Narrative Poetry of Matthew Arnold

Also Read

      Narrative poetry is one where action rather than thought or emotion is given dominance. The Epic, the Ballad, the Idyll, the Satiric and the Mock Heroic are all various kinds of narrative verses. It is different from dramatic poetry where different speakers speak for themselves. Always there is a story in a narrative poem and descriptions are plentiful. Among the poets the narrative gift is one of the rarest. Sir Henry Newbolt says that.

      The essentially poetic moods are the lyric and the dramatic: in them the efforts of the expression is more instinctive and materially more easily dealt with. A story naturally contains a large admixture of prosaic stuff; and it demands of the writer a special attitude. He cannot simply sing to himself and please by being overheard; nor can he, like the dramatist, lose and find himself in the characters which he creates to act his passions. He has to tell of persons in whom hardly anything of himself is reproduced and of events in which he himself bears no part; often he must be simply a reporter.

      Nineteenth century saw a lot of narrative activity in English poetic literature. All the romantic poets, the elder set and the younger, the giant Victorians, also Arnold and Rosette contributed to its stock. Matthew Arnold's narrative poems are Sohrab and Rustum, Tristram and Iseult, The Forsaken Merman, Mycerinus, The Sick King in Bokhara and Balder Dead. The Neckan, Saint Brandan, and Obermann Once More too are sometimes included among his narratives. In all these we find the narrative element, the descriptive element and the story element blended harmoniously. Sohrab and Rustum is considered, by many critics, the best of his narratives. The poet found the story in Sir John Malcolm's History of Persia:

      The Young Sohrab was the fruit of Rustum's early amours. He had left his mother, and sought fame under the banners of Afrasiab, whose armies he commanded, and soon obtained a renown beyond that of all contemporary heroes but his father. He had carried death and dismay into the ranks of the Persians, and had terrified the boldest warriors of that country, before Rustum encountered him, which at last that hero resolved to do under a feigned name. They met three times. The first time they parted with mutual consent, though Sohrab had the advantage; the second, the youth obtained a victory but, granted life to his unknown father; the third was fatal to Sohrab, who, when writhing in the pangs of death, warned his conqueror to shun the vengeance that is inspired by parental vows, and bade him dread the rage of the mighty Rustum, who must soon learn that he had slain his son Sohrab. These words, we are told, were as death to the aged hero; and when he re-covered from a trance, he called in despair for proofs of what Sohrab had said. The afflicted and dying youth tore open his mail and showed his father a seal his mother had placed on his arm when she disclosed to him the secret of his birth, and bade him seek his father. The sight of his own signet rendered Rustum quite frantic; he cursed himself for attempting to put an end to his existence and was only prevented from his attempt by the efforts of his expiring son. After Sohrab's death he burnt his tents and all his goods and carried the corpse to Seistan where it was interred....... we are informed that Rustum could have no idea that his son was in existence. The mother of Sohrab had written to him that her child was a daughter.....Rustum, as before stated, fought under a feigned name, an usage not uncommon in the chivalrous combat of those days.

      J. D. Jump imagined that Sohrab and Rustum is an allegorical statement of the conflict between the religious-father, Dr. Arnold and the agnostic-son, Matthew Arnold. This view, however, didn't find many takers.

      Sohrab and Rustum is very much Homeric and is really an epic in miniature. Arnold showed his satisfaction over the poem when he wrote to his mother:

All my spare time has been spent on a poem which I have just finished and which I think is by far the best thing I have yet done. I have had the greatest pleasure in composing it-a rare thing with me and, as I think, a good test of the pleasure what you write is likely to afford to others;

      It is worth noticing that the cosmic and philosophic, yet personal, melancholy that pervades Arnold's contemplative poems has extended to this narrative poem too. One can hear the Virgilian cry over the mournfulness of mortal destiny in this poem. Throughout it there is a "sense of tears in mortal things".

      The subject of the poem is chosen according to poet's own ideas on poetry. The story appeals to the primary human affections. The style has a dignity agreeing with the grand theme. The similes are Homeric. In structure and in the sonorous proper names of the poem one finds a Miltonic echo. Some critics are of opinion that the extended epic-similes like the one where Sohrab's blood gushed out are not satisfactory.

