WITH Matthew Arnold the dilemma of the modern artist in society becomes fully explicit. For Arnold's critical habit of mind led him to attempt to analyze and define in objective terms that sense of alienation which we have most often encountered in the work of Tennyson and Browning under the guise of a vaguely realized malaise. In directly confronting the motives for his antipathy to the Victorian age, Arnold was concerned not only to clarify his own relationship to that age, but also to reaffirm the traditional sovereignty of poetry as a civilizing agent. Thus, whereas Tennyson and Browning ultimately relied on private revelation derived from mystical or instinctual, and in either case irrational, sources, Arnold looked for inspiration to the great humanistic idea which asserts that man is the measure of all possibilities.
This is not, of course, to imply that Arnold found it any easier than Tennyson or Browning to come to terms with the age. If the Victorians distrusted the visions of the seer and the instincts of the primitive, they were hardly more sympathetic to Arnold's advocacy of culture as enlisting the whole nature of man in opposition to the Zeitgeist. To a much greater extent than holds true for either Tennyson or Browning, the poetry of Arnold bears testimony to its author's refusal to compromise with the spirit of his era. The protagonists [147/148] of his poems are invariably lonely and isolated figures, alien to their environment. Mycerinus, the Forsaken Merman, the Scholar-Gipsy, Empedocles, the author of 'Obermann' display an unmistakable family likeness, since all are, in fact, projections of their creator's own essential homelessness in the Victorian world.
"To a Gipsy Child by the Sea-Shore" may serve to illustrate Arnold's fondness for themes traceable to an obsession with the problem of estrangement. The gipsies reappear in both "Resignation" and "The Scholar-Gipsy," where also their deracinated condition epitomizes spiritual exile. The gipsy boy and his mother are described as reluctant to acknowledge even the most elementary of ties: "half averse/ From thine own mother's breast, that knows not thee." Between the poet and the child, on the other hand, a passing glance creates a bond of sympathy. Searching for an analogy to the impression of sadness thus conveyed, Arnold surmises whether the other's mood is not like
Some exile's, mindful how the past was glad?
Some angel's, in an alien planet born?
More remarkable than the young gipsy's mournfulness, however, is the stoicism with which it is borne, a stoicism suggestive of clear-eyed and unflinching disillusionment:
Is the calm thine of stoic souls, who weigh
Life well, and find it wanting, nor deplore;
But in disdainful silence turn away,
Stand mute, self-centred, stern, and dream no more?
In truth, the secret of the gipsy's dignity is in his aloofness to the circumstances of earthly existence; his is the satanic sorrow of the infernal visitant who cannot forget lost felicity:
Ah! not the nectarous poppy lovers use,
Not daily labour's dull, Lethæan spring,
Oblivion in lost angels can infuse
Of the soil'd glory, and the trailing wing.
The vicissitudes of worldly being may dull the edge of grief; [148/149] but a mood so noble in its origin, the poet suggests, can never be wholly displaced. Rather, there is tragic grandeur in so accepting an alien fate.
The grounds for Arnold's antagonism to his age emerge in a large number of poems originally published in the volumes of 1849 and 1852. From these it is apparent that the author was in closer touch with the society about him than either Tennyson or Browning, so that his criticism of contemporary manners and morals has an authority and immediacy lacking in either of his brother-poets. Put quite simply, Arnold felt that the temper of Victorian society was destructive of individual integrity and wholeness of being. Any serious-minded person, who in all sincerity desired to cultivate his own garden, was obliged at every turn to resist intrusive pressures hostile to the philosophic mind. The threat to self-possession embodied in the superficial values of modern life is repeatedly formulated in such poems as "The World's Triumphs," "A Question, The World and the Quietist," and "Horatian Echo." This conflict receives what is perhaps its classic expression in "The Buried Life," which appeals to the innermost recesses of being as the ultimate refuge against the frivolous solicitations of the external world. Because he lacks the courage of his own innate convictions, the average man looks around him and invites: "Of all the thousand nothings of the hour/ Their stupefying power." In a manner prophetic of much twentieth-century writing Arnold equates the social whirl where "light flows our war of mocking words" with a flight from self-consciousness. We are reminded
How frivolous a baby man would be —
By what distractions he would be possessd,
How he would pour himself in every strife,
And well-nigh change his own identity —
But whether the social mask be worn instinctively to hide an inner vacuity or whether it be deliberately assumed to shield a central core of sensitivity, the penalty is the same: disintegration [149/180] of individuality, estrangement not only from one's kind, but from oneself as well:
I knew the mass of men conceal'd
Their thoughts, for fear that if reveal'd
They would by other men be met
With blank indifference, or with blame reproved;
I knew they lived and moved
Trick'd in disguises, alien to the rest
Of men, and alien to themselves. . .
In a social order built on pretense and subterfuge, lasting attachments are formed with difficulty. The group of poems inspired by Arnold's early failure in love involves most of the factors in modern life which the author found most disruptive of inner harmony. Marguerite, viewed in artistic perspective, appears less a real woman than a symbolic presentment of romantic love in all its distracting appeal. From the earliest stages of the affair Arnold was evidently fearful lest submission to her spell would deprive him of the power of self-direction and lead him astray amidst the dizzying cross-currents of the senses. The Yale Manuscript carries an entry for the year 1849 indicative of Arnold's intention to write a poem on the refusal of limitation by the sentiment of love. But do not all the lyrics devoted to Marguerite embroider on this theme? As finally arranged, furthermore, they show a definite progression through which the poet moves towards a clearer and clearer understanding of the motives underlying his reluctance to submerge his identity in a one-sided relationship. At first, in Parting, there is merely the unhappy awareness of temperamental variance: "And what heart knows another?" This realization then supplies in "Isolation." To "Marguerite" the motive for selfwithdrawal. Since "the heart can bind itself alone," the poet abandons all hope of fulfillment through shared experience:
Farewell! — and thou, thou lonely heart,
Which never yet without remorse
Even for a moment didst depart [151/152]
From thy remote and spheréd course
To haunt the place where passions reign —
Back to thy solitude again!
