If the poet in Arnold was reluctant to abandon hope for the spark from heaven, the man found it increasingly difficult to refuse the solicitations of his age that he should assume a conspicuous place in its life, The career of a public servant under an expanding program of government education carried with it responsibilities to Victorian society which could not be ignored. The transformation of the artist into the man of letters was a phenomenon of the times from Carlyle to William Morris; and in Arnold's case the process was materially abetted by a variety of external circumstances, not the least decisive among which was his appointment in 1857 to the Professorship of Poetry at Oxford. His subsequent poetry, nearly all of it in the elegiac mode and much of it purely occasional in nature, reflects the author's final refusal to accept for himself the concept of the alienated artist at home only within the domain of his art.
With the exception of "Thyrsis," "Rugby Chapel," and "Obermann Once More" are the most memorable poems of Arnold's later period. In them we find the author making the choice henceforth to speak with a public voice. Like others of the elegies, "Rugby Chapel," dated 1857 but not published until ten years later, directs a retrospective glance on the influences which shaped the poet's faculties. And how noteworthy it is that at this turning point in his career the son should have felt impelled to celebrate Thomas Arnold's memory after fifteen years of silence! For if the scholar-gipsy is correlative to the poet's inner awareness, Arnold of Rugby as certainly exemplifies the ascendency of an outer or social awareness. Here once more Arnold uses setting to juxtapose differing states of mind. He stands in the cold and darkness outside the chapel where his father's body lies buried. And in recollection Thomas Arnold's "radiant vigour" shines out, [205/206]a bright beacon of spiritual certitude amidst the dreary doubts and perplexities of the age. Like the scholar-gipsy, the elder Arnold was distinguished from other men by firmness of purpose and devotion to a goal; but whereas the scholar must work out his salvation in isolation from his kind, the father served a more altruistic dream. He is to be ranged among the faithful shepherds, the
souls temper'd with fire,
Fervent, heroic, and good,
Helpers and friends of mankind.
In Arnold's tribute to his father the emphasis repeatedly falls on this quality of selfless sacrifice to the needs of one's fellowmen:
But thou would'st not "alone"
Be saved, my father! "alone"
Conquer and come to thy goal,
Leaving the rest in the wild.
"Obermann Once More" is Arnold's poetic farewell to the chief literary mentor of his career. Revived in dream, Senancour seems at first to greet his disciple with the old welcome:
'And is it thou,' he cried, 'so long
Held by the world which we
Loved not, who turnest from the throng
Back to thy youth and me?
'And from thy world, with heart opprest,
Choosest thou "now" to turn?-
Ah me! we anchorites read things best,
Clearest their course discern!'
But Arnold has erroneously imagined their meeting as taking place in the context of an earlier and transitional period when withdrawal from the world seemed justified by the disintegration of those traditional values which had made for harmony in bygone ages: [206/207]
The past, its mask of union on,
Had ceased to live and thrive.
The past, its mask of union gone,
Say, it is more alive?
In contrast to his method in "The Scholar-Gipsy" and the previous stanzas to Senancour, Arnold can no longer in this elegy keep up the fiction that his protagonist lives on. Obermann's voice now reaches us from the grave; and its accents sound a more optimistic note, as the philosopher contemplates a social order which he did not live to see. The world which was powerless to be born a generation before has come into being; and it is the artist's duty, Obermann says, to associate himself with this world and to make himself its poetic voice, even though his powers have been worn down during the exile from which he returns:
But thou, though to the world's new hour
Thou come with aspect marrd,
Shorn of the joy, the bloom, the power
Which best befits its bard —
Though more than half thy years be past,
And spent thy youthful prime;
Though, round thy firmer manhood cast,
Hang weeds of our sad time
Whereof thy youth felt all the spell,
And traversed all the shade
Though late, though dimm'd, though weak, yet tell
Hope to a world new-made!
