Matthew Arnold as A Lyricist or Lyrical Poet

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      The word 'lyric' comes from the Greek, derived from lyre, a musical instrument. As a literary form it can be traced to the ancient Greece, where they were musical poems, sung by dancers, accompanied by lyre-music. Greeks had a variety of lyrics, to suit every season and every festivity. The Hellenic tradition had its influence on English literature from ancient times onwards. The Oxford dictionary defines lyric as poetry expressing the writer's emotions usually briefly and in stanzas of recognized forms. The definition, however, misses one important and original quality, the musical. To be truly lyrical a poem should be musical.

      English lyric is as old as Anglo-Saxon literature. Ever after, all English poets Worth the name have contributed at least something in this department of poetry. The Elizabethan period showed the lyric gaining a brilliancy unique in intensity. Then, it was in the decline till the late 18th century. During the 19th century, again there was an abundance of lyric poetry in English.

      Lyric as a literary genre is rather beyond precise classification. It defies analysis. However the essential features of lyric can be noticed. They are (a) intense personal feelings, thoughts, emotions or moods of the writer (b) subjectivity (c) brevity (d) musical quality. It has swiftness of movement, elegance, and poetic abandon. In short, good lyric contains the essence of poetry. It is poetry in its purest form. There are Nature lyrics, Love lyrics, Descriptive lyrics, Sentimental lyrics and Philosophic lyrics. The song, the sonnet and the elegy are lyrics. And there can be lyrical elements even in narrative poems like those found in The Forsaken Merman.

      Arnold's poetry, generally lacks in singing quality. The elaborate cadences and vowel music of Tennyson is not to be found in him. Neither is there the presence of she freakish experiments Browning indulged into, in achieving a unique musical quality. Metrical effect and melody are consciously subjugated to an emphatic expression of thought. AII the same, Arnold has written a substantial quantity of poems which possess other lyrical qualities. He has written what may be called regular and irregular lyrics, rhymed and unrhymed, long and short.

      The classicist in Arnold, under the influence of the Biblical-Hebrew tradition, the poetry of Milton, and the prose of Sainte Beuve didn't nurture the romantic spirit that leads to spontaneous lyricism. However his mental make up was suitable for the elegiac and his elegies show his lyrical qualities very well. Michael Thorpe says that in Arnold was the romantic, suppressed by his avowed classicism.

      Arnold does not make total war upon the Romantics; he is caught up in a love-hate relationship with them. He struggled to vanquish the Romantic in him-self; intense subjectivity, a sense of alienation, a brooding melancholy are what the temperamental Romantics had offered repeatedly.

      When we refer to Arnold's lyric poems we think naturally of his poems dealing with love, passion and Nature. Love poems expressing passion are not Arnold's forte, but we find exquisite lyrical grace and delicacy in the Switzerland group of poems as well as in Faded Leaves. With the topics and themes Arnold dealt with, Shelley or Swinburne would have composed intensely passionate poems. That type of passion, nay, even that found in his own contemporaries, is found wanting in Arnold. He is typically an elegiac poet and in his love poems we hear only the dirges of love. In them it is not the ecstatic joy of man or woman in each others love we find but his or her characteristic melancholy. Love can be Platonic, Christian, Romantic or Freudian. Shelley deals with the Platonic love, heterosexual attachment without sexual desire. Pursuit of the ideal is the Platonic concept. Arnold does not depict Platonic love. It is impossible to classify the kind of love he deals with in his poems. Obviously he does not believe in romantic love, but he does not discard the romantic woman.

      The love lyrics of Arnold are found mainly in his Switzerland group of poems and in Faded Leaves. The first group of poems were inspired by a shadowy figure, Marguerite. Some people think that it is an idealised figure like "Lucy" of Wordsworth. Arnold told his two daughters that Marguerite was his ideal of womanhood. But domestic propriety of the Victorian household might have prevented him from telling the whole truth about Marguerite. She appears to be a real character, though the poet's fancy has transfigured her in the way Dante transfigured his Beatrice. Art requires basic facts. However, the poetic imagination, with freedom, gives a different shape to the facts. One of Arnold's letters to Clough says;

Tomorrow I repass the Gemini and get to Thun; linger one day at Hotel Delleue for the sake of the blue eyes of one of its inmates.