And finally in the lyric entitled "To Marguerite — Continued" the poet's estrangement from his mistress undergoes a further expansion to include the concept that in the modern world there no longer exists any channel for communication between one individual and another on the level of the deeper sensibilities. The impossibility of true love is thus emblematic of a general breakdown in human intercourse. Every man has, in truth, become an island.
Yes! in the sea of life enisled,
With echoing straits between us thrown,
Dotting the shoreless watery wild,
We mortal millions live alone.
The islands feel the enclasping flow,
And then their endless bounds they know.
But when the moon their hollows lights,
And they are swept by balms of spring,
And in their glens, on starry nights,
The nightingales divinely sing;
And lovely notes, from shore to shore,
Across the sounds and channels pour —
Oh! then a longing like despair
Is to their farthest caverns sent;
For surely once, they feel, we were
Parts of a single continent!
Now round us spreads the watery plain
Oh might our marges meet again!
Who order'd, that their longing's fire
Should be, as soon as kindled, cool'd?
Who renders vain their deep desire? —
A God, a God their severance ruled!
And bade betwixt their shores to be
The unplumb'd, salt, estranging sea. [153/154]
Exacerbated in his outward contacts with the age, the youthful Arnold followed the way of escape endorsed by the preceding generation of romantic poets; he accepted his alienation and sought to make a virtue of it. The life of the imagination, however, cannot be wholly self-sustaining. The thinking of both Tennyson and Browning, as we have seen, operated within a transcendental frame of reference. Arnold lacked any such resources of imaginative being. Incapable either of Tennyson's mystical double-vision or of Browning's primitive vitalism, he tried to rationalize his impulses. Proof though he might be against worldly delusions, he yet feared the worse delusion of creating an inner world in his own image. As a result, much of the poetry in the volumes of 1849 and 1852, as well as later, is the record of the author's search for a principle of authority conformable alike to his subjective consciousness and to some mode of belief sanctioned by tradition.
Orthodox Christianity was intellectually inadmissible to Arnold. Very little of his early poetry exhibits any serious preoccupation with the Christian revelation. Perhaps the nostalgic undertone of Dover Beach is as close as the poet comes to an admission of the consolations offered by religion. But with the "melancholy, long, withdrawing roar" of the Sea of Faith sounding in his ears, he faces a world bereft of any spiritual motive, a world which offers: "Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain." And in exemplification of the failure of religion as an informing principle in modern life, there is nothing to match the culminating figure of "Dover Beach":
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
Out of his profound veneration for Goethe and Wordsworth, Arnold courted nature in the hope of receiving under its benign patronage spiritual intimations more responsive to his individual needs. Yet, while such a poem as "Parting" seems to suggest the possibility of correspondence between [178/179] man and the natural order, the poet generally regards any such idea as a deliberate fiction of the poetic imagination. Arnold's nature poetry clearly reveals a dualistic habit of mind. "The Youth of Nature" develops the argument that natural laws function according to their own logic, totally oblivious of human participation. The theory that nature has a separate existence recurs in "Self-Dependence" and in "A Wish," where the writer speaks of
The world which was ere I was born,
The world which lasts when I am dead;
Which never was the friend of one,
Nor promised love it could not give,
But lit for all its generous sun,
And lived itself, and made us live.
Man has his assigned rôle. To solicit nature's intervention in the performance of this rôle is to confuse two distinct planes of being. Hence the warning of "In Harmony with Nature": "Man must begin, know this, where Nature ends;/ Nature and man can never be fast friends." At best, Nature provides an example from which humanity may learn valuable lessons in achieving its own goals. One such lesson is the union of industriousness and serenity,,as set forth in the sonnet "Quiet Work" and in "Lines Written in Kensington Gardens." In "The Youth of Man" nature is invoked to teach self-reliance: "Rally the good in the depths of thyself!" But more frequently Arnold tends to equate the tranquilizing effect of natural phenomena with his ideal of intellectual freedom based on largeness and clarity of mind. It is in this exalted context that he apostrophizes nature in the concluding lines of "A Summer Night":
But I will rather say that you remain
A world above man's head, to let him see
How boundless might his soul's horizons be,
How vast, yet of what clear transparency!
How it were good to abide there, and breathe free. . . [153/154]
Although he was unable to compensate for his sense of isolation by appealing to orthodox religious beliefs or to a form of natural supernaturalism, Arnold refused to grant that man is an accidental phenomenon. Throughout all his earlier poetry there persists a curiously classic fatalism. Some mysterious force presides over the human situation. This force is never very clearly defined; it goes variously under the names of necessity or fate or destiny, all of which terms, one is tempted to say, are merely so many metaphorical disguises for Arnold's obsession with the Zeitgeist. Sometimes the agent is endowed with godlike attributes, though hardly those of the Christian deity. In "To Marguerite — Continued," for example, the poet ascribes the distances between individuals to the fact that: "A God, a God their severance ruled!" Necessity for Arnold is whatever negates freedom of will. The speaker in "Stanzas in Memory of the Author of 'Obermann'" says:
We, in some unknown Power's employ,
Move on a rigorous line;
Can neither, when we will, enjoy,
Nor, when we will, resign.
The individual finds that he has to postulate some mysterious and superhuman power in order to account for the limitations of his faculties, especially as a social bein . The three lyrics which introduce the Marguerite series, "Meeting, Parting, and A Farewell," all assume that the relationship is predestined to failure:
. . . we wear out life, alas!
Distracted as a homeless wind,
In beating where we must not pass,
In seeking what we shall not find . . .
Occasionally the poet implies that man's isolation is assumed out of selfish regard for his own interests. This is the case in the second of the two political sonnets, "To a Republican Friend," where the poet, musing "on what life is," reaches the conclusion that [154/559]
. . . this vale, this earth, whereon we dream,
Is on all sides o'ershadowd by the high
Uno'erleap'd Mountains of Necessity,
Sparing us narrower margin than we deem.
