God, Soul and Man in Matthew Arnold's Poetry

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      Arnold who was certainly more intellectual than Tennyson or Browning felt very deeply, the clash between the advancing rational scientific spirit on the one hand and the orthodox religion and the belief in a personal God on the other. He mentioned it quite clearly in the Study of Poetry "Our religion has materialised itself in the fact, in the supposed fact, it has attached its emotion to the fact, and now the fact is failing it". Arnold is certainly talking of the scientific spirit spreading and exploding the myth, "the supposed fact" of religion. Brought up under the Oak of the devoutly religious, Dr. Arnold, his father, the great headmaster of Rugby, he too had attached his emotion to the "Supposed fact" of the religion. But then he had other influences too in him, about whom he mentions in the Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse. He says,

Rigorous teachers siezed my youth
And purged its faith, and trimm'd its fire
Show'd me the high white star of Truth
There bade me gaze and there aspire.

      He was too much of an intellectual to continue believing in the myths and superstitions of orthodox religion. However, his love, respect and regard for his father and what that great man stood for, too was lying buried in Arnold. Many people attribute the cause of the Arnoldian melancholy, to this conflict of ideas in his min; that between reason and religion. Consciously reason won and in no way could he "believe" in the tenets of orthodox Christianity. At the same time the sub-conscious which retained the childhood influence kept lingering on. So we find him, a restless soul;

Wandering between two worlds, one dead
The other powerless to be born
With nowhere yet to rest.

      The grown up Arnold had no belief in God, as the Christian religion perceived Him. He had grown into what may be called an agnostic. The mystical faculty which made Tennyson and Browning believers was not developed in Arnold. However he believed in Certain Ultimate Truth and Beauty. It is possible to have a vision of this ultimate, in some glimpses, through the realisation of love. Man may get a glimpse of it when his beloved responds to his love. He says in The Buried Life

Then he thinks he knows
The hill where his life rose
And the Sea where it goes.

      Sometimes man gets this glimpse from Nature fully subjectively. In A Summer Night we find the poet telling to the heaven and the stars,

I will rather say that you remain
A world above man's head, to let him see
How boundless might his soul's horizons be,
How vast, yet of what clear transparency.

      The laboriousness of life in contrast with the effortless working of nature is treated in Morality. In it Nature says,

There is no effort on my brow
I do not strive, I do not weep
I rush with the swift spheres and glow
In joy and when I will, I sleep.

      But Nature "wore manacles of space" in some other clime and space

'T was when the heavenly house I trod

And lay upon the breast of God.

      Arnold's conception of the "sacred world" forming itself silently in the imagination of God, taking shape, form and colour is found in this.

      In Utrumque Paratus tells that

In the silent mind of One all-pure
At first imagin'd lay
The sacred world

      Man can enter this coloured dream of God by achieving a "lovely pureness". This is similar to that of the experience of a mystic. But he defers from a mystic by admitting that this universe might have come into existence, caused by material forces alone, with man not the part of the dream.

      Though an agnostic, reference to the word God appears in many of Arnold's poems. We see in Self Dependence his description of man

Bounded by themselves, and unobservant
In what state God's other works may be,

      The idea of God and man's relations with Him appears in Rugby Chapel

Servants of God! - or sons

Shall I not call you because'd
Not as servants ye knew
Your Father's innermost mind.

      A few lines later he tells of

A God
Marshall'd them, gave them their goal

      The end of the poem gives a picture of the memory of his father leading people,

On to the City of God.

      In Isolation, one finds the relationship between God and Man.

Who order'd that their longing's fire
Should be, as soon as kindled, cool'd? Who renders vain their deep desire-
A God, a God their severance rul'd;
And bade betwixt their shores to be
The unplumb'd, salt, estranging sea'.

      In the first, man is ungrateful to his God while in the second the God appears to be unjust causing the "estranging sea" that isolates man.

      In Progress God is depicted as only a power;

The unseen Power whose eye
For ever doth accompany mankind.

      However, he is with the revolutionary Christ who redefines the old ideas of God. The poem opens with the Master (Jesus Christ) preaching from the mount as the disciples listen with "a fire" in their eyes. They said "The old law is wholly come to naught". The reply of Jesus is, "Ye keep that law More faithfully" than the Scribes and Pharisees. Arnold talks admirably about what "Christ said eighteen hundred years ago about God and religion. God "hath look'd on no religion scornfully that man did ever find". Not only that, religion has done good things to man. Christ asks, about religion,

Which has not taught weak wills how much they can,
Which has not fall'n on the dry heart like rain,
Which has not cried to sunk, self-weary man:
Thou must be born again!

      However, on the whole, Arnold's conclusions about man are not of an optimist; he has nothing cheering to say about mankind. Most men live a life without any meaning, as if in a prison as if they are the slaves. Those who escape the prison walls behave very irresponsibly and come to grief. They are the madmen. Is there not any alternative to these two kinds of life, he asks,

Madmen or slave, must man be one?

      There may be other possibilities, but Arnold does not see a third group of people, neither slaves nor madmen, some sane workers and inspired thinkers. How ever, Rugby Chapel shows his belief in some, who pursue a worthy ideal. But even those are likely to fall by the wayside unless strengthened and supported by great souls like his father, the great headmaster.

      Man has a dual character according to Arnold. Outwardly he is frivolous, and futile in behaviour. But in him remains, rather hides, a "genuine self" his true value. Man has a deep urge in him to realize his "genuine self", the truth about himself. However, he does not succeed in fulfilling the urge; this failure leads to sadness. In addition to this dualism in man, there is the feeling of loneliness that surrounds him.

