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Matthew Arnold Post by :SilverSiR Category :Essays Author :Augustine Birrell Date :November 2011 Read :3170

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Matthew Arnold

I


The news of Mr. Arnold's sudden death at Liverpool struck a chill into many hearts, for although a somewhat constrained writer (despite his playfulness) and certainly the least boisterous of men, he was yet most distinctly on the side of human enjoyment. He conspired and contrived to make things pleasant. Pedantry he abhorred. He was a man of this life and this world. A severe critic of the world he indeed was, but finding himself in it and not precisely knowing what is beyond it, like a brave and true-hearted man he set himself to make the best of it. Its sight and sounds were dear to him. The 'uncrumpling fern,' the eternal moon-lit snow, 'Sweet William with its homely cottage-smell,' 'the red grouse springing at our sound,' the tinkling bells of the 'high-pasturing kine,' the vagaries of men, women, and dogs, their odd ways and tricks, whether of mind or manner, all delighted, amused, tickled him. Human loves, joys, sorrows, human relationships, ordinary ties interested him:

'The help in strife,
The thousand sweet still joys of such
As hand in hand face earthly life.'


In a sense of the words which is noble and blessed, he was of the Earth Earthy.

In his earlier days Mr. Arnold was much misunderstood. That rowdy Philistine the Daily Telegraph called him 'a prophet of the kid-glove persuasion,' and his own too frequent iteration of the somewhat dandiacal phrase 'sweetness and light' helped to promote the notion that he was a fanciful, finikin Oxonian,

'A fine puss gentleman that's all perfume,'

quite unfit for the most ordinary wear and tear of life. He was in reality nothing of the kind, though his literary style was a little in keeping with this false conception. His mind was based on the plainest possible things. What he hated most was the fantastic--the far-fetched, all elaborated fancies, and strained interpretations. He stuck to the beaten track of human experience, and the broader the better. He was a plain-sailing man. This is his true note. In his much criticised, but as I think admirable introduction to the selection he made from Wordsworth's poems, he admits that the famous Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections in Early Childhood is not one of his prime favourites, and in that connection he quotes from Thucydides the following judgment on the early exploits of the Greek Race and applies it to these intimations of immortality in babies. 'It is impossible to speak with certainty of what is so remote, but from all that we can really investigate I should say that they were no very great things.'

This quotation is in Mr. Arnold's own vein. His readers will have no difficulty in calling to mind numerous instances in which his dislike of everything not broadly based on the generally admitted facts of sane experience manifests itself. Though fond--perhaps exceptionally fond--of pretty things and sayings, he had a severe taste, and hated whatever struck him as being in the least degree sickly, or silly, or over-heated. No doubt he may often have considered that to be sickly or silly which in the opinion of others was pious and becoming. It may be that he was over-impatient of men's flirtations with futurity. As his paper on Professor Dowden's Life of Shelley shows, he disapproved of 'irregular relations.' He considered we were all married to plain Fact, and objected to our carrying on a flirtation with mystic maybe's and calling it Religion. Had it been a man's duty to believe in a specific revelation it would have been God's duty to make that revelation credible. Such, at all events, would appear to have been the opinion of this remarkable man, who though he had even more than his share of an Oxonian's reverence for the great Bishop of Durham, was unable to admit the force of the main argument of The Analogy. Mr. Arnold was indeed too fond of parading his inability for hard reasoning. I am not, he keeps saying, like the Archbishop of York, or the Bishop of Gloucester and Bristol. There was affectation about this, for his professed inferiority did not prevent him from making it almost excruciatingly clear that in his opinion those gifted prelates were, whilst exercising their extraordinary powers, only beating the air, or in plainer words busily engaged in talking nonsense. But I must not wander from my point, which simply is that Arnold's dislike of anything recondite or remote was intense, genuine, and characteristic.