Nor will that day dawn at a human nod,
When, bursting through the network superposed
By selfish occupation-plot and plan,
Lust, avarice, envy-liberated man,
All difference with his fellow-mortal closed,
Shall be left standing face to face with God.
More often, however, man's confinement to the lonely prison of selfhood is not of his own choosing, but has been somebow imposed by circumstances beyond his control. Thus, in "The Buried Life" we are told:
Ah! well for us) if even we,
Even for a moment, can get free
Our heart, and have our lips unchaind;
For that which seals them hath been deep-ordain'd!
That the individual should be condemned to live unto himself Arnold was reluctantly prepared to accept as a condition of modern life, but that he should on top of that lack the incentive of a distinctly perceived private goal seemed too harsh a decree. "Self-Deception" records the mood of bewildered despair in which the poet cast about for an explanation of why he had been granted inborn potentialities, and yet denied the opportunity to make any constructive use of them:
Then, as now, this tremulous, eager being
Strain'd and long'd and grasp'd each gift it saw;
Then, as now, a Power beyond our seeing
Staved us back, and gave our choice the law.
Ah, whose hand that day through Heaven guided
Man's new spirit, since it was not we?
Ah, who sway'd our choice, and who decided
What our gifts, and what our wants should be? [155/156]
For, alas! he left us each retaining
Shreds of gifts which he refused in full.
Still these waste us with their hopeless straining,
Still the attempt to use them proves them null.
And on earth we wander, groping, reeling;
Powers stir in us, stir and disappear.
Ah! and he, who placed our master-feeling,
Fail'd to place that master-feeling clear.
We but dream we have our wish'd-for powers,
Ends we seek we never shall attain.
Ah! some "power" exists there, which is ours?
"Some" end is there, we indeed may gain?
The state of mind here described was fraught with tragic implications for Arnold. Among his first efforts to objectify his own situations in narrative and dramatic forms occur two poems on the theme of individual talent frustrated by an alien environment. The good ruler Mycermus, forestalled by the "stern sentence of the Powers of Destiny," withdraws from the world to take such solace as may be found in purely self-regarding pastimes. The King in Bokhara likewise learns that even the most humane governors are subject "unto a rule more strong than theirs"; and while he submits to the letter of the law, he does so in bitterness and desolation of heart.
Although they react very differently to the inscrutable dictates imposed on them, Mycerinus and the King in Bokhara exhibit a like fatalism. Their lonely stoicism, akin to that of the gipsy child, reflects Arnold's own attitude. Betrayed by all else, the individual may yet consult the laws of his own essential nature. "Man cannot, though he would, live chance's fool," declares the poet of "Human Life." From which we are to understand that even though we have fallen on a barren time and lost touch with our fellows and with the universe, we still have the possibility of salvation within ourselves. Poem after poem in the volumes of 1849 and 1852 invokes, through such phrases as "man's one nature," the "soul well-knit," and "my nature's law," the classical [156/157] concept of equanimity as the highest achievement of individual self-integration.
The essential conflict which Arnold was to develop through so many variations is present as early as the sonnet, "Written in Butler's Sermons." On the one band, the world with its manifold claims exerts a centrifugal pressure on man's nature. This tendency towards fragmentation is counteracted, however, by a nucleus of individuality, the buried life which) makes for unity, stability, and equilibrium:
Affections, Instincts, Principles, and Powers,
Impulse and Reason, Freedom and Control —
So Men, unravelling God's harmonious whole,
Rend in a thousand shreds this life of ours.
Vain labour! Deep and broad, where none may see,
Spring the foundations of that shadowy throne
Where man's one nature, queen-like, sits alone,
Centred in a majestic unity. . .
The same idea appears in "Religious Isolation," "Human Life," "The Second Best," and "The Youth of Man." It also provides the solution to Mycerinus' dilemma. The king abdicates and goes into self-imposed exile, where, we are told,
Took measure of his soul, and knew its strength,
And by that silent knowledge, day by day,
Was calm'd, ennobled, comforted, sustain'd.
The normal circumstances of life, however, do not often provide opportunity for an act of renunciation so decisive as that initiated by Mycerinus. More commonly, the disassociation exists as a state of mind, but the individual is not the less committed to his choice if he hopes to avoid the vitiating influences of the Time Spirit. Among the entries in the Yale Manuscript occurs the following: "Our remotest self must abide in its remoteness awful & unchanged, presiding at the tumult of the rest of our being, changing thoughts contending desires &c as the moon over the agitations of the [157/158]Sea." And many years afterwards this random jotting attained final expression in the dominant metaphor of "Palladium." The mind, it seems, is divided between a double awareness. One part, controlling the active will, inclines the possessor to engage in worldly affairs. The other part, passively centered in contemplation, is circumscribed by the inner consciousness. It is this second part which bears the burden of a1ienation and must do so, if the individual's outer awareness is to remain uncorrupted by exposure to the ways of the world, is to have a point of reference other than the debased values current in society:
Set where the upper streams of Simois flow
Was the Palladium, high 'mid rock and wood;
And Hector was in Ilium, far below,
And fought, and saw it not-but there it stood!
It stood, and sun and moonshine rain'd their light
On the pure columns of its glen-built hall.
Backward and forward roll'd the waves of fight
Round Troy-but while this stood, Troy could not fall.
So, in its lovely moonlight, lives the soul.
Mountains surround it, and sweet virgin air;
Cold plashing, past it, crystal waters roll;
We visit it by moments, ah, too rare!
We shall renew the battle in the plain
To-morrow;-red with blood will Xanthus be;
Hector and Ajax will be there again,
Helen will come upon the wall to see.
Then we shall rust in shade, or shine in strife,
And fluctuate 'twixt blind hopes and blind despairs,
And fancy that we put forth all our life,
And never know how with the soul it fares.
Still doth the soul, from its lone fastness high,
Upon our life a ruling effluence send.