      The separation is between man and man, between man and society, between his own self and his outward appearance. Arnold like Omar Khayyam tries to excuse the weaknesses of man by attributing the responsibility to the action of God. It is God who had ordered man's isolation.

A God, a God their severance ruled.

      In another Marguerite poem too this idea is seen. The poet's desire to marry Marguerite is frustrated by God.

      It is rather ironic that an intellectual, like Arnold should find the devil" or the powers of Fate, responsible for follies of man and the ills of life. The skeptic in him didn't believe that man's reason would lead to a divine end. The striving of humans do not serve any purpose. For the long-battered world uplifts its wall" as an unbreachable fort". Man's effort is a blindfolded one. Dover Beach makes it amply clear. In the end it is mentioned, that the world which seems so beautiful and so new like a land of dreams is

A darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

      The feeling of powerlessness and loneliness is very much upon the poet. However, he cannot be a full-fledged agnostic. The roar of sea of faith, though withdrawing, is heard clearly. One may consider him driving in the sea of life away from his moorings. Often he longs for the past when faith gives a direction and a certainty to man's life. In The Scholar Gipsy we find him envying the Gipsy,

Born in days when wits were fresh and clear
And life ran gaily as the sparkling Thames.


Still nursing the unconquerable hope
Still clutching the inviolable shadest

      In Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse we find him waiting on the cowl'd forms and declaring

Their faith, my tears, the world deride
I come to shed them at their side.

      However he is not for the monastic life. Rigorous teachers, during his youth, urged him to aspire for truth and he cannot seek shelter in the monastic life for solace. Such an act will be doing ill service to those teachers by denying their truth. He admits

I seek these anchorites, not in ruth
To curse and to deny your truth.

      Further the "melancholy, long withdrawing roar" of the sea of faith reminds him of the futility in anchoring on to something that is already dying out. Religion was a moribund thing to Arnold and it offered no consolation, though he lingers around it, vainly probing for the needed calm and peace.

      He could get a little of the needy comfort and consolation from Nature. However the doubts about, and discontent in a Power that causes severe loneliness to man is not subdued. W. L. Jones notes this point when he says

"By a strange irony, it was the lot of a poet who found these mighty consolations in life of Nature to pine with noting the fever of his own soul to such an extent as to mark him out among the poets of the Victorian age as the one who articulates more distinctly than any other the cry of the maladie die siecle - the doubts, disputes, distractions, fears of an iron time. He has no certain spiritual anodynes to proscribe to those who suffer from the sickness beyond a stoical recognition of the paramount claims of beauty, and an effort to live 'self-poised', like the powers of Nature, until we feel our souls becoming vast like them. But in spite of these counsels of fortitude, we find the poet him-self often possessed by a wistful yearning to make for some impossible shore, agitated and stretching his hands for something beyond".

      About 'soul' as conceived by Christian religion Arnold has nothing to say. However, he talks of a soul in Palladium

So in its lovely moonlight, lives the soul.
Mountains surround it, and sweet virgin air;
Cold plashing, past it, crystal waters roll;
We visit it by moments, ah! too rare.

      It is far different from the Christian concept of soul. It is some vague sort of Universal Will, Beauty or Truth. However it has, according to Arnold, some definite influence on man, which is made clear in the last lines of Palladium.

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.

      The belief in the immortality of the soul in some peculiar way, is present here; also found is a belief that man cannot "wholly end" as long as the soul exists. However it is not the accepted Christian notion about soul and its immortality. The poem Self Dependence gives another hint about a different concept of the soul. In it he identifies the soul with the self. Man can possess the soul when he discovers himself by leading a serene life, the contemplative life. In the last stanza of the poem he hears a voice, perhaps from the soul,

O air born Voice! long since severely clear, A cry like thine in my own heart I hear.
Resolve to be thyself: and know that he
Who finds himself, loses his misery.

      But this is no solution to the problem at all. How to find oneself? What exactly does he mean by a serene life? Contemplating on what? All these remain unanswered. In Bacchanalia we find a depiction of the beauty of spiritual quiet. Memorial Verses, show him admiring Wordsworth's quietism, and its healing power. Wordsworth like Arnold himself,

...too upon a wintry clime
Had fallen - on this iron time
Of doubts, disputes, distractions fears.


He laid us as we lay at birth
On the cool flowery lap of earth;
Smiles broke from us and we had ease.

      The Scholar Gipsy is the utmost in quietism. The first stanza of the poem ends with a "quest", "Come shepherd and again renew the quest". The poem tells of Arnold's own quest to arrive at a peace, or a calm or a balance. But he could not attain it. He has nothing, neither religion nor rationality, to help in this quest. Occasionally he ponders around the shores of the sea of faith where he could only hear its long withdrawing roar and see the shingles. Occasionally we find him honouring the rigorous teachers who made him aspire for the Truth. But neither did they give his restless soul, the needy comfort. Nature at times gave him solace, but those occasions were rare. He talks of a soul, but only in uncertain terms. He talks sometimes of a power, which is occasionally indifferent, but sometimes causing the unhappiness of man. On the whole his ideas on God, soul religion etc. is an amorphous one, never crystallising into something concrete. Though almost an agnostic, he cannot accept an amoral life. Perhaps he is the typical representative of the Victorian restlessness. This restlessness itself is caused by the lack of certainty in matters of religion, God and man's place in the immense universe. Being an intellectually honest man he was baffled by the world around him and he asked enquiring questions. Those questions were so fundamental that he could not get clear answers. However this questioning eventuality itself was the sign of a search for a God, or for the need of a religion. In all this he was perhaps, modern, a misfit among the compromising Victorians.

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