He always asserted himself to be a good Liberal. So in truth he was. A better Liberal than many a one whose claim to that title it would be thought absurd to dispute. He did not indeed care very much about some of the articles of the Liberal creed as now professed. He had taken a great dislike to the Deceased Wife's Sister Bill. He wished the Church and the State to continue to recognise each other. He had not that jealousy of State interference in England which used to be (it is so no longer) a note of political Liberalism. He sympathised with Italian national aspirations because he thought it wrong to expect a country with such a past as Italy to cast in her lot with Austria. He did not sympathise with Irish national aspirations because he thought Ireland ought to be willing to admit that she was relatively to England an inferior and less interesting country, and therefore one which had no moral claim for national institutions. He may have been right or wrong on these points without affecting his claim to be considered a Liberal. Liberalism is not a creed, but a frame of mind. Mr. Arnold's frame of mind was Liberal. No living man is more deeply permeated with the grand doctrine of Equality than was he. He wished to see his countrymen and countrywomen all equal: Jack as good as his master, and Jack's master as good as Jack; and neither taking claptrap. He had a hearty un-English dislike of anomalies and absurdities. He fully appreciated the French Revolution and was consequently a Democrat. He was not a democrat from irresistible impulse, or from love of mischief, or from hatred of priests, or like the average British workman from a not unnatural desire to get something on account of his share of the family inheritance--but all roads lead to Rome, and Mr. Arnold was a democrat from a sober and partly sorrowful conviction that no other form of government was possible. He was an Educationalist, and Education is the true Leveller. His almost passionate cry for better middle-class education arose from his annoyance at the exclusion of large numbers of this great class from the best education the country afforded. It was a ticklish job telling this great, wealthy, middle class--which according to the newspapers had made England what she is and what everybody else wishes to be--that it was, from an educational point of view, beneath contempt. 'I hear with surprise,' said Sir Thomas Bazley at Manchester, 'that the education of our great middle class requires improvement.' But Mr. Arnold had courage. Indeed he carried one kind of courage to an heroic pitch. I mean the courage of repeating yourself over and over again. It is a sound forensic maxim: Tell a judge twice whatever you want him to hear. Tell a special jury thrice, and a common jury half-a-dozen times the view of a case you wish them to entertain. Mr. Arnold treated the middle class as a common jury and hammered away at them remorselessly and with the most unblushing iteration. They groaned under him, they snorted, and they sniffed--but they listened, and, what was more to the purpose, their children listened, and with filial frankness told their heavy sires that Mr. Arnold was quite right, and that their lives were dull, and hideous, and arid, even as he described them as being. Mr. Arnold's work as a School Inspector gave him great opportunities of going about amongst all classes of the people. Though not exactly apostolic in manner or method, he had something to say both to and of everybody. The aristocracy were polite and had ways he admired, but they were impotent of ideas and had a dangerous tendency to become studiously frivolous. Consequently the Future did not belong to them. Get ideas and study gravity, was the substance of his discourse to the Barbarians, as, with that trick of his of miscalling God's creatures, he had the effrontery to dub our adorable nobility. But it was the middle class upon whom fell the full weight of his discourse. His sermons to them would fill a volume. Their great need was culture, which he declared to be a study of perfection, the sentiment for beauty and sweetness, the sentiment against hideousness and rawness. The middle class, he protested, needed to know all the best things that have been said and done in the world since it began, and to be thereby lifted out of their holes and corners, private academies and chapels in side streets, above their tenth-rate books and miserable preferences, into the main stream of national existence. The lower orders he judged to be a mere rabble, and thought it was as yet impossible to predict whether or not they would hereafter display any aptitude for Ideas, or passion for Perfection. But in the meantime he bade them learn to cohere, and to read and write, and above all he conjured them not to imitate the middle classes.

It is not easy to know everything about everybody, and it may be doubted whether Mr. Arnold did not over-rate the degree of acquaintance with his countrymen his peregrinations among them had conferred upon him. In certain circles he was supposed to have made the completest possible diagnosis of dissent, and was credited with being able, after five minutes' conversation with any individual Nonconformist, unerringly to assign him to his particular chapel, Independent, Baptist, Primitive Methodist, Unitarian, or whatever else it might be, and this though they had only been talking about the weather. To people who know nothing about dissenters, Mr. Arnold might well seem to know everything. However, he did know a great deal, and used his knowledge with great cunning and effect, and a fine instinctive sense of the whereabouts of the weakest points. Mr. Arnold's sense for equality and solidarity was not impeded by any exclusive tastes or hobbies. Your collector, even though it be but of butterflies, is rarely a democrat. One of Arnold's favourite lines in Wordsworth was--

'Joy that is in widest commonalty spread.'

The collector's joys are not of that kind. Mr. Arnold was not, I believe, a collector of anything. He certainly was not of books. I once told him I had been reading a pamphlet, written by him in 1859, on the Italian Question. He inquired how I came across it. I said I had picked it up in a shop. 'Oh, yes,' said he, 'some old curiosity shop, I suppose.' Nor was he joking. He seemed quite to suppose that old books, and old clothes, and old chairs were huddled together for sale in the same resort of the curious. He did not care about such things. The prices given for the early editions of his own poems seemed to tease him. His literary taste was broadly democratic. He had no mind for fished-up authors, nor did he ever indulge in swaggering rhapsodies over second-rate poets. The best was good enough for him. 'The best poetry' was what he wanted, 'a clearer, deeper sense of the best in poetry, and of the strength and joy to be drawn from it.' So he wrote in his general introduction to Mr. Ward's Selections from the English Poets. The best of everything for everybody. This was his gospel and his prayer.

Approaching Mr. Arnold's writings more nearly, it seems inevitable to divide them into three classes. His poems, his theological excursions, and his criticism, using the last word in a wide sense as including a criticism of life and of politics as well as of books and style.