      Presumably it was Marguerite Arnold had in mind when he referred to "the blue eyes of one of its inmates". The several Marguerite poems help one to reconstruct the personality and appearance of the person. However she remains as elusive as the dark lady of Shakespeare's Sonnets. True, love is mentioned in those poems, but it is not the ecstatic love one finds in the poems of Shelley or Browning. The joyous abandon of Burns, the etherialism of Shelley, the angel-worship of Coventry Patmore and the whining whimper of Tennyson are not to be found in Arnold. From the scanty information we find in the poems, we realize that Arnold loved Marguerite intensely. But the intensity, as such, is not shown directly in the poems; it is reflected in a parting or shown in retrospect with a detachment, passage of time has brought. We find in To Marguerite,

Self swayed our feelings ebb and swell Thou loves't no more - Farewell Farewell.

      If his love for Marguerite was unfulfilled, that he felt for Frances Whightman, fructified in marriage. His married life was said to be an extended honeymoon. Still, when he wrote Dover Beach, inspired by her, temperamental that he is, the melancholic tone took the upper hand. On seeing the moonlit sea scape he thinks not of love but entreats her to listen to the sound of the sea of faith and:

Its melancholy long withdrawing roar
Retreating to the breath
Of the night wind down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

      Nothing is said directly about the joy they feel in each others company. However he entreats her;

Ah, love let us be true
To one another.

      But this is not to enjoy the ecstasies of love, but only to escape from this miserable world which::

Hath really neither joy nor love, nor light
No certitude, nor peace nor help for pain.

      The lyricism of Dover Beach is unquestionable. But the love shown there is not the natural man-to-woman love, but only a means to escape from the darkling plain of the uncertain life. In Buried Life, another love lyric, Arnold grows eloquent about love.

Our eyes can in another's eyes read clear
When our world deafen'd ear
Is by the tones of a loud voice caress'd
A bolt is shot back somewhere in our breast
And a lost pulse of feeling stirs again.

      However in most of the poems of the earlier group it is the note of despair that is ever present. As a result Edmund Blunden calls his love poems, perhaps rightly "love-elegies". His separation from Marguerite was ordained by God, for Arnold heard, God's tremendous voice 'Be Counselled and retire. Consequently he lives in "the sea of life enisled, separated. He even regrets the action of the creator.

      In the second group of love poems comparatively happier notes of love can be heard. Within an year of parting from Marguerite, we find him courting Frances Lucy Wightman. In July Clough writes from Switzerland to the poet's brother Thomas Arnold,

Matt comes to Switzerland in a month after your sister's wedding. He is deep in flirtation with Miss Wightman, daughter of the judge. It is thought it will come to something, for he has actually been to church to meet her.

      However Sir William found Arnold's income, as the private secretary of Lord Landsdowne, too meagre to marry his daughter. So he didn't encourage the courtship. When the father and the daughter were holidaying in Europe the poet followed them surreptitiously. The depth of his feelings at the time is seen in Calais Sands

I saw upon the open sand,
Thy lovely presence at my side,
Thy shawl, thy look, thy smile, thy hand!
Yet he did not have the courage
To grasp thy hand
To woo thy smile to seek thine eyes
He chose to
Stand far off and gaze
And watch thee pass unconscious by.

      However, after being offered the government job as Inspector of Schools, Arnold was in a position to marry Miss Wightman. Earlier he thought of the unplumb'd sea that separates lovers. But now Arnold found his moorings, at least in love. For a few months, however, he was uncertain. In Too Late he expresses his fear that he might fail in his love for Lucy as he had failed with Marguerite. The River shows the continued disconsolation.

      The magical mastery of expression and the metrical felicity of the poem make it the most musical of Arnold's poems. In Dover Beach too we find a cadence almost parallel to the long roar of the sea waves lapping against the shore.

      However, the reckless abandon, the wild disorder, the careless rapture, the loose structure, and the excessive imagery found in the lyrical poetry of the Romantics are not found in him. Arnold the classicists avoided them deliberately. He considered all those as meaningless embellishments that obscured the clarity of poems. He cultivated, clear architectonics of poetry, following the great masters of ancient, who aimed at a beauty born out of order, restraint and balance. Lucidity he valued much above other qualities.

      At the same time, the suppressed romanticism in him, occasionally finds an outlet, kindling his sense of melody and imagination. On such occasions, as in The Strayed Reveller or The Forsaken Merman, we find the spontaneous outflow of lyricism. But such occasions are far apart and rare. The unpremeditated strains flowing out profusely and in abundance in a Shelley or Keats is not to be found in Arnold. As a result we do not consider Arnold a pre-eminent lyric poet, though he had written much containing some fine lyrical qualities.

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