Elegiac Tone in Matthew Arnold's Poetry

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      An elegy literally is a song of lamentation for the dead. In most classical elegies, generally, Dactylic Hexameter is used. But Coleridge's definition of the elegy as a "form of poetry natural to the reflective mind" gives it wider scope. According to Coleridge, an elegy may treat of any subject, if it suits the reflective nature of the poet. Both in the narrow literary sense and the wider Coleridgeian sense of the term, Arnold has written many elegiac poems, making him one of the greatest elegy writers of English language. Garrod writing of the elegiac in Arnold says: "If I had to define Arnold's place in, I should be disposed to say of him, quite simply, that he is the greatest elegiac poet in our language, not in virtue merely of Thyrsis but in virtue of the whole temper of his Muse. His genius was essentially elegiac....His poetry profoundly melancholy, runs from the world as, I think, hurt in some vital point".

      Milton's Lycidas, Shelley's Adonais and Tennyson's, In Memoriam are certainly great elegies in English. They are personal elegies, lamenting the death of individuals. Arnold too wrote elegies in that traditional sense. His Thyrsis laments the death of his friend Arthur Hugh Clough. He wrote some others too of the same sort. But the elegiac vein in him goes much further. The entire body of his poetry is elegiac, some personal and some impersonal. Nothing in Arnold's poem is more arresting than its elegiac element. There is no other English poet in whom the elegiac reigns as much as in Arnold. Milton, Gray, Shelley and Tennyson have written grand single elegies, expressing their deep personal sorrow. But none amongst them returns to the elegiac again and again as Arnold does. He found that the elegy is the form naturally suited to his native melancholy. Not only are his elegies numerous but they are also, always among his best poems.

      Matthew Arnold wrote many types of elegies, the personal ones, encomiums, commemoratives and pastorals. He mourns the death of several public figures, Senancour (author of Obermann), Wordsworth, Wordsworth's son-in-law Edward Quillinan, Charlotte Bronte, Heinrich Heine, Hugh Clough, Stanley as well as his own brother and illustrious father. Most of them were public figures representing certain intellectual and moral tendencies of the time. Then there are the poems that are elegies in the larger Coleridgeian sense of the word; Balder Dead is an elegy reaching epic dimensions. Sohrab and Rustum is an elegy on lost youth. The Church of Brou is an elegy on Duke of Savoy. The Sick King in Bokhara is a double elegy for the king and the mullah. There is another double elegy in Tristram and Iseult. Empedocles, too, is nothing if not an elegy. And all the love poems of Arnold, together, can be considered an elegy, where, as A.D. Culler says Marguerite dies and is reborn as Mrs. Arnold.

      Most of Arnold's poetry shows the elegiac temper. Perhaps the impact of the age created the melancholic in him. He with his superior intellectual capacities was able to realize the surrounding gloom more than Tennyson or Browning. When Tennyson was full of hope for a better future and Browning was content with the present, Arnold noticed himself

Wandering between two worlds one deed
The other powerless to be born.

      Arnold himself summed up what was happening around in the Study of Poetry: "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". And the dissolution he noticed, was partly responsible for the melancholic in him. The loss of faith spreading in the aftermath of Darwin's book, The Origin of Species and the spread of scientific spirit gave a jolt to Arnold who was brought up in the orthodox Christianity under the shadow of an Oak of a father. The conflict between his loyalty to his father and what that grand man stood for, on the one hand and his own intellectual honesty on the other, hurt aim deeply and his poems often expressed the intensity of the conflict.

With nowhere yet to rest my head
Like these on earth I wait forlorn

      In Dover Beach this conflict-born melancholy comes out plainly.

The sea of faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdly furl'd,
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

      In Grande Chartreuse, we find the soul of Arnold being pulled in opposite directions by diametrically the opposite ideas. He gives the due honour to the rigorous teachers who

Show'd me the high white star of Truth
There bade me gaze and there aspire.