Of Mr. Arnold's poetry it is hard for anyone who has felt it to the full during the most impressionable period of life to speak without emotion overcoming reason.


'Hardly shall I tell my joys and sorrows,
Hopes and fears, belief and unbelieving.'


It is easy to admit, in general terms, its limitations. Mr. Arnold is the last man in the world anybody would wish to shove out of his place. A poet at all points, armed cap-a-pie against criticism, like Lord Tennyson, he certainly was not. Nor had his verse any share of the boundless vitality, the fierce pulsation so nobly characteristic of Mr. Browning. But these admissions made, we decline to parley any further with the enemy. We cast him behind us. Mr. Arnold, to those who cared for him at all, was the most useful poet of his day. He lived much nearer us than poets of his distinction usually do. He was neither a prophet nor a recluse. He lived neither above us, nor away from us. There are two ways of being a recluse--a poet may live remote from men, or he may live in a crowded street but remote from their thoughts. Mr. Arnold did neither, and consequently his verse tells and tingles. None of it is thrown away. His readers feel that he bore the same yoke as themselves. Theirs is a common bondage with his. Beautiful, surpassingly beautiful some of Mr. Arnold's poetry is, but we seize upon the thought first and delight in the form afterwards. No doubt the form is an extraordinary comfort, for the thoughts are often, as thoughts so widely spread could not fail to be, the very thoughts that are too frequently expressed rudely, crudely, indelicately. To open Mr. Arnold's poems is to escape from a heated atmosphere and a company not wholly free from offence even though composed of those who share our opinions--from loud-mouthed random talking men into a well-shaded retreat which seems able to impart, even to our feverish persuasions and crude conclusions, something of the coolness of falling water, something of the music of rustling trees. This union of thought, substantive thought, with beauty of form--of strength with elegance, is rare. I doubt very much whether Mr. Arnold ever realised the devotedness his verse inspired in the minds of thousands of his countrymen and countrywomen, both in the old world and the new. He is not a bulky poet. Three volumes contain him. But hardly a page can be opened without the eye lighting on verse which at one time or another has been, either to you or to someone dear to you, strength or joy. The Buried Life, A Southern Night, Dover Beach, A Wanderer is Man from his Birth, Rugby Chapel, Resignation. How easy to prolong the list, and what a list it is! Their very names are dear to us even as are the names of Mother Churches and Holy Places to the Votaries of the old Religion. I read the other day in the Spectator newspaper, an assertion that Mr. Arnold's poetry had never consoled anybody. A falser statement was never made innocently. It may never have consoled the writer in the Spectator, but because the stomach of a dram-drinker rejects cold water is no kind of reason for a sober man abandoning his morning tumbler of the pure element. Mr. Arnold's poetry has been found full of consolation. It would be strange if it had not been. It is

'No stretched metre of an antique song,'

but quick and to the point. There are finer sonnets in the English language than the two following, but there are no better sermons. And if it be said that sermons may be found in stones, but ought not to be in sonnets, I fall back upon the fact which Mr. Arnold himself so cheerfully admitted, that the middle classes, who in England, at all events, are Mr. Arnold's chief readers, are serious, and love sermons. Some day perhaps they will be content with metrical exercises, ballades, and roundels.


'EAST LONDON

''Twas August, and the fierce sun overhead
Smote on the squalid streets of Bethnal Green,
And the pale weaver, through his windows seen
In Spitalfields, look'd thrice dispirited.

'I met a preacher there I knew, and said:
"Ill and o'erwork'd, how fare you in this scene?"
"Bravely!" said he; "for I of late have been
Much cheer'd with thoughts of Christ, the living bread."

'O human soul! as long as thou canst so
Set up a mark of everlasting light,
Above the howling senses' ebb and flow,
To cheer thee, and to right thee if thou roam--
Not with lost toil thou labourest through the night!
Thou mak'st the heaven thou hop'st indeed thy home.'

'THE BETTER PART

'Long fed on boundless hopes, O race of man,
How angrily thou spurn'st all simpler fare!
"Christ," some one says, "was human as we are;
No judge eyes us from Heaven, our sin to scan;

'"We live no more, when we have done our span."--
"Well, then, for Christ," thou answerest, "who can care?
From Sin, which Heaven records not, why forbear?
Live we like brutes our life without a plan!"

'So answerest thou; but why not rather say:
"Hath man no second life?--Pitch this one high!
Sits there no judge in Heaven, our sin to see?

