Alfred Lord Tennyson, Dover Beach, Eminent Victorians, Empedocles on Etna, John Keats, Mahabharatha, Mathew Arnold, Nature red in tooth and claw, Percy Bysshe Shelley, poems, Poetry, Robert Browning, Sarachchandra, Sinhabahu, Sohrab and Rustum, The Scholar Gypsy, To Marguerite, Tom Brown’s Schooldays
In the sense in which we generally use the term, Mathew Arnold was the most Victorian of the poets, perhaps of the writers, of the 19th century. Tennyson and Browning led highly individualistic lives, and the ideas and the emotions they conveyed were characteristic of that age of extremely exciting change. But we are more conscious now of the continuities of that age, and perhaps, under the influence of the debunking of the next generation, in particular Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, we see it as stolid and serious.
Mathew Arnold’s life was emphatically serious. He was an Inspector of Schools, in a context in which one might claim that in fact the greatest contribution of the Victorians to social continuity and development was education. Arnold was born to that tradition, for his father was Thomas Arnold, the legendary headmaster of Rugby, who transformed public school education into a serious and intellectually stimulating process. Unfortunately he is remembered best for his institutionalization of games, because of the rousing impact of Tom Brown’s Schooldays, written by one of his less brilliant pupils, Tom Hughes. But even the fact that Hughes was an idealist of sorts, concerned to do his bit for society, is a tribute to Arnold’s introduction of an ethos of commitment, and the socialization he brought to a system that had previously been indulgent to the idiosyncrasies of the rich and purely functional with regard to the less fortunate.
If the public schools remained the cutting edge of the system, they also prized intellect and so absorbed the bright from other social groups, which is perhaps why England avoided the revolutionary upheavals that more restrictive societies had to face. Their products who went out into the wider world also pursued high standards in education for the less financially privileged, which was what Mathew Arnold and others like him who went into public service promoted. Indeed it was only in the last quarter of the 20th century that the most distinguished products of Oxbridge thought primarily of the city, whereas previously the Civil Service had been a coveted goal.
Service then was the ideal at which figures like Mathew Arnold aimed, though rarely did they also distinguish themselves as writers. Trollope, who worked for the Post Office, is the only other great Victorian writer I can think of offhand in this league, and in a later age John Buchan.
Arnold’s poetry however does not reflect his social commitments. Like Tennyson and Browning he wrote in different genres, though one might say his great epic was characteristic of his more eclectic interests. Tennyson chose an essentially English subject and addressed social and personal transformation; Browning went to a recherché Italian tale to explore personal relations; Arnold chose the old Persian legend of Rustum and Sohrab, the father and son who fought to the death, not knowing their kinship.
This is a subject we find in other oriental legends too, most famously in the Mahabharatha, whereas the West, with its easy dichotomies, does not explore such dilemmas born of the different allegiances our composite identities can engender. Arnold’s account is especially moving, because the victim in the end is Sohrab the son, unlike in Sinhabahu, where Sarachchandra sets out the conflicting motives in the father and the anger that in the end brought him low.
He spoke; and Sohrab smiled on him, and took
The spear, and drew it from his side, and eased
His wound’s imperious anguish; but the blood
Came welling from the open gash, and life
Flow’d with the stream;—all down his cold white side
The crimson torrent ran, dim now and soil’d,
Like the soil’d tissue of white violets
Left, freshly gather’d, on their native bank,
By children whom their nurses call with haste
Indoors from the sun’s eye; his head droop’d low,
His limbs grew slack; motionless, white, he lay—
White, with eyes closed; only when heavy gasps,
Deep heavy gasps quivering through all his frame,
Convulsed him back to life, he open’d them,
And fix’d them feebly on his father’s face;
Till now all strength was ebb’d, and from his limbs
Unwillingly the spirit fled away,
Regretting the warm mansion which it left,
And youth, and bloom, and this delightful world.
So, on the bloody sand, Sohrab lay dead;
And the great Rustum drew his horseman’s cloak
Down o’er his face, and sate by his dead son.
As those black granite pillars, once high-rear’d
By Jemshid in Persepolis, to bear
His house, now ‘mid their broken flights of steps
Lie prone, enormous, down the mountain side—
So in the sand lay Rustum by his son.
I was quite young when I was given a collection of Arnold’s poems, by someone who I think over-estimated my love of reading. Perhaps carried away by this inflated reputation, I began at the beginning, and, though I found Sohrab and Rustum fascinating, I was soon overwhelmed by poems such as Empedocles on Etna, about the philosopher who jumped into a live volcano. I thus missed out on the shorter poems, and only discovered their joys much later.
So it was only in undergraduate days that I discovered Arnold also had a lyric skill which, at its best, rivals that of Keats and Shelley. I am thinking in particular of The Scholar Gypsy, his account of the Oxford scholar who abandoned his studies to wander the countryside, so my affection may be biased. Still, lines such as
Thee at the ferry Oxford riders blithe,
Returning home on summer-nights, have met
Crossing the stripling Thames at Bab-lock-hithe,
Trailing in the cool stream thy fingers wet,
As the punt’s rope chops round;
And leaning backward in a pensive dream,
And fostering in thy lap a heap of flowers
Pluck’d in shy fields and distant Wychwood bowers,
And thine eyes resting on the moonlit stream.
Create a world of rural dreaminess that is memorable.
Typically though, the ending of the poem asserts the need to escape, but in a context astonishing for a Victorian educated in the celebration of the classics, imbued with the idea of the civilizing impact of Greece and Rome. Arnold celebrates here an older civilization, fleeing the new young masters of the waves –
Then fly our greetings, fly our speech and smiles!
—As some grave Tyrian trader, from the sea,
Descried at sunrise an emerging prow
Lifting the cool-hair’d creepers stealthily,
The fringes of a southward-facing brow
Among the Ægæan Isles;
And saw the merry Grecian coaster come,
Freighted with amber grapes, and Chian wine,
Green, bursting figs, and tunnies steep’d in brine—
And knew the intruders on his ancient home,
The young light-hearted masters of the waves—
And snatch’d his rudder, and shook out more sail;
And day and night held on indignantly
O’er the blue Midland waters with the gale,
Betwixt the Syrtes and soft Sicily,
To where the Atlantic raves
Outside the western straits; and unbent sails
There, where down cloudy cliffs, through sheets of foam,
Shy traffickers, the dark Iberians come;
And on the beach undid his corded bales.
Arnold also wrote a few immensely moving love poems, though they are emphatically more melancholy than romantic. The two poems To Marguerite convey both deep attraction and the vanity of hoping for reciprocal love. The second contains a memorable image about our essential isolation, which was the title of the first poem
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.
The most memorable of Arnold’s poems for me is Dover Beach, which begins as a love poems of immense tranquility, but then transforms into a meditation on the shock to religious belief that science had recently delivered. The tranquility that had suggested a positive outlook then turns into a sense of despair, which even more than Tennyson’s ‘Nature red in tooth and claw’ conveys the destruction of a melioristic outlook, the belief that the world would always get better and better. Nothing I think captures the paradox of the Victorian outlook, when science was enabling progress in leaps and bounds with regard to manufacture and communications and our control of the world we live in, whereas the understanding of what we could do also made us realize the power of malign forces, with no beneficient force to dominate and control either nature or ourselves.
The sea is calm tonight,
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Agean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
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;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.