Matthew Arnold as A Poet of Victorian Age

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      Arnold was a Prince Hamlet among the Victorian poets, out of joint with his age. Tennyson, perhaps the most representative poet of the times, was able to comprehend the various social movements of the time and even to sympathise with them. As a result Tennyson's poetry, as an epitome of his times, showed society as he observed it. The art, the philosophy and the religion of the time were welcome to him. Browning, the other poetical giant, was a blatant optimist and though he had a special regard for out-of-the-way settings, especially the Italian Renaissance, did not question the way society moved. Arnold, being more of an intellectual, and an honest intellectual at that, realized the significance of what was happening around, more than both and reacted more, and that too rather violently. His poetry was the expression of that intense reaction and thus he became the poet of Victorian restlessness. Though not a representative of the age, in the sense Tennyson was, he represented, perhaps more truly than Tennyson, the contending contemporary intellectual and religious ideas, the illogical contradictions in men's minds, the sick hurry and divided aims and the shattered hopes. The poet was fully conscious of the nature of his poems. In a letter to his mother, he wrote in 1869 "My poems represent, on the whole, the main movement of mind of the last quarter of a century". He was talking of the eventful years of his life between the ages of twenty five and forty seven. It was a period of intellectual disintegration. Arnold himself noted this and he later reflected it in his essay.

There is not a creed which is not shaken, not an accredited dogma which is not shown to be questionable, not a received tradition which does not threaten to dissolve.

      The Tractarian Movement (Oxford Movement) rose at the old University, hoping to settle things a bit, but it only added to the confusion. Newman left Anglican faith and became a Catholic. Darwin's The Origin of Species gave a devastating blow to Christian faith. New impulses, new motives, and new ideas stirred men's minds. Protests, fulminations, doubts, and discussions startled as well as delighted people with their novelty and vivacity. None was certain whether there would be, a holocaust of religious faith or there would be a dawn of a purer and rejuvenated church. The spreading scientific spirit, searching investigations, and skeptical groupings, dug up the foundations of Christianity and questioned the authenticity of The Bible. Politics was not the less turbulent. Many European countries were on its way to revolution. In England, the Chartist Movement, almost brought the country to the brink of revolution.

      Born into such a tumultuous time, the intellectual in Arnold, was influenced and almost engulfed by it. The letter he wrote to Clough makes it clear. These are damned times - everything 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 ownselves and the sickening consciousness of our difficulties. Only let us pray all the time - God keep us both from aridity. Arid that is what the times are". Tossed by skepticism, deafened by the tumultuous confusion around, he lost the support that faith provided during an earlier age. He didn't have the strength to stick on to the old values and his intellect prompted him to be a near-agnostic. But intellect didn't give him satisfaction either. So we find him.

      As the fortress of religion fell, life had lost its purpose and there was nothing to guide men in the right direction. Tennyson's general faith and Browning's robust optimism were not for Arnold. Brought up, anchored in Christian faith, by his ordained headmaster-father, he often noticed with disillusionment the withdrawal of religion. In Dover Beach, he describes the gloom resulting from this realisation.

      He found perhaps a little consolation in going to the great classical poets. We find him asking the question

Who prop, thou ask'st, in these bad days, my mind?

      In the sonnet To a Friend. The friendship of Homer, Sophocles, and Epictetus, is the answer. But that didn't appear to give a permanent calm to his restless mind.

      It is interesting to notice that the spirit of the age worked on Arnold the poet in two different ways. At times it drove him to seek shelter in the solemn company of Nature, and to the sanctuary of his own soul. In Lines Written in Kensington Gardens we see him finding the peace he craves.

      Like the Scholar Gipsy, he waits for 'heaven sent moments. The Scholar's quest, Arnold's own father's steadfastness, and the memory of what Thyrsis stood for, appear to calm his restless soul. But he could not remain in that mood for long. He fled from the solitude to the multitude, from the silence of his soul to the sorrow of men, from the calm of his mind to the confusion of the worid. He tells of "the iron age" repeatedly in Memorial Verses.

      Though he was of his age he is different from his more illustrious contemporaries. The polish and perfection of Tennyson with his finess of feeling and delicacy of touch is not seen in Arnold. So also is missing in him the rough boldness, the philosophical profundity and the psychological depth of Browning. More cultivated than both of them, with a clearer mind and a more practical sense of reality, Arnold was nearer to the poet Clough, whom he lamented in Thyrsis. The last stanza of that poem makes it amply clear. Corydon addresses Thyrsis,

Then through the great town's harsh, heart-wearing roar
Let in thy voice a whisper often come,
To chase fatigue and fear:

      And tells of the ennobling effect of the fond memory of Thyrsis. In Arnold and Clough one finds the same form of verse, the same attempt at innovation, and the same efforts at classical imitation. But Arnold was definitely different from Clough too, in some respects. It is said that Clough had "neither the courage to doubt, nor the faith to believe". Arnold was bolder. He was a lover of austere beauty of the classical kind.

      Though Arnold belonged to the Victorian Age, and represented its spiritual restlessness, he transcended the age too. Arnold gave to English Literature some poems that lives for ever.

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