Decorated initial W

riting to his close friend and Oxford contemporary Arthur Hugh Clough on 30 November 1853 (Letters ed, Lang, 1.282) to thank him for his praise for “The Scholar-Gipsy,” Matthew Arnold confessed that nevertheless he felt that “his poems lacked “something to animate and ennoble” them, and that “melancholy” was the basis of his nature and of his “poetics”. “The Gipsy Scholar”, he admitted, “at best awakens a pleasing melancholy. But this is not what we want” (1). His reviewers, too, were to note in his work a lack of that “joy” which Arnold had so often praised in the poetry of Wordsworth, whom he regarded as one of the greatest of poets. In “Obermann Once More” Arnold frankly wrote:

And yet men have such need of joy!
But joy whose grounds are true.

The decisive “But” reflects the probing and almost reluctantly sceptical mind that Arnold brought to his handling of religious matters in contexts both polemical and theological in the later years of his life. The amount of religious controversy in which he became involved as poetic inspiration declined had a crucial effect on his literary reputation. A writer in The Edinburgh Review, a few months after his death in 1888, summed up his impressions of Arnold’s work:

It is as the representative of the highest type of agnosticism, as an embodiment of the honesty, narrowness, and discontent of modern doubt that Arnold’s mind and character arrest attention. His poetry…is a vividly written page from the mental history of the past half century. [Critical Heritage, 253]

The particular poem which had inspired this judgement was the “Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse,” written in the years immediately following his marriage in 1851, and first printed in >Fraser’s Magazine in 1855, when its author was 32. A lament for both a personal and universal loss of faith in his time, the poem marked for T.S. Eliot in the next century “a moment of historic doubt, recorded by its most representative mind” (3). Yet paradoxically, as his later writings showed, Arnold believed in the importance of religion as a positive moral idea, but without the trappings of a divine presence as witnessed in miracles or the supposed authority of established churches. A moral faith driven by a non-denominational spirit was his ideal.

More than 20 year after the composition of “The Stanzas,” the profoundly contrasting tones of Hopkins’s Wreck of the Deutschland declaimed—in the privacy of personal copies to family and colleagues — his triumphant confession of faith. This tragical-joyous celebration of the German steamer’s disaster in the Thames rejected all doubts of God’s beneficent presence and asserted the author’s faith in an all-powerful and caring Creator. If Hopkins’s poem is “the high watermark of [his] confidence” (apRoberts 89), Arnold’s “Stanzas” record a doubter’s reaction to the call of faith in a style and rhythm as muted and conventional as Hopkins is daringly original.

The external circumstances of Arnold’s life around the time of his poem’s composition had their influence on its melancholy tone. His marriage on 10 June 1851 to Frances Wightman, daughter to the distinguished judge Sir William Wightman, however much desired, had not been achieved without the initial reluctance of the bride’s father over the uncertain material prospects of his prospective son-in-law. Nor was the schools inspectorship which Arnold early in 1851 was eventually offered seen as ideal by a poet who still nourished literary ambitions. One critic has spoken of Arnold’s inspectorship as “undertaken as a meal ticket” (5), but it was the very opposite of a sinecure. The lack of a co-ordinated system of state education meant that only nonconformist elementary establishments were open to the small number of inspectors appointed, and for Arnold the post involved more than 35 years of travel all over England, the writing of innumerable reports and the marking of many hundreds of exam papers (the parallel with the later life of Hopkins, as overburdened university examiner, may well be noted).

But apart from the salary, which at about £700 pa barely covered the costs of a growing family and cultured life-style, his educational work also came to fulfil more personal ideals in Arnold’s life. He increasingly appreciated it as a social responsibility which was contributing to the much needed improvement of the working classes and it strengthened his own growing belief in the necessary role of the state in society. In his professional visits to France and Germany he came to admire the state system of education, as well as being impressed by the cultural achievements of these countries.

