Matthew Arnold as A Classicist Throughout His Poetry

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      Mathew Arnold himself defined the classic, going into the Latin root of the words, as belonging to the best class. The literature of ancient Greece and Rome were considered to be the best in letters, especially after the European Renaissance. By the passage of time the word classic acquired a wider connotation. Anything that imbibed the spirit of the ancient Greece and Rome began to be considered classic or classical. The Greeks believed in proportion, harmony and balance in art and architect, literature and drama, music and dance and also in Iife. Restraint and moderation were considered necessary in reaching perfection, they thought. Strict formalism suppressed unwelcome emotional exuberance and richness of details. The Doric order of Architecture, as was shown in Parthenon would give an idea of the classic. A severe economy of expression, is the main characteristic of classicism. The unity of the whole, and the beauty arising out of it, are more important than beauty of individual parts. 'Perfection within limits' is the classicist's aim. They are concerned with what can be known, what can be clearly understood and appreciated in the light of pure reason. Nothing mysterious or vague is to be found in a classic work. If classicism in Architecture is represented by the Doric order of building like the Parthenon, a Gothic church with its rising spires and ornate decoration will represent the Romantic. However classicism and Romanticism cannot be neatly separated as pigeon holes. Overlapping of qualities can often be found, as in the poetry of Milton and Matthew Arnold, both avowed classicists. So also in the arch Romantics, Shelley and Keats one can trace classical veins. Cecil Day Lewis puts it very clearly.

We must resist the temptation, as strong now as ever it was, of dividing poets into teams and making them play against each other-alas, poor critic, having to referee a match in which the players, are constantly fraternizing, exchanging jerseys, running in the wrong direction and turning the rules to anarchy.

      Matthew Arnold, a Classicist by bringing up and education, found in Victorian Literature all that is anti-classic; an emotional exuberance, fantastic flight of the fancy challenging reason and common sense, an escape into the irrationality and into medievalism, and an intensive subjectivity tending to the silly. He criticised those romantic tendencies in the most provocative way. A believer in the intellectual faculties and the critical spirit he attacks the licence the romantics took severely. In a letter to a friend, he wrote "Keats and Shelley were in the wrong track when they set themselves to reproduce the exuberance of expression, the charm, the richness of images and felicity of the Elizabethan poets".

      Arnold declared his classical bent in his preface to his 1853 volumes, and declared war against the subjectivity and the individualism in contemporary literature. He emphasised the need of taking the Greek heritage as the model for the moderns. He wanted the classical spirit brought into English. Watson commenting on the Preface wrote, What we do want - and the 1853 preface might almost be considered a manifesto is the savour of Arnold's own sense of poetry of the romantics and the Elizabethans in favour of poems that are particular, precise and firm dealing with human actions not rooted in one time or place, but which most powerfully appeal to the great primary human affection; to choose elementary feelings which suits permanently in the race. Here in the grasp of essentials, lay the virtue of civilization of the Greeks:

      They regarded the whole; "we regard the parts". Later in the advertisement to the second volume of poems and in his Oxford Lecture on The Modern Element in Literature" and in other writings, Arnold paid glowing tributes to the masters like Homer and Sophocles. Merope is a drama strictly following Sophocles. Arnold wanted the love of precision and arrangement, and a respect for the love of precision and arrangement, and a respect for Form brought into English Literature, to be worked as a corrective, against the excesses found among Victorians. Hugh Walker says that.

As regards his poetical method, Arnold is essentially classic, not romantic. Not since Milton, has there been any English poet more deeply imbued with the classical spirit. Arnold was so by native predilection; as but his innate tendency was strengthened by the operation of a principle he was never tired of insisting upon - the principle that what we ought to attempt should be determined for us by a consideration of what is needful.....

      Arnold's own design was "to tone down what was excessive and to supply what was deficit".

      His ideas led him to Hellenism and to emphasise the importance of the whole rather than being content with the beauty of the separate parts. He advocated lucidity, restraints and proportion, the essence of his classicism. However, at times only, he chose an ancient theme for his poetry, in the Greek manner and when he did so, sometimes he succeeded but sometimes failed. Merope is a case where he chose the ancient theme and failed. The story of Empedocles is old, but the idea happened to be quite modern. In the chant of Empedocles, the reader can hear Arnold speaking of his own predicament. But in all of his poems, one can find, just like in the Greeks, a definiteness of thought, and a lucidity of expression. Never does the exuberance of expression in the romantic manner enter his poems. However, he didn't think that the Neo-classicism of Dryden and Pope was to be the model. Arnold knew pretty well that their age was the age of prose and real poetry is absent in their versification. A sort of spiritual east wind was blowing drying up poetic sensibilities. Arnold makes his view very well clear, in his telling manner, in his Study of Poetry. "Dryden and Pope are not classics of our poetry, they are the classics of our prose". He distinguishes genuine poetry from that of the 18th century Neoclassical poetry as follows. While "Their poetry is composed and conceived in their wits, genuine poetry is composed and conceived in the soul". However he qualifies the age as "our excellent and indispensable eighteenth century". Their clarity of thought and vision helped the nineteenth century to correct its mistiness and mysticism.

