Memorial Verses: by Matthew Arnold - Summary and Analysis

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      The poem First printed in Frasers Magazine in June 1850, Memorial Verses, were included in the 1852 edition of Arnold's poems. William Wordsworth died on 23rd April 1850, and was buried a few days later. Edward Quilman, son-in-law of Wordsworth requested Arnold to write an elegy and he obliged. However, it was not Wordsworth alone who is honoured in the poem. Byron who died in 1824 and Goethe who died in 1832 also are commemorated in it, rather late. Though written on the death of Wordsworth, it is not a mere conventional tribute. It reveals Arnold's abilities as a literary critic. It is remarkable that this poem composed when the poet was only 27, contains as much of definitive utterance and of permanent value as of any of his critical essays. In it Wordsworth is placed on a high pedestal along with Byron and Goethe. In a few lines Arnold sums up his estimate of the contributions of the three to the nineteenth century thought and literature. He obviously places Wordsworth above Byron and controversially above Goethe too.

      Byron taught little, but he was a man of passion of titanic proportion. He is also shown as a man of energy. But in his essay on Byron, Arnold has noticed his weaknesses too. "True, as a man Byron could not manage himself, could not guide his ways aright, but was all led astray. True, he has no light, cannot lead us from the past to the future. The moment he reflects, he is a child".

      Goethe to Arnold was the sage of Europe. He had salutary influence on Arnold. In Obermann Arnold makes a comparative evaluation of Goethe, Senancour and Wordsworth. In an essay, A French Critic on Goethe, Arnold qualifies him as the clearest, the largest, the most helpful thinker of modern times". Goethe remained a perpetual source of intellectual stimulation and discipline. In the poem Wordsworth is praised in superlative terms. Arnold's judgement of placing Wordsworth above Goethe, doesn't agree with the twentieth-century evaluation. However Arnold considered the poem to be of some quality. After finishing the poem he wrote to Clough. "I would fain see thee, as I have at Quilinan's solicitations dirged W.W. in the grand style". Tinker and Lowry praise the poem and say,

      In defining the essential quality of Wordsworth's power, this poem is unsurpassed by the better known essay on Wordsworth introductory to Arnold's selections from that poet in the Golden Treasury Series (1879).

      The diction of the poem is more or less prosaic, written in free verse, but with rhyme. The tribute to Wordsworth's healing power is indeed just and generous and the phrase has become a cliche in Wordsworth criticism later.


      Line. 1-5: Introducing the subject, Goethe lies dead in Weimar (in Germany). long before that death, Greece saw the end of the struggling life of Byron. One such death was to come later. Now Wordsworth, the last of the great poets, too is dead.

Line. 6-15: Byron's end.

      When Byron died we could not express our feelings, but showed our respects. His poetry did not teach us very much. (In his day Byron's poems were condemned as immoral.) But his poetry, which was as grand as thunder, thrilled us to the depths. The conflict of Love and Law displayed in his poetry as well as his private life was bewildering. Still his great intellectual powers and his fierce fight against conventions and customs were noteworthy.

Line. 15-33: Goethe's death

      On hearing of the death of Goethe, we remarked that the greatest sage of Europe had gone away. He was the healer of the diseases of the age of misery and wretchedness. He noticed the miseries of human race and understood the causes of those miseries and pinpointed at the weakness of society. He watched with anxiety, the feverish change that was coming over Europe and warned others of the danger. Goethe found that everything was going towards ruin; but art still was able to show Truth. He recommended people to seek shelter in art. He understood the causes of events. He had seen the misery, distraction and death caused by French revolution, the Napoleonic wars and the spiritual decline resulting from the rise of materialism. By identifying the causes of the miserable events that were happening around him remained happy.

      Comes to Wordsworth: The poet addresses the pale ghosts of the world of the dead and tells them to rejoice at Wordsworth's arrival. Such a soothing voice as his has never reached Hades after Orpheus sang his songs in that gloomy place. You may find his voice as soothing as we found it. He also lived in an unhappy age troubled by doubts, disputes and fears. He found out the human soul in the clutches of materialism making it incapable of feeling. His poetry evoked tears in us because it touched us with its sincerity. He took us back to the olden times and revealed to us the glory and wonder of the world, and we felt as if we were on earth's flower beds. We felt comfortable and started smiling. Hills were around us, breeze above and there were sunlit fields. We were able to enjoy the rain and the wind and our youthful spirit which earlier appeared dead returned to us, and we enjoyed the freshness of the carlier world.