Like the soil'd tissue of white violets
Left, freshly gather'd, on their native bank,
By romping children, whom their nurses call
From the hot fields at noon

      The simile does not help heightening the pathos of the death-scene, they say. However, on the whole, those extended similes are more functional than merely decorative. The poem deals with a human story and it is narrated to touch the primary feelings of the heart. There is a solemn music in the blank verse of it.

      As in great tragedies 'irony' is successfully made use of in it. The crux of the poem, a father killing his own son unknowingly is certainly tragically ironic. In the opinion of E. K. Chambers.

      It is a noble poem, the fruit of his constant preoccupation with Homer. But it is no mere transcript from Homer. It is Homeric in its stage utterance, its forthrightness, its constant use of expanded similes: Un-Homeric and modern in its concentration of a theme of family relationship such as Homer only slightly touches, in the more conscious elaboration of its decorative passages, and above all in the enveloping presence of the river Oxus, which is recurrent note throughout, and culminates in the magnificent finale, where the father and the son are left alone on the darkling plain, and the Oxus, regardless and severe moves onwards to the Aral Sea.

      The Forsaken Merman according to some critics, is a more pleasing narrative. Surely it remains one of the most popular of Arnold's poems, definitely more so, than Sohrab and Rustum. Arnold drew upon The Story of My Life of Hans Christian Anderson and Romantic Ballads of George Barrow for the story of a Merman with a human wife. Once Margaret, the wife, on hearing the sound of a far-off bell calling believers for prayer, says,

I must go, for my kinsfolk pray
In the little grey church on the shore to-day
'T will be Easter-time in the world ah me! And I lose my poor soul.

      The Merman tells her to go,

Say thy prayer, and come back to the kind sea-caves.

      After waiting for a long time he goes to the shore and calls her, by name. But in the end he realizes the inevitable and tells the children.

She will not come though you call all the day.

      He concludes,

"There dwells a lov'd one.
But cruel is she
She left lonely for ever
The Kings of the sea."

      Arnold breathed a new life into the story and recreated it into something new and delicate. There is visible, though, slight, influence of Tennyson not only in its power but also in imagery, versification and pathos. But opinion is almost unanimous in rating Arnold's poem above Merman and Mermaid of Tennyson. Mrs. Browning, that poet of taste, once wrote to a friends. "Arnold's Volume has two good poems in it: The Sick King in Bokhara and the Deserted Merman". Swinburne said that it was one of the poems he learnt by heart in his boyhood.

      Though a classicist, Arnold had the romantic spirit inlaid in him. We find that spirit freely outflowing in this poem. Douglas Bush notes this aspect of the poem.

His romantic instincts, his desire for "feeling", though half-suppressed, break through the austere or prosaic surface and flower in images from nature.

      The essence of romanticism is to be found in this poem. Though a narrative the lyrical of the romantic poetry is to be found here in abundance; its brooding melancholy is there, its sincerity of feeling is there, its pathos is there. The picture of Margaret at the window, looking at the sea is surely romantic poetry at one of its best.

She steals to the window, and looks at the sand;
And over the sand at the sea;
And her eyes are set in a stare;
And anon there breaks a sigh,
And anon there drops a tear,
From a sorrow-clouded eye,
And a heart-sorrow laden,
A long, long sigh,

      However classical touches are not wanting in the poem. The lucidity of classical poems is present in this piece from the beginning till the end. The story is narrated admirably with telling dramatic effect. The poem starts with the Merman urging the children to call Margaret once again before going. He says "Surely she will come again". Then in flash back, he tells how she went away during Easter, to save her soul. But as the narrative proceeds we find the Merman reconciling with the inevitability of a permanent parting. This dramatic way of presenting the story heightens the pathos. Also there are exquisite descriptive passages, characteristic of narrative poems.

Sand-strewn caverns, cool and deep,
Where the winds are all asleep;
Where the spent light quiver and gleam;
Where the salt weed sways in the stream;
Where the sea-beasts rang'd all around
Feed in the ooze of the pasture-ground;
Where the sea-snakes coil and twine,
Dry their mail and bask in the brine;

      The description, is not only picturesque but also musical. The great winds, salt, tides, the white horses, the great whales, all are wonderfully depicted. The predominance of the lyrical, the personal and the romantic elements is so much that critics like Amy Sharp considers The Forsaken Merman hardly a narrative poem.