      Arnold objected to the romantic poetry on two counts, firstly for its own intrinsic weakness and secondly for its unwelcome social effects.

      Born at a time when romantic poets had their heyday, he could not escape some of the influence of romantic poetry even if he wished to do so. His tastes were too catholic and his intelligence too sharp to deliberately avoid that influence. The lovely apostrophe he wrote in prose to Oxford declares how he was immersed in the romantic spirit. In his poems too, despite his loudly declared classicism, we find romanticism lurking now in a love for myth, now in an appreciation for the exuberance of a Keats now by imitating the style of the sensuous Keats and always in the all pervading melancholy of his poems. He admired Shelley not at all, Keats only lately, and was fully aware of the demerits of Coleridge along with his strong points. However, he admired the spirit and power that is found in the Elizabethan literature. But he found Chapman's translation of Homer faulty for the classical plainness and directness was missing in it. Instead fancifulness, characteristic fancifulness, of the Elizabethan, has gone into it. Even in Shakespeare he found many drawbacks especially in the tortured passages, faulty diction and fantastic imagery though in the Sonnet he addressed him and mentioned,

Others abide our question; Thou art free.

      The classicist in Arnold recommends, Milton as the model for English writers. And he is all praise for Milton's classical style which according to him is superior to even Shakespeare's. He declares in The Study of Poetry that,

Shakespeare is divinely, strong rich and attractive. But sureness of perfect style Shakespeare himself does not possess...Milton, from one end of Paradise Lost to the other, is in his diction and rhythm is constantly a great artist in the great style.

      Temperamentally Arnold was against the romantic exuberance in poetry. For a century or so, romantic poetry was getting involved more and more into medievalism. Arnold thought that, its grotesqueness, its conceits, its irrationality" were its characteristic drawbacks. Eccentricity, arbitrariness and self will (in other words subjectivity in its extreme) resulted from romance; unity is neglected and exaggerated importance was given to isolated purple patches. He says;

We have poems which seem to exist merely for the sake of simple lines and passages; not for the sake of producing any total impression. We have critics who seem to direct their attention merely to detached expressions, to the language about the action, not to the action itself.

      Certainly, it is the opinion of a classicist who considers a unified whole better than the sum of its ununified parts. In the same vein, he has something to say about Isabella, that sensuous poem of Keats. It is a "perfect treasure, house of graceful and felicitous words and images" but "is absolutely null" in producing a total effect. Arnold was convinced that the romantics were wrong in paying too much attention to the parts at the cost of the total effect of a poem. The pre-raphailite poets who went to an extreme form of romanticism according to Arnold did not realise that the peculiar effect of Nature resides in the whole and not in the parts".

      Arnold considered that romanticism in English was doubly dangerous because the romantic spirit was innate to the English nation. As a corrective to this tendency Arnold recommends the rules of classicism. In several of his essays from the Preface to the 1853 edition of his poems, he emphasised his firmly held belief that the classical spirit and style can enrich the English literature. For, though English was rich in many respects, it was deplorably deficient in classical quality. At least he thought so. He admired the "calm, cheerfulness, disinterested objectivity" of classic Greek literature. He found the idea of the whole dominating in the Greek works. Further what he calls the grand style is to be found in them; the equal to that could be seen among only two of the moderns-Dante and Milton. In Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost, there is nothing superfluous, and the qualities of those two epics are what is needed in English literature. The grand style of those two are not at all found among the contemporaries. The calm, cheerfulness of those works will act as a curative for the "sick hurry" and divided aims" of the troubled life of the times allowing man once again to "possess his soul".

      Charmed by the beauties of classical literature. Arnold aimed at bringing in restraint and simplicity into his own poems. The "wild disorder of Romanticism" was disparaged often. What he wanted were balance order, design and care in architectonics. With those ideals in mind he went for a choice diction that contributed to accuracy and fitness. And he has succeeded in realizing his aims in the best of his works. Thyrsis, The Scholar Gipsy, Resignation, Dover Beach, The Buried Life, Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse, A Summer Night and Sohrab and Rustum are some of them. Even in his not-so-successful poems, his love for classicism can be evidently found in the choice of the theme, in the detachment or subjectivity and in the choice of diction and images. Sohrab and Rustum, probably is the best of his classic poems, showing all the classical features the author admired. It is an epic poem in miniature. Fate seems to reign supreme and both Sohrab and Rustum resign themselves to fate. The diction is restrained through-out, after the classical fashion. The story is noble revealing "primary human affections" which are of perennial importance. The coding helps the reader to accept the course of fate; leaving him animated and ennobled. Though there are some un-Homeric descriptions of the river Oxus, the similes are surely classical. The slain Sohrab remains,

Like some rich hyacinth, which by the scythe
Of an unskillful gardener has been cut,
Mowing the garden grass-plots near its bed
And lies, a fragrant tower of purple bloom
On the mown dying grass--so Sohrab lay,
Lovely in death, upon the common sand.