      And profusely apologizes for the mistake of going into the irrationality of religion:

Forgive me, masters of the mind!
At whose behest I long ago
So much unlearnt, so much resign'd!
I come not here to be your foe.
I seek this anchorites not in ruth,
To curse and deny your truth;

      But a few lines later we find him seeking the solace that might come from religion. He requests the monks;

Oh, hide me in your gloom profound,
Ye solemn seats of holy pain!
Take me, cowl'd forms, and fence me round,
Till l possess my soul again!

      It becomes increasingly clear his melancholy is associated with his inability to find solace in life. He says,

The world apparently looking like a dream
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain
Swept with confused alarm of struggle and fight
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

      The progress that has changed society destroyed his "soul", his faith and nothing else has come up to fill up the void in him.

      The murky effects of the impact of the modern science, democracy, industrialism and the rising materialistic civilization have shattered Arnold's peace of mind. He knew that the increased production of iron and coal and the associated worship of fetish and machinery would bring in a lot of human unhappiness and suffering. External embellishments would multiply, civilization would become less and less human and more and more heartless, culture would decline and philistinism would be in the rise. As a result Arnold's grief grew. His was a philosophic gloom resulting from the loss of all the treasured things, from the life of all the human beings of the world. Tennyson too had a similar experience. But he being the arch-champion of the Victorian compromise regained his equilibrium. But Arnold who was shown

The high white star of Truth

      By his rigorous teachers was not the one ready for any compromise. Dowden says that Arnold's was "no common spirit which can thus feel and delicately mirror for us the malady of the century".

      It is ironic that Arnold who tried to offer some solutions to the baffling problems in his prose writings didn't offer any in his poems. The stoic character he developed - the philosophy of endurance amidst suffering was the effect of his untold suffering. Middleton Murray makes it clear. "Arnold's most consistent achievement was in the mood of restrained grief for the life which he could not accept and the soul which he could not make his own. Moreover in his elegiac poetry he was in keeping with a true and living tradition". His anguish is heightened by a sense of loneliness he felt and which, he understood to be the lot of every human being. Isolation makes it amply clear.

Yes: in the sea of life enisl'd,
With echoing straits between us thrown,
Dotting the shoreless watery wild,
We mortal millions live alone.

      In the end he shows his disapproval at the Creator, causing such an isolation amongst the humans.

A God, a God their severance rul'd:
And bade betmixt their shores to be
The unplumb'd, salt, estranging sea.

      In Obermann Once More, too we find the theme of loneliness dealt with.

But now the past is out of date,
The future is not yet born-
And who can be alone elate,
While the world lies forlorn?

      There is an accent on loneliness through the words alone and forlorn. The same loneliness is to be noticed even an Nature.

Alone the sun arises and alone
Spring the great trees.

      There are some critics who find something morbid in a personality that feels loneliness everywhere. D.G. James is of opinion that Arnold came to writing poetry to speak out his grief and feeling of hopelessness. The poem Growing Old illustrates the point. It has been called a "pitful libel on life", and surely it was written to counter the illogical optimism expressed in Browning's Rabbi Ben Ezra. If Browning gives an illogically bright picture of old age, Arnold errs on the other extreme by picturing it as unreasonably gloomy. Arnold looks into the drawbacks of old age, and finds the loss of glory of form and the decline of strength, more or less truthfully. But then he denies the possibility of a grateful remembrance of the past days of youth. Growing old;

is to spend long days
And not once feel that we mere young.

      There is definitely a strain of bitterness and dissatisfaction in these lines, a flection of the notable ingredients in his mental make up.