      Tristram and Iseult was formed out of the inspiration the poet received from Arthurian legends. To quote his own words

I read the story of Tristram and Iseult some years ago at Thun, in an article in a French Review on the Romance Literature: I had never met with it before, and it fastened upon me. When I got back to England I looked at Morte d'Arthur and took what I could, but the poem was in the main formed, and I could not well disturb it.

To Clough he wrote

My version of Tristram and Iseult comes from an article in Revue de Paris, on Fauriel, I think: the story of Merlin is imported from Morte d'Arthur.

      He also read J. Dunlops History of Fiction on the advice of Fronde. The notes he made out of it reads: "In the court of his uncle, King Marc, the king of Cornwall, who at the time resided at the castle of Tintagel, Stayed Tristram, expert in all knightly exercises. The King of Ireland, at Tristram's solicitations, promised to bestow his daughter Iseult in marriage to King Marc. The mother of Iseult gave to his daughter's confidant a philter, a love potion to be administered on the night of her nuptials. Of this beverage Tristram and Iseult, on their voyage to Cornwall, unfortunately partook. Its influence during the remainder of their lives, regulated the affections and destiny of the lovers". After the arrival of Tristram and Iseult in Cornwall, and the nuptials of the latter with King Marc, a great part of the romance is occupied with their contrivances to procure secret interviews. Tristram being forced to leave Cornwall, on account of the displeasure of his uncle, repaired to Brittany, where lived Iseult with the white hands. He married her more out of gratitude than love. Afterwards he proceeded to the dominions of Arthur which became the theatre of unnumbered exploits.

      Tristram, subsequent to these events returned to Brittany and to his long-neglected wife. There, being wounded and sick, he was soon reduced to the lowest ebb. In this situation, he despatched a confidant to the queen of Cornwall, to try if he could induce her to follow him to Brittany. Arnold's poem does not strictly follow this story. He divides the story into three parts, Tristram, Iseult of Ireland and Iseult of Brittany. The tragic meeting of the lovers at Tristram's deathbed is fully Arnold's. The story Merlin Vivian too is his, as is seen in the poet's letter to Herbert Hill.

      The story of Merlin, of which I am particularly fond, was brought in on purpose to relieve the poem which would else I thought have ended too sadly; but perhaps the new element introduced is too much.

      There are some who consider Tristram and Iseult as the most brilliant of Arnold's Love poems. Arnold chooses from this great European myth of adultery, the mystical union of the lovers. Their earlier passionate encounters are brought out only through flash-backs. Arnold's emphasis is on Iseult of Brittany and she becomes the central character. By omitting the incident of her treachery, the poet succeeds in eliciting the sympathy of the readers in her favour. Arnold appears to be aiming at a contrast between the two results, and in this matter there is nothing in the originals even to give a suggestion. One can find a sustained analysis of love in this poem. Partly through narration and partly through the racing thoughts under the closed cycles of Tristram readers get a picture of the adventure story and the secret and dangerous meetings of the lovers. Throughout his wandering and life with Iseult of Brittany, the first Iseult remains in Tristram's brain. The description of Iseult lying dead beside her dead lover under the moon-light is really touching.

      Arnold had a special liking for The Sick King in Bokhara because his dear friend Clough liked it very much. In 1869 he wrote to Palgrave: "It was the first thing of mine, dear old Clough thoroughly liked". Elizabeth Barrett Browning too mentioned it as one of the two best poems in Arnold's Volume of 1853. The story is based on Alexander Burne's Travel into Bokhara. In it one reads:

"I have already mentioned the rigour of the Mohammedan law, which is enforced in Bokhara...About twelve years since a person who had violated the law proceeded to the palace, and in the presence of the king, stated his crime, and demanded justice according to the Koran. The singularity of an individual appearing as his own accuser induced the king to direct him to be driven away. The man appeared the following day with the same tale and was again turned out. He repaired siugor a third time to the palace, repeated his sins and upbraided the King for his remissness in declining to dispense justice, which as a believer of Mohamed, he entreated, that it might lead to his punishment in this world instead of the next. The Ullemas or the congress of devines was assembled: death was the punishment; and the man himself who was a Moollah was prepared for the decision. He was condemned to be stoned till dead. He turned his face to Meca and drawing his garment - over his head repeated the Kuluma (There is but one God and Mohomed is his prophet) and met his fate. The King was present and threw the first stone: but he had instructed his officers to permit the deluded man to escape if he made an attempt to. When the man was dead the King wept over his corpse, ordered it to be washed and buried and proceeded in person to the grave over which he read the funeral service. It was said that he was much affected...An incident similar to this happened within this very year. A son who has cursed his mother appeared as a suppliant for justice and his own accuser. The dali mother solicited his pardon and forgiveness; the son demanded punishment; the Ullema directed his death and he was executed as a criminal in the streets of Bokhara".

