THE POETIC PLACE OF MATTHEW ARNOLD.
MR. ARNOLD has just put forth a most fascinating little volume of selections* from his own poems,—with an ex- quisitely embellished title-page—and printed in the clearest possible print. Such a selection marks a certain maturity of stage in a poet's life and development, and reminds us that Mr. Arnold has really been so long familiar to us, that it is no longer difficult to form some estimate of what he has done, or even of what relative place he occupies, in our minds, among the other English poets.
What strikes one first about Mr. Arnold is that he, more
perhaps than any poet who has ever used the English language, is a poet of precision. His language is chosen with the purity of taste and purity of feeling to which Dr. Newman alone of other English writers had fully accustomed us. Nothing could be more different in many ways than the best poetry in the " Lyra Apostolica " and the best poetry in Matthew Arnold's volumes. Their tendency is, for the most part, opposite. Their subjects are usually very different. But in the finely-chiselled outline of the thought, in the delicate discrimination between the various asso- ciations carried by words, in the curious lucidity, often rising into lustre, of the expression, we know nothing like Matthew Arnold
outside the prose and poetry of Dr. Newman. Take Dr. Newman's marvellous description of David :—
" Twofold praise thou shalt attain, In royal court and battle-plain ; Then comes heart-ache, care, distress,
Blighted hope and loneliness; Wounds from friend and gifts from foe, Dizzied faith and guilt and woe ; Loftiest aims by earth defiled, Gleams of wisdom sin-beguiled, Sated Power's tyrannic mood, Counsels shared with men of blood, Sad success, parental tears, And a dreary gift of years."
There is no other poet, living or dead, for whose work, so far as we know, that verse might possibly, and without ignominious blun- dering, be mistaken by one who did not know its author, except Matthew Arnold. The nearest thing we know to this in Eng- lish poetry is Mr. Arnold's delineation of a very different figure, Goethe
" When Goethe's death was told, we said, Sunk, then, is Europe's sagest head.
Physician of the iron age, Goethe has done his pilgrimage.
He took the suffering human race, He read each wound, each weakness clear, And struck his finger on the place, And said, Thou ailest, here and here!
He looked on Europe's dying hour Of fitful dream and feverish power ; His eye plunged down the weltering strife,
The turmoil of expiring life,—
He said, The end is everywhere ; Art still has truth, take refuge there.
And he was happy, if to know Causes of things, and far below His feet to see the lurid How Of terror and insane distress And headlong fate, be happiness."
Or perhaps we might compare Dr. Newman's lines still more aptly to the picture of a physician of sick souls groping in vain for some remedy for spiritual decay and despair, in Mr. Arnold's beautiful poem, the "Scholar Gipsy." In speaking of those who await in vain " the spark from Heaven " which shall show them what to do, he wrote :— " Yes, we await it ! but it still delays,
And then we suffer ! and amongst us one, Who most has suffered, takes dejectedly His seat upon the intellectual throne; And all his store of sad experience he Lays bare of wretched days; Tells us his misery's birth and growth and signs, And how the dying spark of hope was fed, And how the breast was soothed, and how the head, And all his hourly varied anodynes."
In the predominance of language of precision, and yet language exquisitely pure and poetical, full of the light and air of poetry, Mr. Arnold has all the skill and delicacy and discriminating felicity of Dr. Newman.
But Mr. Arnold is not only a poetic sculptor in the exquisite clear-
ness of his outlines ; he is also a poetic water-colour painter of the purest school,—the school which regards what is technically called " body-colour " as a sin, and aims at making transparency of effect almost as important as truth of effect itself. Here Mr. Arnold reminds us of the poet Gray, who paints with the same lucid touch, though certainly with much less richness of impression. There is a good deal in Mr. Arnold's poetry which reminds us, in its style of colouring, more of the celebrated " Elegy in a Country Churchyard" than of any other English poem. But the differ- ence is, that Mr. Arnold is more original in his touches. Gray is full of beauty, but his pictures, both of humanity and of nature, are slightly conventional in their cast ; they are ex- quisitely painted, but painted without marking that the poet's mind has ranged beyond the common horizon, though it has got a far more than common command over the instruments for calling up in others what he sees vividly himself. It is otherwise with Mr. Arnold. He hardly ever paints a lovely scene without some phrase which adds to your knowledge of its charm. This verse, for instance, is like Gray in style, but a good deal above Gray in originality of painting :—
" But on the stairs what voice is this I hear, Buoyant as morning, and as morning clear ? Say, has some wet, bird-haunted English lawn Lent it the music of its trees at dawn? Or was it from some sun flecked mountain brook That the sweet voice its upland clearness took ?"
That is quite in Gray's style of painting, but the " wet, bird- haunted English lawn " is a touch too original and exquisite for Gray. As a painter in transparent water-colours, however, Mr. Arnold has perhaps never surpassed, though he has very often approached, the beauty of that contrast in " Thyrsis" between a stormy and a brilliant summer, which the June and July of the present year must have often recalled to Mr. Arnold's many
" So. some tempestuous morn in early Juno,
When the year's primal burst of bloom is o'er,
Before the roses and the longest day,—
When garden-walks and all the grassy floor With blossoms red and white of fallen May
And chestnut flowers are strewn,—
So have I beard the cuckoo's parting cry From the wet field through the vest garden trees, Come with the volleying rain and tossing breeze : The bloom is gone, and with the bloom go I.
Too quick despairer, wherefore wilt thou go? Soon will the high Midsummer pomps come on, Soon will the musk carnations break and swell, Soon shall we have gold snapdragon,
Sweet-William, with his homely cottage smell, And stocks in fragrant blow ; Roses that down the alleys shine afar, And open jasmine-muffled lattices, And groups under the dreaming garden trees, And the full moon, and the white evening star."