And when it fails, fight as we will, we die;
And while it lasts, we cannot wholly end. [158/159]
It is thus apparent that Arnold looked to the life of the imagination as a place of refuge from the spirit of the age. But if the poet could not endure the conditions of contemporary life, he found it equally difficult to live exclusively for and to himself. Unsustained by any real religious or philosophic faith, he fell back, as had been suggested, on a form of stoicism based on the assumption that each individual must rely on the laws of his own nature. Bleak enough at the best times, this creed would become intolerably so when the individual, for whatsoever reason, doubted his powers of endurance. And Arnold was recurrently prone to misgivings that made a mockery of any pretense of self-possession.
Fear of the Zeitgeist, on one hand, and distrust of his own innate perceptions, on the other, imposed on Arnold's poetry a reciprocal stress that accounts for its characteristic tone of indecision. In "Stagirius" the writer asks release "from doubt, where all is double." The first stanza of this poem, which dates from as early as 1844, makes a typical plea against "the world's temptations." But by a reversal of responsibility the second stanza asks release from the spiritual pride which, repudiating the world, falls into self-infatuation and hence error of a worse kind:
When the soul, growing clearer,
Sees God no nearer;
When the soul, mounting higher,
To God comes no nigher;
But the arch-fiend Pride
Mounts at her side,
Foiling her high emprise,
Sealing her eagle eyes,
And, when she fain would soar,
Makes idols to adore,
Changing the pure emotion
Of her high devotion,
To a skin-deep sense
Of her own eloquence;
Strong to deceive, strong to enslave —
Save, oh! save. [159/160]
"In Utrumque Paratus" presents a more philosophic account of the difficulties into which the poet was led by his dualistic tendency of mind. Once grant a Prime Mover behind the universe, and the individual's willful severance from his kind becomes justifiable as a holy quest, conducting in "lonely pureness to the all-pure fount" of ultimate truth. But if everything happens by chance (the opinion to which Arnold seems incline, in this poem at least), then self-immersion denotes a rejection of life itself:
Oh when most self-exalted, most alone,
Chief dreamer, own thy dream!
Thy brother-world stirs at thy feet unknown,
Who hath a monarch's hath no brother's part;
— Oh, what a spasm shakes the dreamer's heart!
'"I, too, but seem."' [a note on Arnold's 1869 revision]
The Marguerite lyrics, as a confession of failure to get outside the limitations of self through love, are Arnold's most subjective statement of his sense of apartness. Yet even here the yearning or union with another is present as a constant undertone and goes far towards cancelling the overt theme. "Isolation. To Marguerite" concludes with the following wistful reference to the experience
Of happier men-for they, at least,
Have "dream'd" two human hearts might blend
In one, and were through faith released
From isolation without end
Prolong'd; nor knew, although not less
Alone than thou, their loneliness. [160/161]
A similar nostalgia informs "To Marguerite — Continued," and enters still more explicitly into "The Forsaken Merman." It is impossible not to perceive in the latter poem a metaphorical presentation of the poet's hapless passion for the shadowy Marguerite. The incongruous mating of the merman and the earth-born woman symbolizes a deeper spiritual incompatibility to which the bereft lover is reluctant to reconcile himself.
Other poems, less personal in their implications, show Arnold fully aware that self-withdrawal cannot be accomplished without a grievous sacrifice of social sympathies. Most revealing in this connection are the passages which have survived from two early attempts to handle Greek tragedy. The chorus in the "Fragment of an 'Antigone'" commends the man who puts familial duties above selfish regard for his own well-being:
Him then I praise, who dares
To self-selected good
Prefer obedience to the primal law,
Which consecrates the ties of blood; for these, indeed,
Are to the Gods a care;
That touches but himself.
"The Fragment of Chorus of a 'Dejaneira,'" presumably written at about the same time, comments as follows on the victims of "hybris":
Little in your prosperity
Do you seek counsel of the Gods.
Proud, ignorant, self-adored, you live alone.
It is vain for such individuals to consult the oracles:
For you will not put on
New hearts with the enquirer's holy robe,
And purged, considerate minds.
Stoical submission to an alien destiny can never quell the individual's instinctive desire for shared experience. Of this fact the King in Bokhara, among others, becomes tragically [161/162] aware. That Arnold felt increasingly the loneliness of exclusive self-preoccupation is evident from the prevalence in the 1852 volume of poems which lament the conditions attendant on this state of being. "Human Life," "Euphrosyne," and "Too Late" are all concerned with man's inherent human craving for affection. And for a poet who had known the bitter disillusionment of unequal love, "The Buried Life" and "Dover Beach" evidence a most strange and unexpected reversal of the sentiments displayed in the Marguerite lyrics. (It might be argued, of course, that by this time Arnold had met and fallen in love with his future wife.) For the buried life, we are told, is most likely to declare itself under the impress of strong emotion, such as occurs in moments of perfect togetherness "when a belovéd hand is laid in ours," while in Dover Beach the lover relies, in the absence of all other consolations, on communion with his mistress:
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain... >
Arnold's early poetry, therefore, is prevailingly ambivalent, alternating between emotional involvement in the life of his times and aloofness therefrom. And sooner or later it was to his art that the poet always appealed to mediate a conflict that he had failed to resolve by other means. In Arnold's thinking the relationship of the individual to society is inseperable from the dilemma of the modern artist. As a result, the volumes of 1849 and 1852 inc lude a number of poems which develop the aesthetic aspect of alienation. Furthermore, the intimate discussion of artistic problems contained in Arnold's correspondence with Clough during this period makes it possible to analyze with considerable precision the successive stages throuzh which the author passed in trying to formulate a concept of the poetic function, answerable both to his own inclinations and to the needs of the age. [162/163]
Arnold's letters to Clough, written in the late months of 1847 and during 1848, persistently maintain that the spirit of the times is inimical to disinterested creative endeavor. Indeed, the second letter in the published series discusses the pitfalls lying in wait for the artist who achieves any measure of popular success:
But never without a Pang do I hear of the growing Popularity of a strong minded writer. Then I know... the strong minded writer will lose his self-knowledge, and talk of his usefulness and imagine himself a Reformer, instead of an Exhibition. . . . we, my love, lovers of one another and fellow worshippers of Isis, while we believe in the Universality of Passion as Passion, will keep our Aesthetics by remembering its onesidedness as doctrine.
