Treatment of Nature in Matthew Arnold's Poetry

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      Nature has an important place in Matthew Arnold's poems. Though avowedly a classicist he has a romantic attitude towards nature. However he does not consider Nature as a divine presence as Wordsworth or Shelley considered. He is too rational to see any Divine Spirit in Nature. His intellectualism denied him the fancy to see Dryads in the woods, Naiads in the streams and Cynthia in the moon as Keats did. Neither did he attribute any moral significance to Nature, whose impulse can teach of moral evil and of good". His love of Nature is sensuous, for the simple charm and beauty it offers. In this he is one with Keats. But he goes more than that and believes in the power of Nature to give relief to man's troubled mind. Here he is with Wordsworth. Nature, according to Arnold, can appeal to the senses by the variety of its beauty and by "soothing the mind". To quote from Grierson and Smith "Arnold was a devout Wordsworthian but his view of Nature was not Wordsworth's. He understood and felt Wordsworth's healing power; this visionary power he did not understand, never having known in himself those visitations from the living God which Wordsworth enjoyed in moments of ecstasy. For Arnold, the secret of Nature was not joy, but peace; sometimes it seemed to him the peace of mere acquiescence; or joy, only the joy of the stars as they perform their appointed shining. It was the steadfast self-sufficiency of Nature as she went about the business of her seasons that calmed and strengthened him". In the poem To Fausta (Resignation) Nature offers him a constant source of peace.

      The everyday moods of Nature and the well-known familiar aspects of Nature is depicted in great beauty. Mostly what he gives is the English scenic beauty, though rarely, like in his Switzerland poems we get a glimpse of the Alpine beauty too. Then there is the highly imaginative yet realistic under-sea scene in The Forsaken Merman.

      Arnold derives an unusual, even unique feeling from water. Duffin says that the poet considers water as the mediator between the animate and inanimate objects. In Memorial Verses he addresses the river:

      Somehow water, whether in sea, lake or river, plays a part in conveying the character of life, its meaning and the connected issues. The sea may stand for death, or eternity but in Dover Beach it is different, it is faith.

      In Resignation we find the 'Seas of Life and Death'. Often and again we find Arnold making the sea a setting for his poems. He describes his sister washing her hands in the wide glimmering sea". The Forsaken Merman, disappointed at the faithlessness of his beloved, retreats with his children to the "pearl-paved sea". The sea in Dover Beach withdraws exposing the shingles and the river Oxus 'flies to the Sea'.

      There is some sort of deification of sea in Arnold's poetry, which is an interesting feature of his attitude to Nature. Nature as pictured by Arnold is serene. Lewis Jones notes that Matthew Arnold loved Nature.

      There are few other poems where the Oxford countryside is described so delicately, with so loving care. The hectic contemporary life and the divided aims of a materialistic civilization is contrasted with the serenity of the countryside around the University. Taking great pains, Arnold describes the seasonal changes in the scenic beauty. To those lovers of Oxford The Scholar Gipsy and Thyrsis are specially dear because in them are described the spirit of that great university in its colleges, the studies, sports and festivities, rivers and flowers and peasants and place names of surrounding countries. The flowers of the area are depicted with Keatsian sensuousness.

      Few other such serene flower descriptions are there anywhere in English poetry. Though not a Wordsworthian in his attitude to Nature, he considered Nature superior to man. He certainly owes a lot to Nature. He portrays the moral qualities felt in Nature, helpful to man and at least desirable for him. In Lines Written in Kensington Gardens one notices this aspect clearly:

Calm soul of all things! make it mine
To feel, amid the city's jar,
That there abides a peace of thine,
Man cannot make, and cannot mar!

      The calmness and the mute endurance, the static character of Nature as here felt by Arnold, are in marked contrast with the joyfulness and animation so often recorded by Wordsworth and especially in contrast with the prolific and the tumultuous life celebrated by Goethe.

      On some other occasions Arnold considers Nature completely indifferent to man. The poem In Harmony with Nature pooh poohs the idea that man can live in harmony with nature. Anyone who has such a notion is a "Restiess fool". He says it clearly in the penultimate line:

"Nature and man can never be fast friends"

Also he says, "Nature is cruel", "Nature is stubborn", Nature is fickle" and "Nature forgives no debt". Nature to Arnold is incomplete and man must start where Nature ends. Douglas Bush contrasts Arnold on the one hand with Wordsworth and Coleridge on the other and says "Even a direct heir of Wordsworth, and a poet who in his cradle".

      Arnold has no single attitude to Nature, it is clear from his poetry. He has shifted his view of nature from time to time. But always he believed in some sort of permanence in Nature. In The Youth of Man he says

We, O Nature, depart:
Thou survivest us: this,
This, I know, is the law.

      Further he tells that Nature observes us in an undisturbed calm mood. The idea of permanence of Nature is found repeated in The Youth of Nature. There we find, Nature speaking.

