts to rule as they desired
The workings of men's brains,
And they can bind them to what thoughts they will.
'And I,' he said, 'the secret of their art,
When fully learn'd, will to the world impart;
But it needs heaven-sent moments for this skill.'
What this secret art may be is never revealed. It is sufficient that the scholar, like Tennyson's Merlin, believes strongly enough in some ultimate revelation to persevere in his quest. More significant is the nature of the quest which lays on the [200/201] seeker the necessity of holding himself apart from all habitual intercourse with humanity. This is not to say that the scholar acknowledges no bond with his kind. In his wanderings about the countryside, he is most often to be found where some rural activity is afoot. Yet his r6le remains that of keenly observant, but uncommitted spectator. Like the poet of "Resignation," he prefers breadth of outlook to specific involvement, because as an artist in training his concern is with the general life, while he waits "for the spark from heaven to fall."Halfway through the elegy the spell cast by the hauntingly beautiful setting of the scholar's pilgrimage is abruptly shattered. Arnold arouses himself and us to actuality. Having gained our sympathy for the protagonist by the preceding stanzas of idyllic description, the poet now moves on to apotheosize the scholar against a jarringly discordant backdrop of modern life. If devotion to a transcendental vision imposed its burden of loneliness even "in days when wits were fresh and clear," how much more resolutely must the dedicated individual safeguard himself against
this strange disease of modern life,
With its sick hurry, its divided aims,
Its heads o'ertax'd, its palsied hearts. . .
In the process of assuming the immortality which Arnold confers, the scholar sheds his human identity and becomes a figure of myth. While Arnold lapses into the first person as a means of involving both himself and us in "the sick fatigue, the languid doubt" of the here and now, the scholar moves further and further away into the charmed realm of his imaginative life. The first half of the poem had almost persuaded us that we shared this immunity; now our awakening to a truer perception of our situation emphasizes by contrast the scholar's remote felicity. The metaphorical meaning of his quest becomes apparent. Self-centered in his private awareness, the scholar holds true to ""one" aim, "one" business, one desire," whereas we, susceptible to the distractions of our [201/202] external environment, have "tired upon a thousand schemes our wit."
The meaning of the quest is thus expanded into a symbol for the life of the imagination, in terms of which the scholar assumes final status as a representation of the consecrated artist. It does not really signify whether or not heaven will ever vouchsafe its spark to the waiting mind; what does matter is that the individual should maintain his vital energies intact and uncorrupted by the enervating influences of society. Arnold had begun to lose confidence in himself as a creator, but at the same time had come to a clearer realization of the choice which the modern artist must make if his creative impulse is to survive. If Arnold failed to make that choice, "The Scholar-Gipsy" nevertheless testifies to his perception that diffused sensibilities inevitably entail on the artist a loss of sense of direction. And so the elegy ends on a note of despairing admonition to the scholar to protect his dream by estranging himself from the modern world:
But fly our paths, our feverish contact fly!
For strong the infection of our mental strife,
Which, though it gives no bliss, yet spoils for rest;
And we should win thee from thy own fair life,
Like us distracted, and like us unblest.
Soon, soon thy cheer would die,
Thy hopes grow timorous, and unfix'd thy powers,
And thy clear aims be cross and shifting made;
And then thy glad perennial youth would fade,
Fade, and grow old at last, and die like ours.
The last two stanzas of "The Scholar-Gipsy" are in the nature of a coda, similar to the sections which conclude "Tristram and Iseult," "Sohrab and Rustum," and "Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse." Here, as in the other poems cited, Arnold enlisted this structurally excrescent device for the purpose of leaving in the reader's mind a vivid objective equivalent to his central theme.
More than a decade later, after he had crossed his Rubicon into the territory of prose criticism, Arnold cast a nostalgic look backward on the haunts of the scholar-gipsy. Although written in tribute to Clough, Thyrsis is quite as much an [202/203] elegy for Arnold's own loss of poetic impulse. This poem also proposes a quest. By revisiting the scenes which he and Clough had loved in youth, the author solicits that lovely landscape to revivify the old artistic response. At first he is unsuccessful in his search for the signal-elm; and his resulting dejection provokes condemnation partly of self, but more particularly of Clough. The old landmarks are gone, but the real betrayal was a human one. The two friends were the first to change. Unequal to the lonely dedication of the scholar, they turned aside into the world. Arnold suggests that while unavoidable responsibilities prompted him to this course, Clough "of his own will went away." And for thus abandoning his native sphere, he paid cruelly, first by forfeiting the spiritual tranquillity so necessary to the poetic faculty, and ultimately by his life:
It irk'd him to be there, he could not rest.
He loved each simple joy the country yields,
He loved his mates; but yet he could not keep,
For that a shadow lour'd on the fields,
Here with the shepherds and the silly sheep.
Some life of men unblest
He knew, which made him droop, and fill'd his head.
He went; his piping took a troubled sound
Of storms that rage outside our happy ground;
He could not wait their passing, he is dead.
Although his friend is irretrievably lost, Arnold seeks out the scenes of their bygone happiness in the hope of regaining the hopeful spirit of that time. His imaginative being does not respond, however, until, silhouetted against the glory of "the orange and pale violet evening-sky," he at last beholds the elm. The manner in which this fulfillment comes about is thematically significant. A troop of Oxford huntsmen, homeward bound, invades the field where he is loitering; and it is his instinctive revulsion from human society which leads him into a farther field and hence to the sight of the tree "bare on its lonely ridge." [203/204]
The elm symbolizes everything that Arnold had said in his previous elegy, "The Scholar-Gipsy." As long as the tree survives, it is possible to have faith in the scholar and his unworldly quest:
Despair I will not, while I yet descry
'Neath the mild canopy of English air
That lonely tree against the western sky.
Still, still these slopes, 'tis clear,
Our Gipsy-Scholar haunts...
"Thyrsis," like the earlier poem, therefore, ends by affirming the life of the imagination, that "fugitive and gracious light . . . / Shy to illumine," as over against the unpoetical world of actuality. "Why faintest thou?" the ghostly voice of Clough asks:
I wander'd till I died.
Roam on! The light we sought is shining still.
Dost thou ask proof? Our tree yet crowns the hill,
Our Scholar travels yet the loved hill-side.
It can hardly escape the attentive reader, however, that a much greater imaginative effort has been required of the poet in order to reach this conclusion. In "The Scholar-Gipsy" the issue of the quest may remain in doubt; but the quest itself takes on a real and immediate symbolic value because the scholar lives his rôle. In "Thyrsis" we are at one further remove from the heart of the matter. The signal-elm has become the metaphorical agent of our apprehension, Its continued existence betokens the reality of the scholar, whose quest, itself a metaphor for the artist's self-imposed isolation, thus carries over the symbolic action of "The Scholar-Gipsy," but more remotely now, less urgently, in such a way as to imply how the intervening years had relaxed Arnold's hold on his ideal.
Last modified July 2000