All this, however, was in the future, and when he and his wife set off on their European honeymoon at the beginning of September 1851, a few months after their wedding, Arnold was an uncertain newcomer both to family and professional life. “The Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse” which was written some time in 1851-52, could well have been the first poem of his married life, and describes the couple’s overnight stay at the famous Alpine Monastery (which Gray and Wordsworth, both Arnoldian heroes, had visited before them). The poem opens with the poet and his entourage in the damp gloom of evening making their rocky way through the Alpine woods towards the remote building, encountering inside the frail, flittering figures of the silent monks. The diction reflects the insubstantiality and apparent struggle of their lives, ‘ghost-like’, ‘cries’, ‘wrestle’, ‘white’; the devotion of these men is emphasised, but, in Arnold’s account, their demanding religious exercises seem incomprehensible to the nineteenth-century (protestant) onlooker. The Arnold family Broad Church tradition shared no common ground with Catholicism although the effect on the children of Thomas Arnold’s unliturgical protestantism had become notably diffused in the careers of the sons. Apart from Matthew’s doubts, Thomas junior oscillated between scepticism and Catholicism, and William, whose working career was tragically cut short in India, was an evangelical Christian, whose novel Oakfield (published almost contemporaneously),repeats the narrator’s preference for “the old Roman Catholic line of saintliness” in preference to Presbyterian attitudes (Oakfield, Lancaster University Press, 1973, p.75).

The phrases ‘death in life’ and ‘living tomb’ emphasise the other-worldliness of the monks and distance the English observer (and reader) still further from any profound understanding of monastic life. Significantly the doubting poet suggests that their only ‘human task’ lies in cultivating the herb for the celebrated Chartreuse liqueur, at which they ‘cheerful work…beneath the sun’. But the poem’s contemplation of their generally hard lives leads to a crucial question about the poet’s own existence (a question first asked in the earlier “A Summer Night,” ll.34-6):

And what am I, that I am here?

What direction should his own life take, measured by the single-minded (if misguided?) exemplariness of this religious community? Just as Thomas, his brother, emigrated to New Zealand “to discover his real self” (Lang 1.74n), he too must evolve a new self to cope with a world increasingly materialistic and challengingly less spiritual. As he reflects on the scenes around him-- the cells (in one of which Arnold chose to sleep that night), the mass, the taking of the communion which he witnesses (but misunderstands), he distances himself from any identification with Carthusian life while respecting the devotion on which it is based. There has been some speculation on the accuracy of Arnold’s record of his visit, ranging from charges of inaccuracy to carelessness, and even fiction. In “What Arnold saw and at ‘La Grande Chartreuse’” Charles Doughty concludes, after examining the evidence offered, that “Arnold rendered with fidelity what he saw, or thought that he saw, and heard, that night at the Grande Chartreuse.” In that poem compares the modern religious believer with the Homeric Greek explorer who wonders at the crude remains of Scandinavian pagan religions while still nursing his own ancient Gods:

. . . 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. [ll.80-84]

The lines might well have been inspired through the medium of J. A. Froude’s Nemesis of Faith (1849) where the author outlines his own sceptical analysis of the decline of Victorian belief (and ensured his own disgrace at Oxford):

The disposition of the mind towards the same object varies from age to age, and the belief of the wise man of one century, in the next becomes the laughing-stock of the child. Once the Greek Mythology was believed, so was the Roman, so was the Scandinavian, so were the—to us so ridiculous—contents of the Acta Sanctorum, so two centuries ago were the Tales of Witchcraft: times are changed (Froude x)

As E.K. Brown writes, the Stanzas is the clearest statement of Arnold’s inclination to “disinterestedness” and shows a preference neither for the life of the Carthusian or the “busy modern” (Brown 47). Arnold admires the religious serenity of the Monks without being able to share it, yet neither does he identify with cold rationalism: as he wrote to Clough, This warmth [of religious dogmas] is the great blessing, and this frigidity[of modern doctrine] the great curse (Lang 1.274). A reviewer in 1874 explained that

The sense of his own neutral, transitory attitude, between allegiance to authority that has ceased to control him and acceptance of a system that does not command his reverence, prompts him to sympathy with the adherents of an outworn faith who have the courage to retire from a world that disowns them, and for which they know themselves unfit. [Dawson 245]

Envisaging himself as neither belonging to the old world, symbolised by the (ultimately) meaningless life of the Monks, and the promised new one of the optimistic scientists and rational thinkers, Arnold cannot present his melancholy as even tragically noble. All the promises of the great men of the past have brought contentment no nearer;