      Arnold was attracted towards the moral sense emphasised in the story. According to Keneth Alcott "The subject interested Arnold for its suggestion that the moral law may transcend rational expediency and yet be sanctioned by individual conscience". Amy Sharp who does not have much praise for Arnold's narrative poems however praises this peace for extreme simplicity of action and the unity and quiet vigour" that we miss in other narratives of his.

      The story of Balder Dead is drawn from Norse mythology. Arnold's note on the poem reads: Balder the God having been tormented with terrible dreams, indicating that his life was in great peril, communicates them to the assembled Acsir, who resolved to conjure all things to avert from him the threatened danger. Then Frigga extracted an oath from fire and water from iron and from other metals, as well as from stones, earths, diseases, beasts birds, poisonous and creeping things that none of them would do any harm to Balder". When this was done it became a favorite pastime of Aesir, at their meetings to get him some stones, while others hewed at him with their swords and battle-axes, for do what they would none of them could harm him and this was regarded by all as a great honour shown to Balder. But when Loki beheld the scene he was surely vexed that Balder was not hurt. Assuming therefore, the shape of a woman, he went to Fensalir, the mansion of Frigga. That goddess when she saw the pretended woman enquired of her if she knew what the Aesir were doing at their meetings. She replied that they were throwing darts and stones at Balder without being able to hurt him. 'Ay' said Frigga, neither metal nor wood can hurt Balder, for I have exacted an oath from all of them', What' exclaimed the woman have all things sworn to spare balder'?

      'All things' replied Frigga, 'except on little shrub that grows on the eastern side of Valhalla, and is called Mistletoe and which I thought too young and feeble to crave an oath from'. As soon as Loki heard this he went away and, resuming his natural shape, cut off the Mistletoe, and repaired to the place where the gods were assembled. There he found Hodur standing apart, going up to him said, 'why dost thou not also throw something at Balder?"

'Because I am blind' answered Hodur 'and see not where Balder is and have moreover nothing to throw with'.

'Come then' said Loki 'do like the rest and show honour to Balder by throwing this twig at him, and I will direct your arm towards the place where he stands'. Hodur then took the Mistletoe and under the guidance of Loki darted at Balder, who pierced through the thigh, fell down lifeless. Arnold's narrative is well told though the human appeals of Sohrab and Rustum is missing in it.

      According to Alsop "the chill grey atmosphere, the northern gloom and the sense of desolation befitting the death of god tendered in a masterly way".

Mycerinus is based upon Herodotus.

Chcops, father of Mycerinus, is given to all sorts of vices, but the mysterious gods have blessed him with long life. His idealistic and virtuous son reigns over Egypt, admirably and the subjects love him. But an oracle tells he is to live only six more years. Mycerinus is hurt to see his father's vices rewarded and his virtues remain unrecognised. He thinks it the injustice of the gods and sends a message of reproach to the oracle. His father and uncles never cared for gods. They desecrated temples and killed innocent men. Yet they are blessed with long life. The Oracle speaks again to inform that gods have decreed that Egypt is to suffer terribly for hundred and fifty years. By being virtuous Mycerinus was unknowingly working against the will of gods. His father and uncles knew the prophecy and so didn't do anything to alleviate the misery of the people. Realising this Mycerinus turns to vices. He becomes a reveller and resorts to all sorts of pleasures. His place was kept illuminated day and night and eliminating the difference between day and night. Thus the six remaining years became equivalent to twelve years, and he succeeds in cheating the fate.

      It is said that Arnold's father loved the Herodotus story and used to read it to the whole family. J. D. Coleridge, a friend of Arnold found in Mycerinus an imitation of the Wordsworthian style, especially that of Laodamia.

Previous Post Next Post