And what are the distinguishing characteristics of the change which recalls the artist from estrangement in the depths of self? Arnold is, perhaps intentionally, rather vague on this score; but we are allowed to infer that society is again informed by some all-inclusive cultural idea of a kind to revitalize the creative imagination:
One common wave of thought and joy
Lifting mankind again! [207/208]
It remains finally to account for the shift in intent whereby the poet gave way to the critic and the man of letters. The document most helpful to an understanding of this transformation is Arnold's inaugural lecture as Professor of Poetry at Oxford. Although not published until twelve years later, the address was delivered in 1857. This was the year when he wrote "Merope"; and the difficulties attendant on its composition stirred the poet again to protest to his sister against "this strange disease of modern life," so discouraging to creative endeavor:
It is only in the best poetical epochs (such as the Elizabethan) that you can descend into yourself and produce the best of your thought and feeling naturally, and without an overwhelming and in some degree morbid effort; for then all the people around you are more or less doing the same thing. It is natural, it is the bent of the time to do it; its being the bent of the time, indeed, is what makes the time a "poetical" one.
To the development of this argument Arnold addressed himself in his first Oxford lecture, in which he proposed to analyze the conditions within contemporary culture which militated against the production of great literature. By opposing these conditions to the ones pertaining in periods celebrated for literary attainment, he hoped not only to point out what was amiss in his time, but also to suggest how this state of affairs might be amended.
What modern man requires above all else, Arnold says, is "an intellectual deliverance." Of the reasons for this demand and of the way that it may be satisfied, the writer makes the following statement:
The demand arises, because our present age has around it a copious and complex present, and behind it a copious and complex past; it arises, because the present age exhibits to the individual man who contemplates it the spectacle of a vast multitude of facts awaiting and inviting comprehension. The deliverance consists in man's compre- [208/209] hension of this present and past. It begins when our mind begins to enter into possession of the general ideas which are the law of this vast multitude of facts. It is perfect when we have acquired that harmonious acquiescence of mind which we feel in contemplating a grand spectacle that is intelligible to us; when we have lost that impatient irritation of mind which we feel in the presence of an immense, moving, confused spectacle which, while it perpetually excites our curiosity, perpetually baffles our comprehension.
Literature, then, when it succeeds in communicating to an age "the complete intelligence of its own situation," is the agent of deliverance; but literature can only serve this function if it is, in Arnold's term, a fully "adequate" literature. For purposes of comparison and contrast, Arnold turns to the writing of classic times. The literature of Greece alone meets his definition of adequacy; with a civilization grander in scope, the Romans failed to achieve comparable heights of literary expression. The disabilities under which Latin writers suffered seemed to Arnold closely to parallel the difficulties impeding artistic creation in his own period; and his criticism of Latin poets will have a familiar ring to any student of his own poetry. For example, although Arnold never wrote his projected poem about Lucretius, the comments on this philosopher in the Oxford lecture make sufficiently clear the reasons why he was so drawn to the subject. Lucretius, like Empedocles, suggested an objective version of his own dilemma. Lucretius, we are informed, fell victim to the "depression and ennui" which are characteristic states of feeling in the modern artist "Prevailed over by the world's multitudinousness." In fact, it is hard -not to believe that in much that he had to say about the Roman poet, Arnold was motivated by a disposition to rationalize his own similar failure:
Yes, Lucretius is modern; but is he adequate? And how can a man adequately interpret the activity of his age when he is not in sympathy with it? Think of the varied, the abundant, the wide spectacle of the Roman life of his day; [209/210] think of its fulness of occupation, its energy of effort. From these Lucretius withdraws himself, and bids his disciples to withdraw themselves; he bids them to leave the business of the world, and to apply themselves '"naturam cognoscere rerum" — to learn the nature of things;' but there is no peace, no cheerfulness for him either in the world from which he comes, or in the solitude to which he goes. With stern effort, with gloomy despair, he seems to rivet his eyes on the elementary reality, the naked framework of the world, because the world in its fulness and movement is too exciting a spectacle for his discomposed brain. He seems to feel the spectacle of it at once terrifying and alluring; and to deliver himself from it he has to keep perpetually repeating his formula of disenchantment and annihilation.
And again when Arnold says of Virgil that he was "conscious, at heart, of his inadequacy for the thorough spiritual mastery of that world and its interpretation in a work of art," do we not feel impelled to refer these remarks back to their author, and so to interpret them as a personal confession of defeat?