For what availed it, all the noise
And outcry of the former men?
Say, have their sons achieved more joys,
Say, is life lighter now than then? [ll.127-30]

Questions of personal faith were the theme of letters being exchanged around this time with Clough, whose spiritual malaise was still more profound. Commenting on their mutual doubts, Arnold wrote:

I feel immensely…what I have (I believe) lost and choked by my treatment of myself and the studies to which I have addicted myself. But what ought I to have done in preference to what I have done? There is the question. [Lang 1.264]

Thus he asks in “A Summer Night”:

I know not if to pray
Still to be what I am, or yield and be
Like all the other men I see. [ll.34-36]

In the last verses of the “Stanzas” he describes the (imagined) reactions of the Monks (and himself in similar plight) to the call of modernisation;

Too late for us your call ye blow,
Whose bent was taken long ago.

Arnold uses the metaphor of participants in a splendid medieval hunt beckoning to onlookers to take part in enjoyment and the indulgence of modern life, a stark contrast to the life of the dedicated Carthusian community and its vows of silence and solitude. By implication the poet and his fellows are amongst those whose wish is to remain in the past. The ambiguity of Arnold’s feelings is well reflected in his remark that

I have a strong sense of the irrationality of that period [the Middle Ages], and of the utmost folly of those who take it seriously, and play at restoring it; still, it has poetically the greatest charm and refreshment possible for me. [Quoted Gottfried 132.]

David Riede points out that in the revised version of the poem published in 1867, Arnold had modified his originally nostalgic view of the medieval by substituting desert for forest in the last line of the poem, And leave our forest to its peace, “and so fully brought out the fearful implications latent in the poem’s struggle for a free ground to wander in” (125).

Unlike the uncertainty of the dating and composition of the “Stanzas,” the background of the Wreck of the Deutschland composed in December 1875 is outlined by Hopkins in a letter to Canon Dixon in October 1878. He describes how his inspiration arose from the suggestion of his religious superior at St Beuno’s in North Wales where he was immersed in his training as a Jesuit priest (14) . The ensuing attempts to publish it in the Jesuit periodical The Month were an unsuccessful struggle which Hopkins explained in letters to his Mother in June-September 1876. Far from being – unlike Arnold – a published writer (“Poetry is unprofessional”, he was later to remark to Bridges (Letters of Hopkins 197), his published work, such as it was, was insignificant in quality and quantity. He had always taken it for granted that his first commitment and duty was the vocation of priesthood, and that publication of poetry would only occur “at the suggestion of one of our own people” (Correspondence of Hopkins and Bridges 28) – if one excludes the enlightened Fr. Jones at St Beuno’s, that encouragement from the Jesuit establishment never came.

If Arnold’s Stanzas was an admission of an inability to rediscover his religious faith, The Wreck of the Deutschland was a poem that enabled Hopkins to overcome a crisis in his own religious commitment. The inspiration came at a time when his artistic and religious responses were in danger of being stifled by the grind of theological study and institutional life. His (never self-pitying) complaints of the demanding timetable at St Beuno’s compare sadly with the first days of his vocational training at Manresa on the outskirts of London and the moments of religious enthusiasm which marked these early years. But now, in the harsh winter of December 1875 his suppressed poetic and religious feeling was given the opportunity to erupt in the expression of one of the most unique of English poems, whether one takes into account the imaginative power of the sentiments or the originality of the metre and diction.

The Wreck is a work of joy and awe, of joy “whose grounds are true” (in Hopkins’s mind) and that Arnold found so difficult to achieve. A confession and affirmation of personal humility and divine praise, it yet makes no attempt to minimize the horror of the occasion and the nuns’ martyrdom. Indeed, verses 16-19 might almost be said to exaggerate the horror to a gothic picture of the terrifying scene:

They fought with God’s cold—
And they could not and fell to the deck
(Crushed them) or water (and drowned them) or rolled
With the sea-romp over the wreck.