      Line. 58-70: Even in dark days of doubts and controversies men of wisdom and energy will be born and time may bring to us another Goethe or another Byron. But it is unlikely that Europe any time in future will get a great man with the healing power of Wordsworth. Others, like Byron, will make us courageous. and teach us how to avoid fear. Yet others, like Goethe, will give us the strength to bear suffering. But who else (except Wordsworth) can make us feel the beauty and harmony of life and make us happy. Other people may face fearlessly the unhappiness that destiny creates, but who else can remove the unhappiness?

      Line. 71-74: The Poet here addresses River Rotha that flows near Wordsworth's grave and tells it to water the grass on his grave with its waves and keep it fresh. He wants the river to sing its best to Wordsworth, for after he is gone there is none to appreciate Nature's songs.


      Wordsworth was the friend of Matthew Arnold's father, the great Rugby. Headmaster, Thomas Arnold. The poet knew Wordsworth very well and he grew up in the vicinity of Wordsworth's house. Matthew Arnold's great appreciation for Wordsworth and his poems can be clearly seen in his poems as well as in his prose writings. He gives the first place to Wordsworth in his critical estimate of the romantic poets. After finishing the present poem, at the request of Wordsworth's son-in-law, Quilinan, Arnold wrote to Clough that he had "dirged W.W. in the grand style". Certainly there is grandeur in the style, a classical grandeur. The poem is austerely plain, without much trappings. The only decorations are the classical allusions, to the pale ghosts' of Hades, and the clear song of Orpheus'. Perhaps the last lines where river Rotha is personified too is decorative, but indeed is delicately so. The tribute Arnold pays to Wordsworth has the stamp of sincerity.

      There is excellent literary criticism involved in the poem. Though his immediate aim is to pay a tribute to the poet of Rydal Mount, he succeeds in evaluating Byron and Goethe too, cryptically, though accurately. Byron's struggle against conventions and laws of society are titanic. Though people have little to learn from him, they were awe-struck by the thundery passions he depicted in his poems. Goethe's was the wisest soul of Europe. He diagnosed the sickness from which the world was suffering. He analysed the causes of the cultural and spiritual decay of his generation.

      Wordsworth was superior, for he had the healing power to cure the world of its diseases. His poetry has the divine musical quality similar to that possessed by Orpheus, who was able to please the inhabitants of the nether world. Wordsworth has gone from this world, to the nether world where the 'pale Ghosts have reason to rejoice. After they had heard the clear song of Orpheus, they haven't heard anything as happy as the poems of Wordsworth. Arnold is referring to the musical quality of Wordsworth's poems. He places Wordsworth above Goethe, in a very special way. Goethe diagnosed the disease of the society correctly. Wordsworth went ahead one more step. He was able to cure the disease with his 'healing power'. Wordsworth's poems touched the hearts of people and made them shed tears of joy. He showed them joys that Nature can offer and comforts one can get from it. One is likely to disagree with Arnold in keeping Wordsworth on a pedestal higher than that of Goethe. Perhaps, his intimacy with and personal admiration for Wordsworth, prevented him from becoming factual. Perhaps he might have been thinking only of the 'healing power' he recognized in his hero.

      Attitude to Nature: Arnold's love for Nature was perhaps as intense as that of Wordsworth. Only, he failed to find any divine order which Wordsworth found in Nature. In referring to Wordsworth's Nature poetry, Arnold gives some lovely descriptions

He laid us as we lay at birth
On the cool flowery lap of earth;
Smiles broke from us and we had ease.
The hills were round us and the breeze
Went o'er the sun-lit fields again:

      One can almost feel the healing power of Wordsworth as we go through these word pictures. The images do have a vividness and freshness that lends an open air atmosphere to the poem.

      Arnold's love of Nature and his appreciation of Wordsworth's attitude to Nature is again found in the apostrophe to Rotha in the last four lines. He requests the river to keep the grass upon the grave fresh and to sing to him with its living wave. After Wordsworth, there is none presently alive, to listen to Nature's music, and understand it rightly.

      Criticism of Life: In Memorial Verses, we find Arnold's criticism of life, or interpretation of life. In his praise for Goethe's ability to diagnose the sickness of contemporary society we find Arnold's own views on society. He too has noticed the 'iron time of doubts, disputes, distractions, fears'. The fitful dream' of European leaders, running after feverish power' was very much in the mind of Arnold as in Goethe's. The lurid flow of terror and insane distress' was a characteristic of the 'dying hour' of Europe. In England of the time too, there was similar sickness. Man's spirits had been dead for long. They were 'dried up and closely furl'd'. It is rather a unique elegy, in being one full of substantial literary criticism. The poet Swinburne considers the verses "praise and judge the great poet, then newly dead, better than any words of other men". Arnold owed a great a deal to Wordsworth as his numerous laudatory references bear out. T.S. Eliot had this aspect in mind when he commented that the poem is "a testimonial of what Wordsworth had done to him". An amount of hero worship is certainly present in the poem, but the worship appears to come from a sincere devotion. The fundamental qualities of Byron, Goethe and Wordsworth are pointed out with brevity and accuracy. Goethe was the sagest head Byron's was a titanic strife and Wordsworth had the healing power. H.C. Duffin's analysis of the poem is worth quoting:

      Memorial Verses, April 1850, is an exquisite miniature of criticism. The person eulogised is Wordsworth, but brilliant thumbnail estimates of Goethe and Byron are given in order to throw up the central figure by way of contrast, just one element in the genius of each being named "Goethe's sage mind and Byron's force.' For Wordsworth, Arnold selects four prime qualities - his power to bring us into sympathetic touch with nature, his "healing power his power of quickening the feeling, and, above all, his power of making us realise the unimportance of the finite, the all-importance of the infinite:

The cloud of mortal destiny..
Who like him, will put it by?

      This is, indeed, quintessential Wordsworth, and we see how much better it is for a poet to put what he feels about another poet into a poem than into critical prose. The essay, Wordsworth, written nearly thirty years after the Verses, is a sound piece of work, done without enthusiasm. Arnold tells us he places Wordsworth third in English poetry, after Shakespeare and Milton, but we should not have surmised this from the rest of the essay. He thinks little of The Prelude, nothing of The Excursion, is doubtful about the intimations' of the Ode....and does not mention the Tintern Abbey lines, the Lucy poems, or the great sonnets. Still, he dwells emphatically on the power on joy in Wordsworth's poetry, so that we know he had the roots of the matter in him.

      The poem of 1850 is quite perfect as a work of art. It is exactly the right length, and has not an excessive line or one out of place. The opening lines have a classic economy and force:

Goethe in Weimar sleeps, and Greece,
Long since, saw Byron's struggle cease.
But one such death remain'd to come.
The last poetic voice is dumb.
What shall be said o'er Wordsworth's tomb?

      Then follow a short verse paragraph on Byron, a rather longer one on Goethe, and the main pronouncement on Wordsworth.

      Having told us wherein Wordsworth excelled, he comes back, in a fifth paragraph to the comparison with Byron and Goethe-their qualities may repeat themselves in others, but Wordsworth was and will remain unique. And he says this again in the lovely singing conclusion -

Keep fresh the grass upon his grave,
O Rotha! with thy living wave.
Sing him thy best! for few or none
Hears thy voice right, now he is gone.

      No one has ever, like Wordsworth, brought the spirit of man into intimate, vitalising touch with the spirit of nature."


1. Goethe in Weimar.....Wordsworth's tomb Line. 1-5

      Arnold starts his poem describing two famous writers who died well before Wordsworth. Goethe lies buried in Weimar. His death occurred long after the life of Byron came to an end. Now with the death of Wordsworth, the last important poet has become mute.

      Goethe, author of Faust was a philosophic poet of Germany. He was perhaps the greatest poetical name of Europe still lingering in the mind of people during the time Arnold wrote the verses. He died in 1832 and was buried at Weimar, Germany.

      Byron's struggle: The reference is to Byron's controversial life and his fight against 'cant, political, religious and moral'. Byron, the senior of the younger romantic poets of the early 19th century died in Greece, in the year 1824. By grouping Wordsworth, with Byron and Goethe, Arnold appears to have had two objectives. One is to give an honourable place along with two names very much in the mind of the people of the day. The other show Wordsworth in relief by comparing and contrasting him with the other two.

2. He taught us.....Titanic strife. Line. 8-14

      Arnold gives a brief, but accurate evaluation of Byron and his works. His weakness as well as strength are clearly pointed out:

      Byron's poems had nothing to teach others. But they displayed the thunder like strength of his passions. He fought not only against slavery and tyranny but against the conventional morality that constrained man. The tremendous energy he possessed and his extra-ordinary fighting power was like that of a Titan. It astonished all, and won for him respects from all.

      Strife we saw of Passion with Eternal Law: The conflict of Love and Law could be found in Byron's poems and his personal life. His poems were considered immoral according to conventional standards. His personal life was filled with scandals that shocked traditional moral codes. He fought against 'cant, political, religious and moral', and championed the cause of human passion against traditional morality.

3. and here. Line. 17-22

      Arnold praised Goethe, calling him the sagest man in Europe. In the above lines he goes on to describe him as the Physician of European society who diagnosed its sickness. Society was passing through a time of decay and chaos. He diagnosed the disease and told people where exactly things were going wrong.

      Iron age: By this phrase Arnold alludes to the non-human attitude of life that was spreading around. Goethe did his best, through his writings, to identify the problems of society, and suggest remedial measures.