When the lecture "On the Modern Element in Literature" is read with an everpresent sense of its relevance to the speaker's own situation, Arnold's turning away from poetry to criticism becomes fully intelligible. A literature of escape could never effect the intellectual deliverance for which the age was waiting. Once let the need for such a-deliverance be admitted and the ideal of the scholar-gipsy was doomed. Yet it was equally unthinkable that the artist should take on the mission of delivering a society which, oblivious to his individual values, could offer in their place none of its own compatible with artistic creation. What was left? For the poet-silence, For the Victorian man of letters, however, there was always, the alternative of preaching, even though one could not practice what one preached. The example of Greek literature with its perfect adequacy could always be enlisted to vindicate the theoretical principles of the 1853 Preface. Properly invoked, the Hellenic ideal might yet be made to prevail as "a mighty [210/211] agent of intellectual deliverance." As Arnold was to argue in his later essays, literary history reserves a place of honor for the critic. In the periods of transition between epochs of creative activity, he is charged with the responsibility of giving currency to the best which has been thought and said, both in the past and in his own time, and so of supplying the impetus for subsequent expansions of imaginative being. Like the Senancour of the second Obermann elegy, the poet turned critic could reveal to his successors the hope of a brighter dawn.
The prose writings of Arnold do not fall within the compass of the present study; yet the importance of the poetry to a proper understanding of the criticism should never be overlooked. The same reservations which apply to the poet's attempts to write in the classical tradition extend to his defense of that tradition in his literary essays. The authors of the standard commentary on the poetry have called attention to the fact that despite his theories Arnold could not escape the romantic temper of his century:
However much it may at times seem otherwise, the real roots of Arnold's poetry — at least of his power to create poetry — lay not in what was classic and certain and positive, but in what was tentative and romantically obscure. The finish of his poetry and its architecture were classical, as were the limits he put upon it; but its breath and engendering spirit were not. His verses often attained to a statement of what he believed, but they began in what he doubted. His songs arose from what in life was fleeting and lovely, and therefore melancholy and emotional — from the prospect of men set amid beauty and tenderness, looking for some fugitive and gracious light that lost itself among the shadows of uncertain death. Classicist as he was, he knew this secret in his heart.
The foregoing remarks are equally appropriate to the prose criticism. In his important essay, entitled "The Study of Poetry," the writer undertook to define the types of subject and the qualities of style which characterize poetry of the [211/212] first order. He found that the two essentials of such poetry are truth and seriousness. In order to illustrate the meaning of these terms, he adduced certain passages from epic and dramatic literature to serve as touchstones. All the selections used for illustration share certain thematic and tonal preoccupations which are directly identifiable with similar emphases in Arnold's own poetry. This is merely to say that the poet tended to seek in the work of others elements corresponding to his own sense of tragic conflict. Thus, in each of the touchstones an individual sensibility is subjected to a hostile environment under the stress of alien circumstances. We feel how alone Roland and Hamlet are in the moment of death. Priam suffers Achilles' intrusion with the same helpless passivity that Dante shows under Beatrice's unfeeling gaze. Memories of lost felicity sadden those two exiles: Helen yearning for her brothers, and Satan mindful of heaven. Zeus's lament over the immortal horses consigned to mortal men protests the inscrutable dictates of fate much as does Ceres in her mournful search for Proserpine. For each of these examples parallel situations of a like pathos suggest themselves from Arnold's poems, where also the crux of the action involves some form of failure in recognition.
Arnold carried over into his criticism an aristocratic concept of the artist which is romantic rather than classic in its derivation. Reduced to its central motive, "Culture and Anarchy" is an attack on those Philistine elements in modern bourgeois society which threaten the autonomy of the creative intellect. And in choosing subjects for his critical essays, the author was sympathetically drawn to those writers who had refuged themselves from the Zeitgeist in the life of the imagination. Of Gray, Arnold declared: "He was a man born out of date, a man whose full spiritual flowering was impossible." The same thing might be said of any of those "foil'd circuitous" wanderers about whom he wrote by preference. Arnold was always returning to his dilemma, as he recognized its counterpart in Lucretius or Marcus Aurelius, in Senancour or the two du Guérins or Joubert or Amiel, in Heine or Leopardi, in Shelley or Keats. The dialogue of the [212/213] mind with itself was not to be resolved in Arnold's prose any more than in his poetry. Yet, the poet's endeavors to deal with the double awareness, however inconclusive, did at least sharpen the perceptions which would later qualify their possessor to become the most penetrating of all critics of the nineteenth-century literary mind.
Last modified July 2000