As the concluding sentence clearly suggests, Arnold is at this time disposed to treat poetr as a cloistral rite. Clough's earnest didacticism too often seemed a criticism of his own disinclination to get involved in issues of contemporary moment. At one time he chastises his friend for his attempts "to "solve" the Universe"; on another occasion he calls him "a mere d — -d depth hunter in poetry." Again, sensing Clough's kind of poetry as an implied reproach to his own, he falls back on the classic apology of the devotee of art for art's sake: "A growing sense of the deficiency of the "beautiful" in your poems, and of this alone being properly "poetical" as distinguished from rhetorical, devotional or metaphysical, made me speak as I did." Unable to condone "Tennyson's dawdling with [the] painted shell" of the universe, Arnold yet finds such poets as Keats or Browning even more reprovable for having allowed themselves "to be prevailed over by the world's multitudinousness." The times have corrupted literary taste along with everything else. Of friends who admire Roir Clough's "Bothie" he scornfully writes that they have been "sucked ... into the Time Stream in which they ... plunge and bellow." By way of contrast, Arnold boasts to Clough of his own immunity to coercion, of his stubborn refusal to let the age impose on him its definition of the artist's [163/164] rôle: "I . . . took up Obermann, and refuged myself with him in his forest against your Zeit Geist."
The dangers of contemporaneity which had upset Clough's equilibrium and threatened his own, Arnold embodied in the temptations to which the speaker in "The New Sirens" is exposed. The gloss which Arnold provided for Clough makes the poem's meaning unmistakable. Siren voices have lured the protagonist, himself a poet, down from the lonely heights. In responding to their call, he has betrayed the austere purity and freedom of the life of the imagination:
From the dragon-warder'd fountains
Where the springs of knowledge are,
From the watchers on the mountains,
And the bright and morning star;
We are exiles, we are falling,
We have lost them at your call —
O ye false ones, at your calling
Seeking ceiled chambers and a palace-hall!
Since the sirens, as we are informed, symbolize romantic love, their conception may well have been inspired by Marguerite; but as Marguerite herself came in retrospect to stand for many things, so the sirens epitomize not only undisciplined passion, but also the nervous instability of modern society. The poet, it will be noted, is mocked for preferring the wisdom of the intellect to that of the heart:
'Come,' you say, 'the brain is seeking,
While the sovran heart is dead;
Yet this glean'd, when Gods were speaking,
Rarer secrets than the toiling head.'
Even though partially seduced and to this extent disabled in his creative faculty, the poet has not fully succumbed to the blandishments of the sirens. Before it was too late, he heard "the north wind blowing," and shocked into wakefulness, saw the revellers in their true light as "unsphered, discrowned creatures." The prose exegesis of "The New Sirens" indicates that Arnold was thinking of himself when he cast [164/165]his poet for the part of disenchanted onlooker. Thus, he asks of the distraught maidens: "do your thoughts revert to that life of the spirit to which, like me, you were once attracted, but which, finding it hard and solitary, you soon abandoned for the vehement emotional life of passion as 'the new Sirens?" And again in his paraphrase of the poem's denouement, Arnold incontestably identifies himself with the protagonist who is made to say: "I, remaining in the dark and cold under my cedar, and seeing the blaze of your revel in the distance, do not share your illusions: and ask myself whether this "alternation" of ennui and excitement is worth much? whether it is in truth a very desirable life?"
Arnold's final estimate of "The New Sirens," which few would dispute, was: "it is exactly a mumble." If art is to be a barricade against the Time Spirit, then it must be created with all the skill at the artist's command. In "Horatian Echo" the poet cautions his "ambitious friend" not to let popular versifiers challenge him on the grounds of formal excellence:
Only, that with no finer art
They cloak the troubles of the heart
With pleasant smile, let us take care...
During 1849 a significant shift of emphasis takes place in Arnold's letters to Clough. The poet no longer makes so much of artistic intransigeance. Instead of justifying his work as a gesture of protest against the age, he now takes the position that great art is its own iustification. For the moment he follows a line which, if prolonged, would have led to the doctrine of art for art's sake. Especially revealing are the views contained in a letter written in early February 1849. The poetic quality most to be cultivated is "naturalness," by which we are to understand "an absolute propriety — of form." This is "the sole "necessary" of Poetry "as such": whereas the greatest wealth and depth of matter is merely a superfluity in the Poet as such." Arnold then weighs the relative merits of content and form:
I often think that even a slight gift of poetical expression [165/166] which in a common person might have developed itself easil and naturally, is overlaid and crushed in a profound thinker so as to be of no use to him to help him to express himself. The trying to go into and to the bottom of an object instead of grouping "objects" is as fatal to the sensuousness of poetry as the mere painting, (for, "in Poetry," this is not "grouping") is to its airy and rapidly moving life.
In conclusion he focuses his argument on Clough's poetry. The judgment passed on his friend's failure has now a firmer basis in aesthetic theory:
-You succeed best you see, in fact, in the hymn, where man, his deepest personal feelings being in play, finds poetical expression as "man" only, not as artist:-but consider whether you attain the "beautiful," and whether your product gives PLEASURE, not excites curiosity and reflection. . . . Reflect too, as I cannot but do here more and more, in spite of all the nonsense some people talk, how deeply unpoetical the age and all one's surroundings are. Not unprofound, not ungrand, not unmoving: — but "unpoetical."