4. He look'd on.....refuge there. Line. 23-28

      Goethe watched with concern, the social distress and misery caused by Napoleonic wars. He saw hopes of equality and liberty being shattered. Napoleon's rise caused the establishment of a tyrannical rule. Europe was plunged into conflict and turmoil. Morals crumbled and spirituality disappeared. The culture of Europe appeared to die out. He suggested that people in such catastrophic times should take refuge in art where truth exists even when society at large is devoid of values.

5. And he happiness. Line. 29-33

      Here Arnold says Goethe could remain happy, in the process of identifying the causes of misery in society.

      Goethe could trace the cause of all the evils that existed in society. He knew why things were becoming catastrophic. He saw the misery, the destruction and suffering caused by the French Revolution, and the Napoleonic wars. He noticed the spread of the rule of terror leading to a mad distress; and the influence of fate in the turn of events. Goethe, like a physician, was watching for the symptoms to diagnose the disease. This process of identifying the causes of misery gave a kind of happiness to Goethe.

      Far below his feet.: This phrase helps to create the impression that Goethe was a greater man, a nobler man, positioned high above the so-called heroes like Napoleon whose insane strife was causing the misery and the suffering.

6. And Wordsworth.....gloom. Line. 34-39

      After briefly describing the struggle of Byron and the pilgrimage of Goethe, Arnold comes to the topic of the poem Wordsworth's death.

      The poet apostrophises the pale ghosts who inhabit the kingdom of the dead and tells them that they have reason to rejoice at Wordsworth's reaching them. He is the greatest singer who has gone to Hades after Orpheus sang in the gloomy Hades.

      Orpheus; was a legendary pre-Homeric poet-singer, who could play divinely on his lyre When his wife Eurydice whom he loved passionately, died of a snake bite, he went to Hades, pleased Pluto with his music and restored her life Legends say that he could move even inanimate objects with his music.

      Hades: is the kingdom of death in the underworld, ruled by Pluto.

7. He too upon.....heart in tears. Line. 42-47

      In these lines Arnold either equates Wordsworth with Goethe or places him above. Like Goethe, Wordsworth also lived in a troublesome age - an age of doubts, uncertainty, skepticism and despair. He saw the inhumanising and benumbing influence of the age, on human soul. But Wordsworth's poetry appealed to the hearts of people and feelings expressed in it moved them to tears. It freed the feelings of people from the choking grip of materialism.

      He laid us as we lay at birth is an allusion to the primitivism displayed in Wordsworth's poems. Arnold means that Wordsworth's poetry, reveals to people the wonder and glory that existed in the world in a bygone age.

8. The hills.....early world. Line. 51-57

      Here Arnold continues to describe the refreshing effects of Wordsworth's poetry on human spirit that was inhumanised and benumbed.

      Wordsworth showed men, through his poetry, the beauty of the hills, the breeze and the sun-lit fields. As a result, men felt the freshening effect of life in communion with nature and they got rejuvenated. During the early nineteenth century the sufferings and miseries of life led men to a life of despair. Wordsworth's Nature-poetry and his glorification of a life in communion with nature helped people to regain sanity, to a great extent. Some critics, like T.S. Eliot, are of opinion that Arnold was describing the refreshing effect of Wordsworth's poetry on his own mind that remained vexed by the Victorian distress and despair.

9. Ah, Since.....healing power? Line. 58-63

      Here Arnold says that even in a gloomy period of scepticism and faithlessness forceful and wise persons may appear. So it is possible for Byron or Goethe to reappear again. But it is very unlikely a poet having the same healing power of Wordsworth be born in Europe in future. Arnold, here tells clearly of Wordsworth's superiority over Goethe. Both were born in an iron age. While Goethe diagnosed the disease and pinpointed the plague-spot, he could not cure society of its disease. Wordsworth had the healing power to cure society of its disease.

      Critics cannot accept Arnold's opinion that Wordsworth was a greater poet than Goethe, even if it is only in the healing power. Discriminating men are unanimous in designating a higher pedestal to Goethe than the one on which Wordsworth is. Again by telling that it is not likely to see another Wordsworth coming into being, Arnold is only betraying his blind hero-worship. If people like Byron and Goethe can be born again why not one like Wordsworth too, one is likely to wonder. Perhaps the demands of the occasion in association with the excessive devotion of the author to Wordsworth contributed to the hyperbolic statement found in the lines.

10. Others will.....put it buy? Line. 64-70

      After telling that it is unlikely a person with Wordsworth's healing power will be born again, Arnold re-emphasises the superiority of Wordsworth over Byron and Goethe. Others (like Byron) will teach us how to be courageous in overcoming fear. Yet others (like Goethe) will teach how to suffer the problems of life with forbearance. But only Wordsworth will be able to make people sensitive to Nature. While others may face the unhappiness destiny brings he alone will be able to cure it, by being sensitive to Nature.

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