      The Arnoldian melancholy could be the result of the absence of freedom in his boyhood. Duffin says Wordsworth enjoyed that childhood freedom aplenty, to wander and to explore life among nature. Garrod attributes the melancholy to disappointment in love, a hint of which can be seen in the Marguerite poems. However, this argument does not appear convincing. Outwardly Arnold was happy till the age of twenty-five, despite the fact that three of his children died. He had in him human goodness and kindness, attributes an unhappy man do not possess. From the age of twenty-five we find him in a mood of permanent dejection. By the time he was thirty he complains to his friend Clough about the pain at growing old and watching life rushing away. He could not appreciate fully, any of the poets of his time. Amongst the whole lot of English poets he could appreciate fully only Shakespeare, Milton and Wordsworth. From this attitude, one has the influence of his native to think that Arnold's critical faculty too came under the influence of his native melancholy.

      The unhappy social conditions of England also might have made him a melancholy man. Some conjecture that his estrangement from his friend Clough caused it. Another factor could be the influence of Senancour's philosophy of shunning all responsibility resulting in an ennui. Despair appears to be the medium through which Arnold tasted life. The philistinism or vulgarity of the English middle class surely caused sharp reactions in him leading to some distress, But the period, as history has recorded it, was an age noted for its interest in religious problems, seriousness of thought, and self discipline in character. It is again an irony that Arnold didn't feel at home with the positive things of the age. A great artist is to be in harmony with the best philosophy of the time, as Shakespeare was and Milton was. But Arnold never felt at home, not even among the good, that was found in society, at his time.

      Arnold's Thyrsis along with Lycidas and Adonais will remain the three greatest elegies in English language. It's "quiet and tender undertone" is commented to be similar to Milton's. It is unexcelled in its "beauty, the delicacy and affluence of colour, fragrance and the freedom". In John Morley's opinion Thyrsis is the second best elegy in English. When the poem was published, it is said, Tennyson sent a letter to Arnold requesting him to stop writing prosaic things like Literature and Dogma and to write more pieces like Thyrsis.

      The Scholar Gipsy is another impressive elegy, an impersonal kind. According to some, Arnold's fame rests to a great extent on that poems. The poet complains of the "sick hurry", "divided aims", and the people who are "vague half believers of casual creeds". The melancholic tone that pervades the poem is plain and clear.

      Both Thyrsis and The Scholar Gipsy are cast in the pastoral mould, modelling on Theocritus, Virgil, Bion and Moschus, but mostly on the last. Arnold's elegies have given permanent life to Oxford countryside as no other poem, has. Fowler says that to the lovers of Oxford, this poem (Thyrsis) and The Scholar Gipsy are especially dear as having caught and handed on so much of the genius loci - the colleges, the studies, the sports, festivities, the rivers, the flowers and the peasant folk and place names of the surrounding country". Elton calls Thyrsis an associative poem, a poem dealing with a place and a person. At the same time it contains criticism of life-of Victorian life. So it becomes personal and impersonal at the same time. Garrod has this to say about Thyrsis.

Matthew Arnold was conscious that in Thyrsis, he had too much left out Clough, that the man was not there, or that he had not made him sufficiently real. But if he has not made Clough live for us, at least, he has expressed in the perfect art with which Oxford countryside is delineated, a living scene

Garrod continues,

If Thyrsis and The Scholar Gipsy had no other merits yet their art in landscape, and the fine sentiment with which they particularise, with which they fix natural details - these two talents alone - might vindicate for Matthew Arnold a place with the greatest poets.

      On the death of his younger brother William Arnold, the poet wrote two elegies. A Southern ight and Stanzas from Carnac. William was Director of Public Instruction in The Punjab and he died, near Gibralter, on his way home from India, He was buried in Gibraltor. His wife Fanny had died earlier in India and was buried at Dhurmsila. Arnold wrote a poignant letter to his mother, indeed a prose poem full of pathos.

How strange it seems that he could have overlived his first trouble-illness when his wife was alive to nurse him.......to die alone with only a chance acquaintance to attend him, and leaving those four poor littles orphans to whom no tenderness can ever quite replace a father and a mother? And then that he should have over lived the misery of his poor wife's death to struggle through an year of loneliness and then to die too. Poor Fanny. She at Dhurmasila and he by the rock of Gibralter.