'"More strictly, then, the inward judge obey!
Was Christ a man like us?--Ah! let us try
If we then, too, can be such men as he!
"'


Mr. Arnold's love of nature, and poetic treatment of nature, was to many a vexed soul a great joy and an intense relief. Mr. Arnold was a genuine Wordsworthian--being able to read everything Wordsworth ever wrote except Vaudracour and Julia. The influence of Wordsworth upon him was immense, but he was enabled, by the order of his mind, to reject with the heartiest goodwill the cloudy pantheism which robs so much of Wordsworth's best verse of the heightened charm of reality, for, after all, poetry, like religion, must be true, or it is nothing. This strong aversion to the unreal also prevented Mr. Arnold, despite his love of the classical forms, from a nonsensical neo-paganism. His was a manlier attitude. He had no desire to keep tugging at the dry breasts of an outworn creed, nor any disposition to go down on his knees, or hunkers as the Scotch more humorously call them, before plaster casts of Venus, or even of 'Proteus rising from the sea.' There was something very refreshing about this. In the long run even a gloomy truth is better company than a cheerful falsehood. The perpetual strain of living down to a lie, the depressing atmosphere of a circumscribed intelligence tell upon the system, and the cheerful falsehood soon begins to look puffy and dissipated.

  'THE YOUTH OF NATURE.

'For, oh! is it you, is it you,
Moonlight, and shadow, and lake,
And mountains, that fill us with joy,
Or the poet who sings you so well?
. . . . . . .
. . . . . . .
More than the singer are these
. . . . . . .
. . . . . . .
Yourselves and your fellows ye know not; and me,
The mateless, the one, will ye know?
Will ye scan me, and read me, and tell
Of the thoughts that ferment in my breast,
My longing, my sadness, my joy?
Will ye claim for your great ones the gift
To have rendered the gleam of my skies,
To have echoed the moan of my seas,
Uttered the voice of my hills?
When your great ones depart, will ye say:
All things have suffered a loss,
Nature is hid in their grave?

Race after race, man after man,
Have thought that my secret was theirs,
Have dream'd that I lived but for them,
That they were my glory and joy.
They are dust, they are changed, they are gone!
I remain.'


When a poet is dead we turn to his verse with quickened feelings. He rests from his labours. We still

'Stem across the sea of life by night,'

and the voice, once the voice of the living, of one who stood by our side, has for a while an unfamiliar accent, coming to us as it does no longer from our friendly earth but from the strange cold caverns of death.


'Joy comes and goes, hope ebbs and flows
Like the wave,
Change doth unknit the tranquil strength of men.
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 graves with bitter tears
For their dead hopes; and all,
Mazed with doubts and sick with fears,
Count the hours.

'We count the hours! These dreams of ours,
False and hollow,
Do we go hence and find they are not dead?
Joys we dimly apprehend,
Faces that smiled and fled,
Hopes born here, and born to end,
Shall we follow?'


In a poem like this Mr. Arnold is seen at his best; he fairly forces himself into the very front ranks. In form almost equal to Shelley, or at any rate not so very far behind him, whilst of course in reality, in wholesome thought, in the pleasures that are afforded by thinking, it is of incomparable excellence.

We die as we do, not as we would. Yet on reading again Mr. Arnold's Wish, we feel that the manner of his death was much to his mind.


'A WISH.

'I ask not that my bed of death
From bands of greedy heirs be free:
For these besiege the latest breath
Of fortune's favoured sons, not me.

'I ask not each kind soul to keep
Tearless, when of my death he hears.
Let those who will, if any--weep!
There are worse plagues on earth than tears.

'I ask but that my death may find
The freedom to my life denied;
Ask but the folly of mankind
Then--then at last to quit my side.

'Spare me the whispering, crowded room,
The friends who come, and gape, and go;
The ceremonious air of gloom--
All, which makes death a hideous show!

'Nor bring to see me cease to live
Some doctor full of phrase and fame
To shake his sapient head and give
The ill he cannot cure a name.

'Nor fetch to take the accustom'd toll
Of the poor sinner bound for death
His brother-doctor of the soul
To canvass with official breath

'The future and its viewless things--
That undiscover'd mystery
Which one who feels death's winnowing wings
Must needs read clearer, sure, than he!

'Bring none of these; but let me be
While all around in silence lies,
Moved to the window near, and see
Once more before my dying eyes,

'Bathed in the sacred dews of morn
The wide aerial landscape spread--
The world which was ere I was born,
The world which lasts when I am dead.

'Which never was the friend of one,
Nor promised love it could not give,
But lit for all its generous sun
And lived itself and made us live.

'Then let me gaze--till I become
In soul, with what I gaze on, wed!
To feel the universe my home;
To have before my mind--instead

'Of the sick room, the mortal strife,
The turmoil for a little breath--
The pure eternal course of life,
Not human combatings with death!

'Thus feeling, gazing, let me grow
Composed, refresh'd, ennobled, clear--
Then willing let my spirit go
To work or wait, elsewhere or here!'