Through dedication to his art Arnold was reaching after a greater degree of detachment, not only from the age, but also from that part of his nature which was akin to the age. He refers to an acquaintance who "urges me to speak more from myself: which I less and less have the inclination to do.". Self-sufficiency remains an ideal, but now rather as an essential condition of creativity than as conducive to peace of mind. Later in 1849 he refers to himself as an artist "whose one natural craving is not for profound thoughts, mighty spiritual workings etc. etc. but a distinct seeing of my way as far as my own nature is concerned." In revulsion against the romantic attitude towards art, he writes to his sister: "More and more I feel bent against the modern English habit (too much encouraged by Wordsworth) of using poetry as a channel for thinking aloud, instead of making anything." Such poems as "Mycerinus," "The Sick King in Bokhara," and [166/167] "The Forsaken Merman," in which the narrative or dramatic modes are employed to mask the immediacy of the themes to the author's personal situation, show Arnold moving in the direction of greater objectivity. But this tendency is more clearly traceable in poems dealing more or less directly with aesthetics.
"The Strayed Reveller," which supplied the title for the 1849 volume, bears a specious resemblance to "The New Sirens" in several ways, but actually reaches a conclusion very different from that endorsed in the earlier poem. Like the poet in "The New Sirens," the reveller has descended from his native sphere on the heights; but now Arnold no longer identifies himself with his protagonist -quite the contrary, in fact. The first poet manages to free himself from the spell of the sirens. The strayed reveller, on the other hand, is a willing loiterer in Circe's palace. He can sing only when intoxicated by the magic wine which induces in him a frenzy as debasing to the creative impulse, one may suppose, as is bestiality to man's physical nature. Ulysses symbolizes heroic action, totally unlike the passion-vexed gyrations of the sirens, whose song, according to tradition, he likewise heard, but without turning aside. Of the exploits of such heroes the reveller knows nothing, save what he has learned from Silenus. Yet the true poets are those who have participated most intensely in the ardors of earthly existence:
. . . such a price
The Gods exact for a song:
To become what we sing.
The reveller is the prisoner of his own self-infatuated imagination. His visions are meaningful to him alone, because I he has never connected them with the general sum of human i experience. In an interval of clear-sightedness, before plunging back into drunken frenzy, he confesses to Ulysses the desolating isolation of the artist who from his remote point of vantage looks down on the activities of the world "without pain, without labour."
The argument of "The Strayed Reveller," however, is referable [167/168] only to ideal ages, filled with the rumor of epic themes. And increasingly Arnold was aware of the very unideal character of his own age. Sometimes the tone of his letters verges on despair:
My dearest Clough these are damned times -everythinz is against one-the height to which knowledge is come, the spread of luxury, our physical enervation, the absence of great "natures," the unavoidable contact with millions of small ones, newspapers, cities, light profligate friends, moral desperadoes like Carlyle, our own selves, and the sickening consciousness of our difficulties; but for God's sake let us neither be fanatics nor yet chalf blown by the wind. . . .
One unfailing source of consolation was the literature of the past. Insecure and sensing the exiguity of his poetic resources, Arnold looked to other writers for guidance in his effort to determine his own proper attitude. This attitude would lie somewhere between the positions described in "The New Sirens" and "The Strayed Reveller." It would provide for the aloofness which the poets of the two poems have in common; but for the rancor of the first it would substitute equanimity, and in place of the self-indulgent delusions of the other, it would provide an objective grasp on reality. Such were the qualities which Arnold recognized and venerated in Sophocles "who saw life steadily, and saw it whole," and in Shakespeare, "self-school'd, self-scann'd, selfhonour'd, self-secure." For much the same reasons he especially singled out, among artists closer to his time, Goethe and Wordsworth, praising the "wide and luminous view" of the one, and the "sweet calm" of the other.
The same motive which induced Arnold the man to try to relate his sense of spiritual isolation to some system of religious or philosophic thought made Arnold the artist seek an objective basis for his aesthetic alienation. The poem entitled "Resignation" grows directly out of meditations over the quality of serene detachment in the poets whom he most admired. But as these artists had not thought of poetry as [168/169] primarily a means of escape from the world, so Arnold now tries to rationalize the essentially introspective impulse within his own work by assigning it an altruistic motive.
The speaker in "Resignation," who is, of course, Arnold, has stationed himself on a lofty outlook. Much has been made of the poet's use of running water to symbolize human existence under its temporal aspect, but his preoccupation with high places is equally remarkable. Mountains and, indeed, eminences of every kind are the natural habitat for Arnold's characters, such settings being used to dramatize the isolation of superior souls. We have already noted in "The New Sirens" and "The Strayed Reveller" how the descent of the two poets from their upland fastnesses to the peopled valleys is made a metaphor for their worldly contamination. The philosophic mind, it seems, needs some such point of vantage as a means of reducing the banal affairs of everyday life to proper scale. So Alaric, the "lonely conqueror" of the Rugby prize poem, strikes a romantic pose atop the Capitoline Hill from which to brood over the civilization he has brought low. So the scholar-gipsy l6oks over Oxford from the Cumnor Hills. So also Heine gazes out from Brocken-tower, Odin scans Midgard from Valhalla, and the shepherd in "Sohrab and Rustum"
... from his mountain-lodge descries
A far, bright city, smitten by the sun,
Through many rolling clouds. . .
Remoteness of perspective, however, need not necessarily emphasize individual apartness; it may also lead to a perception of "our true affinities of soul." This is the experience of the poet in "Resignation":
From some high station be looks down,
At sunset, on a populous town;
Surveys each happy group, which fleets,
Toil ended, through the shining streets,
Each with some errand of its own
And does not say: "I am alone." [168/169]
Although the gipsies in "Resignation" help to bring into relief the poet's isolation from society, their attitude of fatalistic hopelessness does not suffice for him. Nor is he willing to rest in self-contemplation:
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.
He feels impelled to submerge his individuality in the whole world of animate being: "That general life, which does not cease." The artist, be discovers, has a natural aptitude for sharing in this "general life," which is
The life he craves-if not in vain Fate gave, what chance shall not control, His sad lucidity of soul.
In this poem the writer's sister, the Fausta of the subtitle, has the task of defending the position which Arnold himself had adopted in previous poems. According to her argument, the poet is a man apart. By virtue of his capacity for intense feeling, he can at will escape into the life of the imagination:
In the day's life, whose iron round
Hems us all in, he is not bound;
He leaves his kind, o'erleaps their pen,
And flees the common life of men.