      One Summer night, Arnold, sleepless, restlessly paced to and fro, his soul pained and perturbed at the memory of his dear brother, William. His brother and wife were buried far away from England. The wife in the Himalayas and the husband in Gibralter. The snowy Himalayas would have been a fitting resting place for Indian Yogis and Gibralter for the crusaders of medieval age. There are many lines that go straight to the heart with its pathos.

Ah such a night so. Soft so lone
So moon-lit, saw me once of yore
Wander unquiet and my own
Vext heart deplore

      Westminster Abbey written to commemorate Dean Stanley does not show any personal grief. Stanley wrote a biography of Arnold of Rugby, Matthew Arnold's father. He was also one of the favourite students of the headmaster. The elegy is considered by many as Arnold's gratitude and appreciation for his father's biographer.

      In Rugby Chapel we find an elegy on his own father, the illustrious headmaster. A review of Thomas Hughes' famous book Tom Browns School Days, appeared in The Edinburgh Review. The real hero of Tom Brown's School Days is the headmaster Arnold. The reviewer, Fitz James Stephen questioned the validity of the halo created around the personality of the headmaster. Arnold's elegy, a tribute to his father, was a defense of the reputation of Arnold of Rugby. The poet's leter to his mother makes this aspect clear. "I knew.. that the Rugby Chapel poem would give you pleasure. Often and often it had been in my mind to say it to you, and have forborne because my own saying of my things does not please me. It was Fitz James Stephen's thesis, maintained in the Edinburgh Review of papa's being a narrow bustling fanatic which moved me first to the poem. I think I have done something to fix the true legend about papa as those who know him best feel it ought to run and this is much". The son had great regard to the father both as a man and for his father's contribution to the Public School System of England. Both the father and the son fought against the philistinism in society Arnold wrote to his mother that he (father) was not only a good man saving his own soul by righteousness, but carried so many others with him in his hand and saved them.

      The son didn't have the same religious outlook as the father. Still he too was a champion of righteousness. The poem is a testimony to this fact. Doughlas Bush wrote, that the poem "seems to echo the themes of Dr. Arnold's Rugby Sermons. remembered or read, and in the latter half the religious tone and the character of the man are heightened by parallels with Moses leading the Israelites through the wilderness". Arnold was certain of the influence of his father's on a "feeble wavering line" of mankind.

In such hour of need
Of your fainting dispirited race
Ye like angels, appear
Radiant with arduous divine.
Ye fill up the gaps in our files
Strengthen the wavering lines
Stablish, continue our march
On to the bound of the waste
On to the city of God.

      The author's consciousness of the decline of values in society, and the need of strong men like Moses in leading mankind in the right path comes out, along with a gloomy and melancholic stoicism.

      In Mycernius Arnold gives a sympathetic picture of the king. He complains of the listlessness and futility of life, in the following line from A Question

Love lends life a little grace
A few sad smiles; and then
Both are laid in one cold place
In the grave
Dreams dawn and fly, friends smile and die
Like spring flowers;
Our vaunted life is one long funeral
Men dig grave with bitter tears
For their dead hopes

      Even the smiles are sad. Dreams and friends "smile and die" like summer flowers. The inevitability of the certain and impending death throws a pallour of melancholy here. One is reminded of the mood in Omar Khayyam's poetry as translated by Fitzgerald

It is a all a chequerboard of nights and days
Where destiny with me for pieces, plays.
Hither and thither moves and mates and stays.
And one by one back in the closet lays.

      It appears the mood of melancholy was in the air of the time and it was discernible to all those intellectuals who cared to ponder over such things.

