Morality: by Matthew Arnold - Summary & Analysis

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      This poem appeared in the 1852 edition, Empedocles on Etna and Other Poems. It is considered to contain the essence of Arnold's humanistic teaching. The ideas found here find its echoes in Self-Dependence, Palladium, Quiet Work and In Harmony with Nature.

      Morality by Matthew Arnold, what one finds in the poem is Arnold's ideas on morality as he conceived at the age of thirty. His own preface to Culture and Anarchy, gives a summary of his moral code.

      "To walk staunchly by the best light one has, to be strict and sincere with oneself, not to be of the number of those who say and do not, to be in earnest, - this is the discipline by which alone man is enabled to rescue his life from thraldom to the passing moment and to his bodily senses, to ennoble it, and to make it eternal..."

      The poet believes that man is superior to Nature in the struggle for life. Nature not at all exerts a moral law now. In the latter half of the poem the poet hears the voice of Nature. Nature is aware that she is inferior to Man. Man achieves his aims through hard work, self-control and morals in conduct. But Nature does not do any conscious work.

      Morality gives the Arnoldian vision of an honest and conscientious man's performance of his duty. Man may have his shortcomings, his restlessness and his inability to share the serenity of Nature. But his restless struggle makes him superior to Nature.


      Stanza 1. Line. 1-6: Human beings cannot stir up their enthusiasm of their heart at their own will. It is the spirit that controls it and that too in a mysterious manner. In moments of spiritual insight and enthusiasm we can fulfill our duties even if moods of gloom and despair engulf us.

      Stanza 2. Line. 7-12: We do our day-to-day work which tries us. As the burden and trouble of it weigh heavily on us, we eagerly wish it to be over quickly. Only when cheerfulness returns to us we will be able to see what we have achieved.

      Stanza 3. Line. 13-18: Then the clouds of unhappiness will disappear from our minds and we will submit ourselves to the influence of Nature. At that time we may ask Nature about her opinion of man's self-control and his self imposed morality which he considers his duty. The cheerfulness, the freedom and the light heartedness of Nature in contrast with his own hard struggle may have made man despair.

      Stanza 4. Line. 19-24: Man is afraid of facing Nature (because of his troubles in life contrasted with the free, cheerful and light-heartedness of Nature) He feels himself inferior. Man tries to avoid the eyes of Nature (because of the above mentioned reason). At man's question a glow of strong emotion appears on the cheek of Nature, and asks a counter question. From where has man got his ability for divine struggle which is not to be found in Nature.

      Stanza 5. Line 25-30: (The reply of Nature continues) Nature does not put in any effort that shows the pain of hard work on the brow. Neither does she struggle nor feel sorry at failure (weep). She progresses quickly in the order of the universe (with quick spheres) and feel happy. At her own will she rests (I sleep). But the admirably severe and earnest effort of man was hers once. (I saw, I felt once). Where has it disappeared, Nature wonders.

      Stanza 6. Line. 31-36: (Nature's answer continues) At that time (when she had felt the 'severe earnest air') Nature was not under the limitations of space and time. She felt it in another atmosphere, in another country. It was when Nature was in her heavenly house, when she lived with God.


      The theme of the poem is the dignity of life's struggle, which is the lot of man. The true value and meaning of routine duty in man's life is admirably expressed in this poem.

      Arnold does not deal with any traditional morality in this poem. It is neither that of theologian's or a traditional moralist's view. Neither does the poet bring in the Wordsworthian notion that Nature is a friend, philosopher and guide to man'. He says at the end of the poem that once in the past, Nature was close to God. At that time she had felt the severe earnest air which is found in man's worldly struggle. Nature has ceased to indulge in life's struggle.

      Some critics find the conflict between Hellenism and Hebraism, which existed in Arnold's mind gets reflected here. The two terms borrowed from Heine, represents the Greek civilization (Hellenism) and Christianity (Hebraism). Before the advent of Christianity, Hellenism was the most potent cultural force. Hellenism gave predominance to the development of the critical faculty of man. An amoral, not immoral, worship of beauty, harmony and order were to be sought in life. When Christianity arose, it embraced Hellenism, but the Hebrew thought, from the Bible, had a predominance. A morality born out of duty was the essence. This is the Hebraism. Until the European Renaissance this dominance of Hebraism remained in the world of western culture. During Renaissance there was a surge towards Hellenism and its influence remains even now. However, it was modified by the influence of the Reformation. During Arnold's time a tyrannical form of Hebraisn, Puritanism, had developed in England, and asserted itself in a way which Arnold disliked.

      The poet avowedly is in favour of Hellenism as against Hebraism. In this poem he appears to be uncertain of his own mind. Praising of a morality based on hard work is definitely Hebraistic. However, there is one element of Hellenism that Arnold upholds in the poem. He stresses in the poem that man is superior to Nature. This belief of the superiority of man over Nature is certainly a Hellenistic thinking.