      The idea of the soothing influence of Nature is found in Resignation, Lines Written in Kensington Gardens, Memorial Verses and certainly in the Oxford poems. In the Kensington poem he tells of "rural Pan" breathing on him when young. It shows that Arnold's love for Nature is innate. However his nature-love does not take him to unexplored scenes in Nature. The familiar trees and Gardens can give him as much an excitement as that an angler gets near a lovely mountainside.

Here at my feet what wonders pass,
What endless, active life is here!
What blowing daisies, fragrant grass!

      It is not a secluded place where he finds this peaceful comfort. He wants to get the feel of the abiding peace of Nature even 'amid the city's jar".

      The two Youth poems are perhaps his greatest nature poems after the Oxford poems. In the first one we find the Wordsworthian influence on Arnold clearly. After the pure lyrical music in the opening of the Youth of Nature Arnold deals with the great gift of Wordsworth. Wordsworth was the arch-priest of the bloom an and wonder of the world. There is an interesting query. Is beauty, objective, intrinsically present in Nature or does it exist only in the poet's, the beholder's eye? In other words, is it objective or subjective. Nature's reply is that she and her beauty are real and that they are greater than the poet who sings about them. The poet is less than the theme, even when the theme is either himself or his feelings. Perhaps Arnold means that the language is inadequate to express the feelings caused by Nature and its beauty. Poetry, which is the image of life cannot have the glow of life's motion. The death of a poet is not an irreparable loss while Nature remains forever. To Arnold, Nature is primary and Art secondary. He expresses this idea often, in his poems. The companion poem Youth of Man is given only a lower place by critics. It is rather a forced and tedious one, with only some scenic description to remember. During youth people generally say, "We are young and the world is ours". They may miss the beauty, warmth, life emotion and power of Nature. Time works on them and youth gives place to old age with its associated debilities. With intense anguish they think of their youthful boasting, and realize how fair Nature is. As they complete, their ignoble lives' they are able to understand the underlying truth. In the end Arnold urges humans to "yearn to the greatness of Nature" and to rally the good in their depths.

      As a lover of Nature, Arnold followed Wordsworth in certain ways. But there is difference in their attitude to Nature. While Arnold possesses the calm of Wordsworth, he does not have the detachment and the cheerfulness of the elder poet. Wordsworth is more than content with Nature for his company; but Arnold is never satisfied with Nature alone. AIl the same, like Wordsworth, Arnold gives true-to-nature word-pictures of Nature. An eminent Botanist-contemporary places Arnold above Tennyson in the accuracy of flower description. This accuracy is carried on in describing mountains and lakes and rivers. It is caused by the precise observation power of the poet, that itself coming from his passion for truth and perfection. Duffin appears to be clearly in the wrong when he assigned a lower place to Arnold, as a descriptive poet. According to Duffin, Arnold does not have the descriptive power of Keats or Tennyson or the Wordsworthian sensuous contact with Nature except in the two Oxford poems.

      In the view of W. L. Jones, Matthew Arnold is not quite the follower of Wordsworth. He points out that according to Arnold, Nature's "secret was not joy but peace", He loved Nature in its quieter and subdued moods. There is more of moonlight than sunlight in his poems. The sea, he visualises, is not tumultuous and stormy, but moon blanched and melancholy. The most he can hear is the melancholy long withdrawing" roar.

      The more important difference from Wordsworth is in the spiritual implication of Nature. Arnold could not accept the Wordsworthian conviction that there is a universal harmony in things. To Wordsworth, the life of man is bound up with Nature and together they are the vehicle of a power that informed both. This optimistical philosophy found in Tintern Abbey was not acceptable to the more rational Arnold. Arnold could not find any harmony in nature as he was wandering between two worlds 'one dead and the other powerless to be born', after he lost faith in conventional religion. The elegiac melancholy that pervades all his poems was caused by this restlessness in him. His was in the mood, which Edward Fitzgerald expressed through his translation of Omar Khayyam. But this is not to say that Arnold believed in Omar's philosophy. Arnold saw Nature following its course while Man following his own. Man may learn peace and endurance from Nature.

      Edmund Chambers after pointing out the cool refreshment', and the preponderance of moonscapes in Arnold's nature poems sums up: "as a poet of natural beauty, Matthew Arnold is the direct inheritor of Wordsworth". Arnold has acknowledged his debt to the elder poet in Youth and Nature and in Memorial Verses. But in essence Arnold is different from Wordsworth in the attitude to Nature. While Wordsworth looks for joy in Nature Arnold wants peace. Further Arnold doesn't consider Nature rejoicing. It seem "to bear rather than rejoice". Certainly the difference is basic and deep. In Duffin's opinion, to Arnold Nature is an object of adoration, almost tending to the religious. His treatment of Nature has plenty of Wordsworthian echoes. When he expresses his wish (A Wish) that he may die gazing at a "wide aerial landscape" "bathed in the sacred dews of the morn" his wish is unmistakeably Wordsworthian.

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