To turn from Arnold's poetry to his theological writings--if so grim a name can be given to these productions--from Rugby Chapel to Literature and Dogma, from Obermann to God and the Bible, from Empedocles on Etna to St. Paul and Protestantism, is to descend from the lofty table-lands,


'From the dragon-warder'd fountains
Where the springs of knowledge are,
From the watchers on the mountains
And the bright and morning star,'


to the dusty highroad. It cannot, I think, be asserted that either the plan or the style of these books was in keeping with their subjects. It was characteristic of Mr. Arnold, and like his practical turn of mind, to begin Literature and Dogma in the Cornhill Magazine. A book rarely shakes off the first draft--Literature and Dogma never did. It is full of repetitions and wearisome recapitulations, well enough in a magazine where each issue is sure to be read by many who will never see another number, but which disfigure a book. The style is likewise too jaunty. Bantering the Trinity is not yet a recognised English pastime. Bishop-baiting is, but this notwithstanding, most readers of Literature and Dogma grew tired of the Bishop of Gloucester and Bristol and of his alleged desire to do something for the honour of the Godhead, long before Mr. Arnold showed any signs of weariness. But making all these abatements, and fully admitting that Literature and Dogma is not likely to prove permanently interesting to the English reader, it must be pronounced a most valuable and useful book, and one to which the professional critics and philosophers never did justice. The object of Literature and Dogma was no less than the restoration of the use of the Bible to the sceptical laity. It was a noble object, and it was in a great measure, as thousands of quiet people could testify, attained. It was not a philosophical treatise. In its own way it was the same kind of thing as many of Cardinal Newman's writings. It started with an assumption, namely, that it is impossible to believe in the miracles recorded in the Old and New Testaments. There is no laborious attempt to distinguish between one miracle and another, or to lighten the burden of faith in any particular. Nor is any serious attempt made to disprove miracles. Mr. Arnold did not write for those who find no difficulty in believing in the first chapter of St. Luke's gospel, or the sixteenth chapter of St. Mark's, but for those who simply cannot believe a word of either the one chapter or the other. Mr. Arnold knew well that this inability to believe is apt to generate in the mind of the unbeliever an almost physical repulsion to open books which are full of supernatural events. Mr. Arnold knew this and lamented it. His own love of the Bible was genuine and intense. He could read even Jeremiah and Habakkuk. As he loved Homer with one side of him, so he loved the Bible with the other. He saw how men were crippled and maimed through growing up in ignorance of it, and living all the days of their lives outside its influence. He longed to restore it to them, to satisfy them that its place in the mind of man--that its educational and moral power was not due to the miracles it records nor to the dogmas that Catholics have developed or Calvanists extracted from its pages, but to its literary excellence and to the glow and enthusiasm it has shed over conduct, self-sacrifice, humanity, and holy living. It was at all events a worthy object and a most courageous task. It exposed him to a heavy cross-fire. The Orthodox fell upon his book and abused it, unrestrainedly abused it for its familiar handling of their sacred books. They almost grudged Mr. Arnold his great acquaintance with the Bible, just as an Englishman might be annoyed at finding Moltke acquainted with all the roads from Dover to London. This feeling was natural, and on the whole I think it creditable to the orthodox party that a book so needlessly pain-giving as Literature and Dogma did not goad them into any personal abuse of its author. But they could not away with the book. Nor did the philosophical sceptic like it much better. The philosophical sceptic is too apt to hate the Bible, even as the devil was reported to hate holy water. Its spirit condemns him. Its devout, heart-stirring, noble language creates an atmosphere which is deadly for pragmatic egotism. To make men once more careful students of the Bible was to deal a blow at materialism, and consequently was not easily forgiven. 'Why can't you leave the Bible alone?' they grumbled--'What have we to do with it?' But Pharisees and Sadducees do not exhaust mankind, and Mr. Arnold's contributions to the religious controversies of his time were very far from the barren things that are most contributions, and indeed most controversies on such subjects. I believe I am right when I say that he induced a very large number of persons to take up again and make a daily study of the books both of the Old and the New Testament.