      Arnold appears to tell that morality is a blend of Hebraism and Hellenism. The poet considers that the conceiving ability of Hellenism and achieving ability of Hebraism, combined can be an ideal way of life. Arnold believed that 'what the Hellenistic part of us has conceived the Hebraic can achieve', In poems like Dover Beach the loss of Hebraic moral sense is lamented. Here there appears to be a balance between Hellenism and Hebraism.


1. But tasks.....fulfill'd.

      In Morality Arnold glorifies the disciplined struggle which is found in man's life. The poem begins telling that man cannot kindle the fire of spiritual fervor (morality) in himself. For that a force that hides in the soul of man should blow, in an inexplicable way. Once that spiritual fervor would blow, the routine struggles in life become cheerful. Here the poet says that when spiritual insight lights upon man, even in hours of gloom and despair man is able to fulfil his duty, however, difficult it may be.

      It is said Arnold had in his mind a conflict, perhaps fully unresolved between his love for Hellenism on the one hand, and Hebraism on the other. In some poems the poet emphasised the Hebraic elements as we find in Dover Beach. Here though he glorifies a morality based on struggle, Hellenistic elements also can be found. The poem concludes, with the superiority of Man's struggle over Nature's struggle-lessness. The superiority of Man over Nature is a true Hellenistic quality.

2. With aching ... we discern. Line. 7-12

      Here the poet describes the shared struggles man has to undergo routinely in his life. As described it is a difficult strife.

      Doing the routine jobs such as digging soil and heaping it, building walls, laying stone above stone, man's hands ache and feet get bruised. The burden of the day-long work is so much that they long for the end to come. Only when moments of cheerfulness reach them, they are able to see the achievements, the result, of their work.

      In this stanza, the long day gets a wider meaning - the whole span of man's life. Then 'aching hands' and 'bleeding feet' signify the tiredness caused by the life struggle. When the struggle of life becomes very painful (ache) and hurting (bleeding), man develops a death-wish. The phrase 'wish it were done' suggestively means that.

      However, in hours of cheerfulness, possibly arising by the mystery of the spirit in the soul, he will be able to take a look at his own achievement in life.

3. "Ah child ... not mine?" Line. 23-24

      Here Arnold says Nature after watching the struggle of man, full of admiration at his work asks him from where he has procured the ability to struggle divinely. Man could not have got it from her for it does not exist in her at all. The poet conceives Man as a child of Nature. Then how did the child acquire something which is not in mother Nature, is the question. Perhaps the last part of Nature's statement gives the answer to the question. Some time in the remote past Nature used to be nearer to God. While she was treading the heavenly house she had felt the 'severe earnest air' of the struggle. Man as the child of Nature might have inherited it from mother Nature. As Nature says it is not in her right now, one has to think that it still remains in the unconscious of Nature.

      This couplet tells how Nature admits Man's superiority over her. She asks the question admiringly. The strife of Man is divine'. She appears to feel sorry that capacity for struggle is absent in her.

4. "There is ... I sleep". Line. 25-28

      In these lines Arnold describes the struggle-lessness in Nature. Seeing the 'divine strife' of man, Nature admiringly tells man, who is her child, that she doesn't indulge in any conscious struggle, similar to that of man. Nature does not put in any effort, which produces a sign of hard work on her brow. She does not do work for anyone. Neither does she shed tears over unhappiness. She progresses along with the movement of the universe, (with the swift spheres) and grow happier. When she feels like resting she rests.

      Arnold's concept that 'there is no struggle in nature doesn't agree with the scientific concepts of his own time, not to mention the 20th century scientific thinking. There is tremendous struggle going on in Nature. The various plants in the forest compete with each other for light, water, and air. Those who do not get the minimum amount necessarily die out. Then there is the competition between the animals and the plants. Elephants and other, voracious eaters wipe out forests. Then, the predators live on smaller animals. Wherever we look into Nature we find struggle for existence. Perhaps Arnold didn't look at Nature this way. He means that animals and trees, part of Nature do, not weep or laugh. But none can refuse that, though they do not have the capacity to weep or laugh, they have the capacity for the feelings that cause weeping or laughter. The song of the nightingale may appear to be divine to humans, but it may be expressing the terrible pain of isolation and inviting its mate. The only thing we can be certain is that animals and plants in nature do not show their feelings like human beings do.

5. I knew ... breast of God. Line. 31-36

      Nature, after admiring the struggle of man, which is absent in her, says she too had that struggle once. Then she recaptures the memory of it. Nature felt that severe earnest air' in the remote past. It was at a different place, in a different atmosphere (other clime). There neither time nor space had any limiting influence on Nature. It was a time when Nature was intimately united with God. (lay upon the breast of God).

      There appears to be some obscurity in the last stanza. What is meant by the last two lines? When was it that nature was treading the heavenly abode resting on the breast of God? In the remote past? There is no scientific evidence for this statement. Neither is there any myth existing, which tells of a struggle in Nature, that ceased to exist. From the point of view of science, perpetual struggle exists in nature. Man's struggle, too, is part of it.

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