The experience of God is a profound paradox (“lighting and love”), and gradually or immediately we must accept him. While Death is our eventual lot, “”Breathe, body of lovely death”, the poet declares over and over again that the disaster of the Wreck is no failure, “I admire”, “mercy”, “Christ of the Father compassionate”, “Kind”, “royally reclaiming his own”, finally asking for “Our King back, oh, upon English souls”, and lamenting the decline of modern English society into unbelief. Challenging to modern eyes (as no doubt it would have been to Arnold ) is the poem’s passionate and unquestioning acceptance of the suffering of all on the stricken ship.

If a “moment of historic doubt”, as Eliot describes it, is expressed through Arnold’s Stanzas, ‘doubt’ is the very last emotion to have a place in Hopkins’s verses. The scepticism and melancholy of Arnold, his half-acceptance of a modern world whose beliefs may be more truthful than the old yet which holds no appeal for him, marks the Stanzas as profoundly as Hopkins’s religious faith dominates the Wreck.

Both poems are evidence not only of their authors’ feelings in their time, but also point to their future voyages on the uneasy sea of faith. If the excited optimism of Hopkins dwindles to the disappointed, but dogged acceptance of his last years, his faith remained as firm as the martyred nuns in their last hours:

Sister, a sister calling
A master, her master and mine!

While Arnold continued his struggle for the rest of his life to try to make sense of the role of religion in the modern world. In the words of Ruth apRoberts, “the ‘Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse’ are part of the work of relating himself as a nineteenth century rationalist to the mystical tradition” (apRoberts 104).

More arguably, the same critic also declares that “Arnold, like Glanvill [of “The Scholar Gipsy”], is dedicated to scepticism and empiricism” (apRoberts 1), a harsh judgement of a man who prided himself (rightly) on his tolerance, admired the life and work of Newman and the ability of the Jesuits. He wrote to his brother Thomas, whose Catholicism had had such a chequered history, that “the Catholic Church will outlast all the hitherto established form of Protestantism” (Lang 4.164). Yet Arnold’s contemporaries saw him as a man whose religious feeling was suspect and his involvement in religious controversy clouded by a no more than convenient respect for Christianity. His contemporary, the distinguished Scottish churchman John Tulloch, viewed him in the same light as Carlyle when he described the writings of these two men as displaying

the modern habit…of using the name of God without any note of its Christian meaning---a habit in every respect pernicious in both leading to moral confusion and ignoring the living growth of moral and religious ideas. [Movements of Religious Thought 207n]

When Bridges in his correspondence with Hopkins mocked Arnold as “Mr Kidglove Cocksure”, criticising both his reputation as a man of fashion and literary critic, he was reproved by his Jesuit friend with the remark, “I have more reason than you for disagreeing with him and thinking him very wrong, but nevertheless I am sure he is a rare genius and a great critic” (Letters of Hopkins 172). The honesty of that response may well have upset the touchy susceptibilities of Bridges, but it surely reflects the admirable balance that Hopkins kept between his religious faith and, dare one say it, his “professional” literary judgement.

Related material on Arnold and religion


apRoberts, Ruth. Hopkins and God, University of California Press. Berkeley, 1983.

Arnold, Matthew. Letters, Ed. Cecil Y. Lang. 6 vols. Charlottesville: University of Vigrinia Press, 1966.

Arnold, Matthew. Poems. Ed. M. Allott. 2nd edn, London: Longmans, 1970.

Brown, E. K. A Study in Conflict. Archon Books, 1966.

Dawson, Carl. Matthew Arnold, the poetry: the Critical Heritage. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973.

Doughty, Charles. “What Arnold saw and at ‘La Grande Chartreuse.’” Victorian Poetry (18 (1980): 393-99.

Froude, James Anthony. Nemesis of Faith. 2nd edn. London: 1849. Reprint London: Libris, 1988

Gottfried, Leon. Arnold and his Critics. London: Routledge, 1963.

Movements of Religious Thought in Britain during the 19th Century (1885). Reprint Leicester University Press , 1971.

Muller, Jill. Gerard Manley Hopkins and Victorian Catholicism. London: Routledge, 2003.

Riede, David. Matthew Arnold and the Betrayal of Language. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1988.

Thomas, Alfred. Hopkins the Jesuit. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969.

Last modified 26 August 2016