As a literary critic Mr. Arnold had at one time a great vogue. His Essays in Criticism, first published in 1865, made him known to a larger public than his poems or his delightful lectures on translating Homer had succeeded in doing. He had the happy knack of starting interesting subjects and saying all sorts of interesting things by the way. There was the French Academy. Would it be a good thing to have an English Academy? He started the question himself and answered it in the negative. The public took it out of his mouth and proceeded to discuss it for itself, always on the assumption that he had answered it in the affirmative. But that is the way with the public. No sensible man minds it. To set something going is the most anybody can hope to do in this world. Where it will go to, and what sort of moss it will gather as it goes, for despite the proverb there is nothing incompatible between moss and motion, no one can say. In this volume, too, he struck the note, so frequently and usefully repeated, of self-dissatisfaction. To make us dissatisfied with ourselves, alive to our own inferiority, not absolute but in important respects, to check the chorus, then so loud, of self-approval of our majestic selves--to make us understand why nobody who is not an Englishman wants to be one, this was another of the tasks of this militant man. We all remember how Wragg(6) is in custody. The papers on Heine and Spinoza and Marcus Aurelius were read with eagerness, with an enjoyment, with a sense of widening horizons too rare to be easily forgotten. They were light and graceful, but it would I think be unjust to call them slender. They were not written for specialists or even for students, but for ordinary men and women, particularly for young men and women, who carried away with them from the reading of Essays in Criticism something they could not have found anywhere else and which remained with them for the rest of their days, namely, a way of looking at things. A perfectly safe critic Mr. Arnold hardly was. Even in this volume he fusses too much about the De Guérins. To some later judgments of his it would be unkind to refer. It was said of the late Lord Justice Mellish by Lord Cairns that he went right instinctively. That is, he did not flounder into truth. Mr. Arnold never floundered, but he sometimes fell. A more delightful critic of literature we have not had for long. What pleasant reading are his Lectures on Translating Homer, which ought to be at once reprinted. How full of good things! Not perhaps fit to be torn from their contexts, or paraded in a commonplace book, but of the kind which give a reader joy--which make literature tempting--which revive, even in dull middle-age, something of the enthusiasm of the love-stricken boy. Then, too, his Study of Celtic Literature. It does not matter much whether you can bring yourself to believe in the Eisteddfod or not. In fact Mr. Arnold did not believe in it. He knew perfectly well that better poetry is to be found every week in the poet's corner of every county newspaper in England than is produced annually at the Eisteddfod. You need not even share Mr. Arnold's opinion as to the inherent value of Celtic Literature, though this is of course a grave question, worthy of all consideration--but his Study is good enough to be read for love. It is full of charming criticism. Most critics are such savages--or if they are not savages, they are full of fantasies, and are capable at any moment of calling Tom Jones dull, or Sydney Smith a bore. Mr. Arnold was not a savage, and could no more have called Tom Jones dull or Sydney Smith a bore, than Homer heavy or Milton vulgar. He was no gloomy specialist. He knew it took all sorts to make a world. He was alive to life. Its great movement fascinated him, even as it had done Burke, even as it did Cardinal Newman. He watched the rushing stream, the 'stir of existence,' the good and the bad, the false and the true, with an interest that never flagged. In his last words on translating Homer he says: 'And thus false tendency as well as true, vain effort as well as fruitful, go together to produce that great movement of life, to present that immense and magic spectacle of human affairs, which from boyhood to old age fascinates the gaze of every man of imagination, and which would be his terror if it were not at the same time his delight.'


FOOTNOTE:

(6) See Essays in Criticism, p. 23.


Mr. Arnold never succeeded in getting his countrymen to take him seriously as a practical politician. He was regarded as an unauthorised practitioner whose prescriptions no respectable chemist would consent to make up. He had not the diploma of Parliament, nor was he able, like the Secretary of an Early Closing Association, to assure any political aspirant that he commanded enough votes to turn an election. When Mr. John Morley took occasion after Mr. Arnold's death to refer to him in Parliament, the name was received respectfully but coldly. And yet he was eager about politics, and had much to say about political questions. His work in these respects was far from futile. What he said was never inept. It coloured men's thoughts, and contributed to the formation of their opinions far more than even public meetings. His introduction to his Report on Popular Education in France, published in 1861, is as instructive a piece of writing as is to be found in any historical disquisition of the last three decades. The paper on 'My Countrymen' in that most amusing book Friendship's Garland (which ought also to be at once reprinted) is full of point.

* * * * *

But it is time to stop. It is only possible to stop where we began. Matthew Arnold is dead. He would have been the last man to expect anyone to grow hysterical over the circumstance, and the first to denounce any strained emotion. Il n'y a pas d'homme nécessaire. No one ever grasped this great, this comforting, this cooling, this self-destroying truth more cordially than he did. As I write the words, I remember how he employed them in his preface to the second edition of Essays in Criticism, where he records a conversation, I doubt not an imaginary one, between himself and a portly jeweller from Cheapside--his fellow-traveller on the Woodford branch of the Great Eastern line. The traveller was greatly perturbed in his mind by the murder then lately perpetrated in a railway carriage by the notorious Müller. Mr. Arnold plied him with consolation. 'Suppose the worst to happen,' I said, 'suppose even yourself to be the victim--il n'y a pas d'homme nécessaire--we should miss you for a day or two on the Woodford Branch, but the great mundane movement would still go on, the gravel walks of your villa would still be rolled, dividends would still be paid at the bank, omnibuses would still run, there would still be the old crush at the corner of Fenchurch Street.'

And so it proves for all--for portly jewellers and lovely poets.