      The Scholar Gipsy and Thyrsis are cast in the pastoral mould. He has followed Theocritus, Bion and Moschus, outwardly, though he has differed substantially from them in their conception. Arnold himself was not fully satisfied with The Scholar Gipsy.

We find him writing to Clough,

I am glad you like The Gipsy Scholar - but what does it do for you? Homer animates - Shakespeare animates - in its poor way I think Sohrab and Rustum animates. The Gipsy Scholar at best awakens a pleasing, melancholy.

But this is not what we want.

The complaining millions of men
Darken in labour and pain,

      What they want is something to animate and ennoble them - not merely to add zest to their melancholy or grace to their dreams.

      The nostalgic feeling of the scholar for Oxford, certainly, is romantic. Thyrsis is probably a better piece because of its quiet tender note. Swinburne wrote about its style, that, "No poem can be more perfect as a model style unsurpassable certainly, it may be unattainable". The diction is classical. The debt to Theocritus is more evident.

      The name Thyrsis is found in Virgil's Eclogues, and in the Idylls of Theocritus. Resignation, certainly shows the influence of Lucretius and is an "assertion of the way, to human freedom in the abandonment of the romantic temperament". The Buried Life and Dover Beach are love poems, but they do not show any exuberance of emotional outflow. They show the classical restraint in depicting feelings but the feeling of incertitude and the melancholic love is romantic. In some of his other poems, not considered best, also one finds his classicism. Merope is a classical tragedy where the classical rules set by Aristotle in Poetics are observed. Arnold himself thought it to be:

The most complete reproduction in English of the forms and conventions of Sophoclean tragedy.

      Even the severe critics of Arnold agree that in Merope the classical form is meticulously followed. There is a genuine Hellenic quality in it, but only in the form, and the spirit is lacking. As W. P. Ker says it

Falls into the cold empty space where nothing lives but vacant, the pithless phantoms of mere form". Empedocles on Etna is a poem classical theme but romantic in treatment. Arnold himself withdrew "the poem as he thought that in it "the suffering finds no vent in action; in which incident, hope or resistance in which there is everything to be endured, nothing to be done.

      The two fragments Antigone and Dejaneira were pieces where Arnold aimed at classical destiny, but in those rose above classicism, according to some critics. Arnold wrote to Clough "But my Antigonc supports me and in some degree subjugates destiny". While writing Dejaneira, he had the thought of the death of his 18 year old son in his mind.

      W. H. Hudson sums up his evaluation of Arnold's poetry like this:

"Arnold's poetry has in a high degree the classic qualities of pose temperance and reserve. Careful workmanship and purity and dignity of style are among its prominent technical features. Though his ear was not perfect, his lyrical measures are generally satisfying, while his blank verse has a stately movement of its own. His moral spirit is always noble and his fine stoicism prevents his melancholy from becoming debilitating, But his austerity and apparent coldness and his want of joyful and bounding emotion have stood in the way of his popularity and he is still a master for the cultured few".

      Hudson has traced the classical in him carefully. Arnold had a clear idea what ideal poetry should be. However the inhibitions that worked on him and his constraint in sensibilities prevented him from becoming a greater poet than what he had become. To him Wordsworth and Byron were the two chief poets of the century. However he didn't possess the sixth sense of Wordsworth; neither did he have the abandonment to passion one finds in Byron. The Switzerland lyrics show him, though not as a master of passion, certainly not as a slave of it. The elegiac and not the pure lyric, appears to suit him best. This is so because of his natural melancholic resignation in his mental make up. His best poems are where he was inspired by his love for a friend, a brother, a father or a university.

      Arnold's poetry is the poetry of a scholar and critic. He had learned from the Greeks that a good poem, must have a good subject, must be beautiful not in patches but as a whole, orderly, lucid, and sane. He disliked, had felt their charm, the insubstantiality of Shelley, Tennyson's jewellery and the eccentricity and obscurity of Browning though he himself. The Sonnet To a Friend clearly talks of his regards for the classical poet,

Who saw life steadily and saw it whole

      However there is an element of clear romanticism in him. Perhaps he could not prevent the spirit of the age influencing him. The Neckan, The Forsaken Merman, the nostalgia filled description of the Oxford countryside in The Scholar Gipsy, the scenic description of the Alps in Obsermann Once More, are all romantic in the true sense of the term. In To a Gipsy Child there is the blending of the romantic and the classic. And in A Summer Nigh, possibly the best of Arnold, we find him rising above classicism and romanticism, giving free play to his sorrow at the death of a dear brother.

      Arnold is an intellectual poet but not a didactic poet aiming at teaching. His poetry is mainly moral in spirit, but he escapes didacticism because the moral substance is always passionately conceived. And he presented it in a poetic style which rarely faltered.

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