      The dejection of Arnold, the cause which is vague appears to have become chronic. His mind seems to be immersed in gloom. The sight of a gipsy girl brings to his mind poppy flowers and grey haired kings who hated life. Writing on Shakespeare, in the sonnet, Arnold tells only of the pain and the grief, shunning the hilarious gaiety found in the romantic comedies. Even the sentiment of love that brightens up normal people does not alleviate the sense of his gloom. The Marguerite poems do not show him deriving any real happiness from his beloved. To Marguerite starts with We were apart" The thought of separation comes back to him causing anxiety and pain. Youth had been a "hated time" full of hurrying fever". A few people could be happy, for brief periods, but prolonging of that happiness brings in unhappiness to others. Happy thoughts might make some people happy but he says it "never shone" for him. In The Buried Life he says:

I feel a nameless sadness o'er me roll

      Arnold, typically in his love poems, mentions a pair, grown old lamenting their faded and ignoble lives of by gone days. At the end of The Buried Life there is a hint that love may bring peace and more importantly a certainty, that he eagerly sought. He has a parallel in Coleridge, who too failed to arrive at the absolute either in love or in poetic inspiration. All the poems in the 1852 volume deals with the gloom that destiny casts on man. The poems of 1853-57 continues on the dejected tone. Requiescat is a beautiful poem, but ends in a dark note sympathising with the girl who has, gone to The vasty Hall of Death',

      At the beginning in a tone of self pity he says, expressing a death-wish,

In quiet she reposes
Ah! would that did too.

      Haworth Churchyard is an elegy on Emile Bronte, in conventional form. It deals with untimely death of a genius and unrealised hopes. The Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse give a picture of the troubled mind of the poet out of tune with his age. Like his Empedocles he is a misfit in his time. In one place he tells about the cowl'd forms".

Not as their child or friend I speak

      But a few lines later he shows his preference for them and prays

Oh hide me in your gloom profound
Ye solemn seats of holy pain.

      Perhaps these lines give an authentic clue to his gloom. Is it not to escape from the uncertainty and futility he found in life that he adopted the protection of chronic melancholy? Arnold's personal state of mind, spurred by the fast changing age, facing an uncertain future produced the whining tone of his poems. His mood brightened up, at least slightly by the time New Poems appeared in 1867 for there was a general brightening up in society too during the period. Certainly New Poems shows Arnold in a more hopeful mood. A Wish and The Last Word are poems on death, but contrasted with Growing Old is milder. In A Wish. the poet pictures himself letting his spirit go refreshed and ennobled, by the natural scenic beauty. The Last Word shows some bitterness, but the human spirit goes out, heroically. However one finds the dejection intensified in Dover Beach. There the poet says that:

The world; which seems
So various, so beautiful, so new
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light.

      It is certainly the mood of dejection we find here, but then this poem was composed in the year 1850.

      The poem Calais Sands, shows Arnold expressing the tenderness of love. It does not show the utter dejection found in the other love poems. In the Epilogue to Lessing's Lacoon the author talks enthusiastically about poetry:

Beethoven and Raphael cannot
The charm which Homer, Shakespeare teach.

      Mankind should be more grateful to its poets than to painters or musicians. The labour, poets put into their art, is greater and this fact makes poets nearer to the hearts of people. Palladium shows that Arnold has learnt to "accept the universe", during his middle years. There is hope in the future.

Men will renew the battle in the plain,
To-morrow; red with blood will Xanthus be:
Hector and Ajax will be there again;
Helen will come upon the wall to see.
And the nobility of the human soul is upheld.
Still doth the soul, from its lone fastness high,
Upon our life a ruling effluence send;
And when it fails, fight as we will, we die.
And while it lasts, we cannot wholly end.

      Arnold appeared to have realised by this time that life is a blessing with unlimited possibilities.

      Despite the fact that the dejection pervading the earlier poems gave way to one of comparative satisfaction in later works, he never held a positive optimistic outlook on life. The best, one can hope in Life, Arnold suggests, is a state of calm. He points out to his sister Fausta, his conception of life that its "secret is not joy but peace", though earlier he had said that "calm's not life's crown". He also believed that man is not born for the calm of death. As in the Hindu philosophy, he seems to have had a belief that a "bliss on this side of death was possible. Early Death and Fame appear to have the message that one should live while one is young, so that in case of untimely death, one may have a feeling that one has lived.

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