For purity and lustre of colour, that picture has never been sur-
passed in English verse. It takes up the style of Gray, gives it a freshness and originality not belonging to Gray, while keeping all his purity, coolness, and transparency. In finish, fastidious-
ness, and grace, Mr. Arnold is Gray's equal ; in buoyancy, fresh- ness, and lustre, greatly his superior.
Bat while in clearness and sharp definition of outline, and purity and delicacy of colour, Mr. Arnold has rarely been equalled by any of our English poets, it is, of course, to be understood that his subjects are limited to those which can be treated with so fine a pencil and so transparent a style as his. Thought is always uppermost in his mind. His observation itself is always tranquil and full of the definiteness of intellectual discrimination. He never breaks out into singing or wailing, like Shelley. He never masses his colours with the force and passion of Byron. He never mixes his effects with the lavish hand of Tennyson, so as almost to bewilder you with the multiplicity and variety of impressions. He keeps in
one stratum, the intellectual and reflective stratum, even in his nar- rative poems. He is animated by one predominating emotion, the emotion of a sort of grandiose spiritual compassion. So far as he has a clear affinity with any of the greater poets of England, it is obvious that his affinity is with Wordsworth ; and that, though he has not Wordsworth's rapture or Wordsworth's sublimity, he has learnt more from Wordsworth than from any other, while he has brought to the treatment of Wordsworth's themes a more deli- cate and tender workmanship, a greater richness and subtlety of intellect, a considerable narrative power of which Wordsworth can hardly be said to have possessed even the germs, and a much larger historical and philosophical horizon. Still, Wordsworth was and doubtless will continue to be recognised as a poet of much greater weight of natural genius, of far more hardy power,
of far deeper impulses. Mr. Arnold can hardly be called a true disciple of Wordsworth, deeply as he has drunk at the spring of Wordsworth's genius. It may be said of him that he has been fascinated and charmed by Wordsworth's thoughts, without being truly conquered by them ; that he has been diverted from his intellectual troubles by Wordsworth, but has failed to be consoled.
He says of Wordsworth, in the beautiful memorial verses trans- ferred to this little volume :--
"And Wordsworth l—ab, pale ghosts, rejoice, For never has such soothing voice Been to your shadowy world conveyed, Since erst at morn some wandering shade Heard the clear song of Orpheus come Through Hades and the mournful gloom.
" Wordsworth has gone from us,—and ye, Ah, may ye feel his voice as we He, too, upon a wintry clime Had fallen,—on this iron time Of doubts, disputes, distractions, fears. He found us when the age had bound Our souls in its benumbing round ;
He spoke, and loosed our hearts in tears. Ho laid us as we lay at birth, On the cool, flowery lap of earth : Smiles broke from us, and we had ease ; The lulls were round us, and the breeze Went o'er the sunlit fields again ; Our foreheads felt the wind and rain. Our youth return'd; for there was shed On spirits that bad long boon dead, Spirits dried up and closely furl'd, The freshness of the early world."
But that, eloquent as it is, is not the kind of way in which Words- worth himself would have wished to be commemorated. Ile would have regarded the faint classical hope expressed on behalf of the " pale ghosts " as utterly removed from the school of his hardy and humble, though buoyant faith. He would not have desired his poetry to be looked upon as an alleviation of human lots,—as a sweet interlude in the iron course of human destiny,—but rather as the announcement of one who had discerned with prophetic glance the ultimate divinity of this unintelligible world. Ile went about with deep exultation in his heart, not, like Mr. Arnold, with an exalted compassion and a serene fortitude. Where Wordsworth said rejoice,' Mr. Arnold says endure.' While Wordsworth's rapture was the rapture of illumination from the source of all Light, Mr. Arnold's is but an ambiguous and hesitating joy in the buoyancy of his own individual soul. The affinities of Mr. Arnold with Wordsworth, and the still graver contrasts between them, will not be adequately seen by the readers of this little volume of Selections' only. It is in such poems as " Resignation," " The Youth of Nature," and the two fine poems on the author of " Obermann," that Mr. Arnold's true philosophy,—his rejection
of Wordsworth,—his relegation of Wordsworth to the position of a poet who charms us chiefly by ignoring " the half of human fate," is to be found. Still, Mr. Arnold can never be understood by one who has not grasped his relation to Wordsworth, his deep delight in Wordsworth, his long study of him, and his fundamental rejection of him.
On the whole, we should say that Mr. Arnold will live in English literature as one who recalls Gray by his cool, pure, and delicate workmanship ; Newman by the severe and lucid sharpness of his outlines ; and who represents a sur- vival from the school of Wordsworth, having carried off from it a good deal of its habit of thought and buoyancy of feeling, while rejecting its main current of meditative faith. In the delineation of human passion, Mr. Arnold has limited himself almost to a single phase of it, but in the delineation of that phase he is supreme. No English poet ever painted so powerfully the straining of emotion against the reins of severe intellectual re- pression. In Mr. Arnold there is a deep love of excitement, and a deep fear of it, always struggling. Ile may be said to have gained his reputation as a poet by the vigour with which he paints the conflict.
"I staunch with ice my burning breast,
With silence balm my whirling brain,"
might almost be transferred from one of his poems to the title- page, as the motto of his whole poetry, both narrative and reflec- tive. As a selection of his poems for the popular taste, this little volume is ahnost perfect, with one exception. The " Sick King of Bokhara " should have been included. No poem of Mr. Arnold's is more perfectly characteristic, and no poem of his is likely to be more popular.