He escapes thence, but we abide —
Not deep the poet sees, but wide.
For Fausta the last line of this passage signifies the artist's lack of involvement in the human drama; but Arnold reinterprets its meaning to support his own very different assumptions. If the poet enjoys a kind of "rapt security," this is not because his sensibilities are different from those of other men, but rather because his "natural insight" enables him intuitively to "discern/ What through experience others learn." The poet stands aside so that he may by [170/171]
winning room to see and hear, And to men's business not too near, Through clouds of individual strife Draw homeward to the general life.
The account of the poet's function set forth in "Resignation" was to remain, however, an ideal which Arnold never fully realized in his own poetry. Elsewhere he had advocated stoical self-possession, a quiet and a fearless mind, as the best antidote against "the something that infects the world"-vet without being able, as we have seen, to surmount the philosophic difficulties attendant on such a position. In the same way, a concept of the aesthetic impulse, whereby "sad lucidity of soul" guarantees "the poet's rapt security," proposes a kind of imaginative vision which Arnold could admire in others, but which lay outside his own scope. It is all very well for the Goethe of "Memorial Verses" to say: "The end is everywhere,/ Art still has truth, take refuge there!" But with his confidence a good deal shaken by the cool reception of the 1849 poems, Arnold inclines more readily to the view expressed in "Stanzas in Memory of the Author of 'Obermann'":
Some secrets may the poet tell,
For the world loves new ways;
To tell too deep ones is not well —
It knows not what he says.
In fact, the first Obermann poem presents a literary variant of Arnold's relationship to the social life of his times. An age given over to superficiality could not but be antagonistic to the ways of the imagination:
Too fast we live, too much are tried,
Too harass'd, to attain
Wordsworth's sweet calm, or Goethe's wide
And luminous view to gain.
Too nervously distracted to perceive and hence "draw homeward to the general life," and yet too fastidious to mingle with the world on its own terms, the poet has no choice but [171/172] to follow such writers as Senancour into the wilderness of self-exile. Arnold's temperamental sympathy with Senancour led him to fancy a close parallel in their situations and so to make of the author of "Obermann" a symbol of the alienation imposed on the modern artist: "The world is with him in his solitude far less than it is with them [other writers of the sentimental school]; of all writers he is the most perfectly isolated and the least attitudinising." Yet in everything that he has to say about Senancour as a companion spirit, there is present a tone of hesitancy. However strong a case might be made for the French writer's aloofness, there was no denying that this attitude, as symptomatic of the "unstrung will" and the "broken heart," had been fatally disabling to creative endeavor. When he despairs of success in his own writing, Arnold is capable of moving to this extreme; but a deep conviction of the poet's traditional responsibility to his culture will not allow him even at such times completely to disassociate himself from the world about him. His efforts to clarify his concept of the function of the artist invariably lead back in the end to that duality of awareness which is present in all his thinking. There are two worlds in conflict, an inner and private one of the individual consciousness, and an outer and public one of shared experience. The artist like the man eddies in between, caught by alternating currents of attraction and repulsion:
Ah! two desires toss about
The poet's feverish blood.
One drives him to the world without,
And one to solitude.
All the various elements of this conflict are orchestrated in "Empedocles on Etna," the dramatic narrative which supplied the title for the 1852 volume. Fifteen years later the poet was emphatically to deny that he had used "Empedocles and Obermann as mouthpieces through which to vent my own opinions." But this "ex post facto" declaration was certainly disingenuous. Even without the testimony of the poem itself, the prose exegesis of "Empedocles on Etna" in the Yale Papers [172/173] presents too many parallels with Arnold's acknowledged view of his situation at this period to leave much room for doubt that the poet was writing with his own dilemma in mind. The combination of the narrative and dramatic modes, with which he had experimented in such works as "The Sick King in Bokhara," was no doubt chosen in the interests of objectivity. Yet "the dialogue of the mind with itself" makes up the true substance of the poem. Pausanias and Callicles serve to personify aspects of Empedocles' nature which he has outgrown and left behind. They represent the extremes between which his past life had vacillated, Pausanias being an embodiment of the "homme moyen" sensuel and Callicles standing for the lonely artist dedicated to the life of the imagination.
"Empedocles on Etna" is divided into two acts, corresponding to the two worlds which divide the protagonist's being. In the first part, where he has Pausanias for auditor, the Sicilian philosopher gives rein to his rancor against contemporary society. He has outlived his time, and now in old age has chosen exile in preference to the frivolous ways of a later generation. The mirror metaphor, here introduced, brilliantly evokes the fragmentation of values which occurs once the traditional centers of conviction within a society have lost their magnetism. The sophists with their sneering, materialism and the hypocritical saints with their "pious wail)) are in rival ascendancy over humanity. The individual who would retain his ide~tity has no choice but to sink into himself:
And we feel, day and night,
The burden of ourselves —
Well, then, the wiser wight
In his own bosom delves,
And asks what ails him so, and gets what cure he can.
But self-knowledge brings with it bitter recognition of the cosmic extent of man's alienation: "No, we are strangers here; the world is from of old." Empedocles states Arnold's own [173/174] matured belief that in their even-handed operations natural laws are careless of human destiny:
Nature, with equal mind,
Sees all her sons at play;
Sees man control the wind,
The wind sweep man away;
Allows the proudly-riding and the foundering bark.
Religious systems are an ineffectual expedient, whereby mankind endeavors to pass off the responsibility for his unhappy lot on the "harsh Gods and hostile Fates." The wise individual is he who realistically accepts the limitations of earthly existence and makes the best of them. Empedocles' long diatribe to Pausanias is introduced by Callicles' first song which recounts bow the aged centaur, Chiron, played mentor to the young Achilles, opening his eyes to the beneficence of nature. The advice given by Empedocles to Pausanias thus constitutes a bitter travesty of the situation described in this lyric. When the philosopher has concluded his lesson, Callicles is again heard, this time singing of the contentment which Cadmus and Harmonia found in their divinely decreed exile. As if aware of the implied irony with reference to his own forlorn and outcast state, Empedocles ends by sending Pausanias back to the world of men.