'The Pillar still broods o'er the fields
Which border Ennerdale Lake,
And Egremont sleeps by the sea--
Nature is fresh as of old,
Is lovely; a mortal is dead.'


II

Lord Byron's antipathies were, as a rule, founded on some sound human basis, and it may well be that he was quite right for hating an author who was all author and nothing else. He could not have hated Matthew Arnold on that score, at all events, though perhaps he might have found some other ground for gratifying a feeling very dear to his heart. Mr. Arnold was many other things as well as a poet, so many other things that we need sometimes to be reminded that he was a poet. He allowed himself to be distracted in a variety of ways, he poured himself out in many strifes; though not exactly eager, he was certainly active. He discoursed on numberless themes, and was interested in many things of the kind usually called 'topics.'

Personally, we cannot force ourselves to bewail his agility, this leaping from bough to bough of the tree of talk and discussion. It argues an interest in things, a wide-eyed curiosity. If you find yourself in a village fair you do well to examine the booths, and when you bring your purchases home, the domestic authority will be wise not to scan too severely the trivial wares never meant to please a critical taste or to last a lifetime. Mr. Arnold certainly brought home some very queer things from his village fair, and was perhaps too fond of taking them for the texts of his occasional discourses. But others must find fault, we cannot. There is a pleasant ripple of life through Mr. Arnold's prose writings. His judgments are human judgments. He did not care for strange, out-of-the-way things; he had no odd tastes. He drank wine, so he once said, because he liked it--good wine, that is. And it was the same with poetry and books. He liked to understand what he admired, and the longer it took him to understand anything the less disposed he was to like it. Plain things suited him best. What he hated most was the far-fetched. He had the greatest respect for Mr. Browning, and was a sincere admirer of much of his poetry, but he never made the faintest attempt to read any of the poet's later volumes. The reason probably was that he could not be bothered. Hazlitt, in a fine passage descriptive of the character of a scholar, says: 'Such a one lives all his life in a dream of learning, and has never once had his sleep broken by a real sense of things.' Mr. Arnold had a real sense of things. The writings of such a man could hardly fail to be interesting, whatever they might be about, even the burial of Dissenters or the cock of a nobleman's hat.

But for all that we are of those who, when we name the name of Arnold, mean neither the head-master of Rugby nor the author of Culture and Anarchy and Literature and Dogma, but the poet who sang, not, indeed, with Wordsworth, 'The wonder and bloom of the world,' but a severer, still more truthful strain, a life whose secret is not joy, but peace.

Standing on this high breezy ground, we are not disposed to concede anything to the enemy, unless, indeed, it be one somewhat ill-defended outpost connected with metre. The poet's ear might have been a little nicer. Had it been so, he would have spared his readers an occasional jar and a panegyric on Lord Byron's poetry. There are, we know, those who regard this outpost we have so lightly abandoned as the citadel. These rhyming gentry scout what Arnold called the terrible sentence passed on a French poet--il dit tout ce qu'il veut, mais malheureusement il n'a rien à dire. They see nothing terrible in a sentence which does but condemn them to nakedness. Thought is cumbersome. You skip best with nothing on. But the sober-minded English people are not the countrymen of Milton and Cowper, of Crabbe and Wordsworth, for nothing. They like poetry to be serious. We are fond of sermons. We may quarrel with the vicar's five-and-twenty minutes, but we let Carlyle go on for twice as many years, and until he had filled thirty-four octavo volumes.

The fact is that, though Arnold was fond of girding at the Hebrew in us, and used to quote his own Christian name with humorous resignation as only an instance of the sort of thing he had to put up with, he was a Puritan at heart, and would have been as ill at ease at a Greek festival as Newman at a Spanish auto da fé.

What gives Arnold's verse its especial charm is his grave and manly sincerity. He is a poet without artifice or sham. He does not pretend to find all sorts of meanings in all sorts of things. He does not manipulate the universe and present his readers with any bottled elixir. This has been cast up against him as a reproach. His poetry, so we have been told, has no consolation in it. Here is a doctor, it is said, who makes up no drugs, a poet who does not proclaim that he sees God in the avalanche or hears Him in the thunder. The world will not, so we are assured, hang upon the lips of one who bids them not to be too sure that the winds are wailing man's secret to the complaining sea, or that nature is nothing but a theme for poets. These people may be right. In any event it is unwise to prophesy. What will be, will be. Nobody can wish to be proved wrong. It is best to be on the side of truth, whatever the truth may be. The real atheism is to say, as men are found to do, that they would sooner be convicted of error they think pleasing, than have recognised an unwelcome truth a moment earlier than its final demonstration, if, indeed, such a moment should ever arrive for souls so craven. In the meantime, this much is plain, that there is no consolation in non-coincidence with fact, and no sweetness which does not chime with experience. Therefore, those who have derived consolation from Mr. Arnold's noble verse may take comfort. Religion, after all, observes Bishop Butler in his tremendous way, is nothing if it is not true. The same may be said of the poetry of consolation.