The second part of the poem takes up after Empedocles has ascended almost to the summit of Etna. It is evening now; and the setting, described as a "charr'd, blacken'd, melancholy waste," is symbolic of the sage's extreme dejection. Having repudiated Pausanias' offer of sympathy, Empedocles confronts his isolation, only to find its burden as intolerable as the alternative of fellowship with his kind:
And being lonely thou art miserable,
For something has impaird tby spirit's strength,
And dried its self-sufficing fount of joy.
Thou canst not live with men nor with thyself-
Once again the voice of Callicles rises in contrapuntal response to the philosopher's tortured thoughts. By now it [174/175]has become apparent that Callicles' lyrics subserve a twofold purpose. Each calls up a myth which is apposite to Em-piedode s' state of mind at the moment, but which, by virtue of being a myth, has the effect of objectifying and extending the implications of the protagonist's introspective struggle. Each also suggests a philosophic solution to this struggle, which Empedocles in his intense self-absorption either ignores or willfully perverts. Thus, Callicles' third song tells of Typho's rebellion against Zeus the lawgiver, and of the punishment visited on his senselessly prolonged resistance. But Empedocles is blind to the admonishment concealed in his disciple's graceful narrative. Emotionally overwrought, he instinctively sides with Typho in his futile rage.
Then Callicles sings of the transcendent power of poetry, as betokened by Apollo's triumph over Marsyas. And again Empedocles, totally involved on his own predicament, adopts a private reading, and launches into a resentful outburst against the tyranny to which the god of poetry subjects his votaries. Of all conditions of loneliness none is so intolerable as that which the artist experiences when he enters the service of the imagination:
And lie thou there,
My laurel bough!
Scornful Apollo's ensign, lie thou there!
Though thou bast been my shade in the world's heat —
Though I have loved thee, lived in honouring thee —
Yet lie thou there,
My laurel bough!
I am weary of thee.
I am weary of the solitude
Where he who bears thee must abide —
Of the rocks of Parnassus,
Of the gorge of Delphi,
Of the moonlit peaks, and the caves.
Thou guardest them, Apollo!
Over the grave of the slain Pytho,
Though young, intolerably severe! [175/176]
Thou keepest aloof the profane,
But the solitude oppresses thy votary!
The jars of men reach him not in thy valley —
But can life reach him?
Thou fencest him from the multitude —
Who will fence him from himself?
He hears nothing but the cry of the torrents,
And the beating of his own heart.
The air is thin, the veins swell,
The temples tighten and throb there —
Take thy bough, set me free from my solitude;
I have been enough alone!
Recoiling from the consciousness of spiritual vacuity, Empedocles reverts in thought to the society of human beings, who at first
gladly welcome him once more,
And help him to unbend his too tense thought,
And rid him of the presence of himself,
And keep their friendly chatter at his ear,
And haunt him, till the absence from himself,
That other torment, grow unbearable;
And he will fly to solitude again,
And he will find its air too keen for him,
And so change back; and many thousand times
Be miserably bandied to and fro ...
And so he continues to vacillate under ever-tightening tension between the outer world where be is homeless and the inner world of sterile speculation, without ever achieving quietude and a sense of unity with the universal harmony. In the process he has lost all capacity for emotional response, until now he finds himself: "Nothing but a devouring flame of thought-/ But a naked, eternally restless mind!" Empedocles' tragedy, then, is the tragedy of the uncommitted intellect, neither profound enough long to support a life of contemplation, nor strong enough to persevere in a life of [177/178] action. And it is towards an agonized recognition of this central dislocation that Empedocles' frenzied thoughts spiral down in the most splendidly sustained passage that Arnold ever wrote:
But mind, but thought —
If these have been the master part of us —
Where will "they" find their parent element?
What will receive "them," who will call "them" home?
But we shall still be in them, and they in us,
And we shall be the strangers of the world,
And they will be our lords, as they are now;
And keep us prisoners of our consciousness,
And never let us clasp and feel the All
But through their forms, and modes, and stifling veils.
And we shall be unsatisfied as now;
And we shall feel the agony of thirst,
The ineffable longing for the life of life
Baffled for ever; and still thought and mind
Will hurry us with them on their homeless march,
Over the unallied unopening earth,
Over the unrecognizing sea; while air
Will blow us fiercely back to sea and earth,
And fire repel us from its living waves.
And then we shall unwillingly return
Back to this meadow of calamity,
This uncongenial place, this human life;
And in our individual human state
Go through the sad probation all again,
To see if we will poise our life at last,
To see if we will now at last be true
To our own only true, deep-buried selves,
Being one with which we are one with the whole world;
Or whether we will once more fall away
Into some bondage of the flesh or mind,
Some slough of sense, or some fantastic maze
Forged by the imperious lonely thinking-power.
And each succeeding age in w~ich we are born [177/178]
Will have more peril for us than the last;
Will goad our senses with a sharper spur,
Will fret our minds to an intenser play,
Will make ourselves harder to be discern'd.
And we shall struggle awhile, gasp and rebel —
And we shall fly for refuge to past times,
Their soul of unworn youth, their breath of greatness;
And the reality will pluck us back,
Knead us in its hot hand, and change our nature
And we shall feel our powers of effort flag,
And rally them for one last fight-and fail;
And we shall sink in the impossible strife,
And be astray for ever.
Finally, as if in answer to the philosopher's desperate yearning for spiritual clarity and certitude, he is vouchsafed a revelation of emancipation from self through oneness with the general life. Before the exaltation of this moment can pass, he plunges into the crater. Callicles has the final word in his hymn to Apollo, which voices a serene and joyous acceptance of things as they are. Although Callicles has previously sung that "the lyre's voice is lovely everywhere," he now concludes that the scene of Empedocles' suicide is wanting in poetic inspiration.
Last modified 10 August 2008