The pleasure it is lawful to take in the truthfulness of Mr. Arnold's poetry should not be allowed to lead his lovers into the pleasant paths of exaggeration. The Muses dealt him out their gifts with a somewhat niggardly hand. He had to cultivate his Sparta. No one of his admirers can assert that in Arnold


'The force of energy is found,
And the sense rises on the wings of sound.'


He is no builder of the lofty rhyme. This he was well aware of. But neither had he any ample measure of those 'winged fancies' which wander at will through the pages of Apollo's favourite children. His strange indifference to Shelley, his severity towards Keats, his lively sense of the wantonness of Shakespeare and the Elizabethans, incline us to the belief that he was not quite sensible of the advantages of a fruitful as compared with a barren soil. His own crop took a good deal of raising, and he was perhaps somewhat disposed to regard luxuriant growths with disfavour.

But though severe and restricted, and without either grandeur or fancy, Arnold's poetry is most companionable. It never teases you--there he has the better of Shelley--or surfeits you--there he prevails over Keats. As a poet, we would never dare or wish to class him with either Shelley or Keats, but as a companion to slip in your pocket before starting to spend the day amid

'The cheerful silence of the fells,'

you may search far before you find anything better than either of the two volumes of Mr. Arnold's poems.

His own enjoyment of the open air is made plain in his poetry. It is no borrowed rapture, no mere bookish man's clumsy joy in escaping from his library, but an enjoyment as hearty and honest as Izaak Walton's. He has a quick eye for things, and rests upon them with a quiet satisfaction. No need to give instances; they will occur to all. Sights and sounds alike pleased him well. So obviously genuine, so real, though so quiet, was his pleasure in our English lanes and dells, that it is still difficult to realise that his feet can no longer stir the cowslips or his ear hear the cuckoo's parting cry.

Amidst the melancholy of his verse, we detect deep human enjoyment and an honest human endeavour to do the best he could whilst here below. The best he could do was, in our opinion, his verse, and it is a comfort, amidst the wreckage of life, to believe he made the most of his gift, cultivating it wisely and well, and enriching man's life with some sober, serious, and beautiful poetry. We are, indeed, glad to notice that there is to be a new edition of Mr. Arnold's poems in one volume. It will, we are afraid, be too stout for the pocket, but most of its contents will be well worth lodgment in the head. This new edition will, we have no doubt whatever, immensely increase the number of men and women who own the charm of Arnold. The times are ripening for his poetry, which is full of foretastes of the morrow. As we read we are not carried back by the reflection, 'so men once thought,' but rather forward along the paths, dim and perilous it may be, but still the paths mankind is destined to tread. Truthful, sober, severe, with a capacity for deep, if placid, enjoyment of the pageant of the world, and a quick eye for its varied sights and an eager ear for its delightful sounds, Matthew Arnold is a poet whose limitations we may admit without denying his right. Our passion for him is a loyal passion for a most temperate king. There is an effort on his brow, we must admit it. It would never do to mistake his poetry for what he called the best, and which he was ever urging upon a sluggish populace. It intellectualises far too much; its method is a known method, not a magical one. But though effort may be on his brow, it is a noble effort and has had a noble result.


'For most men in a brazen prison live,
Where in the sun's hot eye,
With heads bent o'er their toil, they languidly
Their lives to some unmeaning task-work give,
Dreaming of nought beyond their prison wall.
And as, year after year,
Fresh products of their barren labour fall
From their tired hands, and rest
Never yet comes more near,
Gloom settles slowly down over their breast;
And while they try to stem
The waves of mournful thought by which they are prest,
Death in their prison reaches them
Unfreed, having seen nothing, still unblest.'


Or if not a slave he is a madman, sailing where he will on the wild ocean of life.


'And then the tempest strikes him, and between
The lightning bursts is seen
Only a driving wreck.
And the pale master on his spar-strewn deck,
With anguished face and flying hair,
Grasping the rudder hard,
Still bent to make some port he knows not where,
Still standing for some false impossible shore;

And sterner comes the roar
Of sea and wind, and through the deepening gloom
Fainter and fainter wreck and helmsman loom,
And he too disappears and comes no more.'


To be neither a rebel nor a slave is the burden of much of Mr. Arnold's verse--his song we cannot call it. It will be long before men cease to read their Arnold; even the rebel or the slave will occasionally find a moment for so doing, and when he does it may be written of him:


'And then arrives a lull in the hot race
Wherein he doth for ever chase
That flying and illusive shadow Rest.
An air of coolness plays upon his face,
And an unwonted calm pervades his breast,
And then he thinks he knows
The hills where his life rose
And the sea where it goes.'


(The end)
Augustine Birrell's essay: Matthew Arnold

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