ARNOLD'S POEMS. *
Tins second series of Mr. Matthew Arnold's Poems consists en- tirely of pieces before published in his two original volumes, with the exception of a poem in blank verse called "Balder Dead, an Episode." We think he has done right to republish the smaller pieces in the volume, as they do not seem to us too far below his average level, and some of them—as, for instance, "The Youth of Nature," and "The Youth of Man "—are very characteristic, and among the best things he has written. He has too reconsidered
his previous verdict of suppression against " Empedocles on Etna," and has wisely preserved the songs of Callicles, which he now presents under the title of " The Harp-player of Etna " ; and very exquisite reproductions of Greek lyrical poetry they are—among the finest echoes from the old Parnassus that have ever visited and made vocal the modern lyre. Shelley or even Goethe might be proud to own three out of the four—" The Last Glen," " Mar- syas," and " Apollo " ; and their merit is felt more now that they are extricated from the long-winded and somewhat dreary and unintelligible soliloquies of Empedoeles. In "Balder Dead" Mr. Arnold shows the preference for a subject remote from daily life and human sympathies, which we combated last year, when it was put forward simply as a preference for the antique, and urged on the ground that ancient Greek le- gends were in reality of profounder human interest than the actions or feelings of contemporaries. Such a subject as Balder, the Scandinavian god, surely cannot be defended on the same ground. At least, if we may judge of the general taste by our own, we can feel nothing but an antiquarian and his- torical interest in a mythology that has passed away from among actual living creeds and motives of action, and has besides left but a scanty and obscure record of itself in literature. If Mr. Arnold were attempting to reproduce the old Scandinavian life, this my- thology would provide him with a machinery, and would become to a certain extent reanimated again for us through sympathy with the human heroes of the poem : but treated by itself, as that which we are to believe at least for the time we are reading, we confess to no power of rising to that amount or sort of interest in it which the subject of a poem ought to awaken. Whatever clear word- painting, a studied simplicity of language, a fine ear for the rhythm of blank verse, and complete identification with the subject un- broken by a single phrase of comment in his own character, can do for such a theme, Mr. Arnold has done. His poem has all the air of a thoroughly-felt study from Scandinavian antiquity. The pas- sage we subjoin is a description of the funeral of Balder.
"But when the Gods and Heroes heard, they .brought The wood to Balder's ship, and built a pile, Full the deck's breadth, and lofty ; then the corpse Of Balder on the highest top they laid, With .Nanna on his right, and on his left Iloder, his brother, whom his own hand slew. And they set jars of wine and oil to lean Against the bodies, and stuck torches near, Splinters of pine-wood, soak'd with turpentine ; And brought his arms and gold, and all his stuff, And slew the dogs which at his table fed, And his horse, Balder's horse, whom most he loved, And threw them on the pyre, and Odin threw A last choice gift thereon, his golden ring. They fixed the mast, and hoisted up the sails, Then they put fire to the wood ; and Thor Set his stout shoulder hard against the stern To push the ship through the thick sand : sparks flew From the deep trench she plough'd—so strong a God Furrow'd it—and the water gurgled in. And the ship floated on the waves, and rock'd : But in the hills a strong East-wind arose, And came down moaning to the sea ; first squalls Ran black o'er the sea's face, then steady rush'd The breeze, and &It'd the sails, and blew the fire ; And, wreathed in smoke, the ship stood out to sea.
• Poents by Matthew Arnold. Second Series. Published by Longman and Co.
Soon with a roaring rose the mighty fire ;
And the pile crackled ; and between the logs Sharp quivering tongues of flame shot out, and leapt, Curling and darting, higher, until they lick'd The summit of the pile, the dead, the mast, And ate the shrivelling sails; but still the Ship Drove on, ablaze, above her hull, with fire. And the Gods stood upon the beach, and gazed : And, while they gazed, the Sun went lurid down Into the smoke-wrapt sea, and Night came on. Then the wind fell, with night, and there was calm. But through the dark they watch'd the burning Ship Still carried o'er the distant waters on Farther and farther, like an Eye of Fire.
And as in the dark night a travelling man Who bivouacs in the forest 'mid the hills, Sees suddenly a spire of flame shoot up Out of the black waste forest, far below Which woodcutters have lighted near their lodge Against the wolves ; and all night long it flares ;- So flared, in the far darkness, Balder's pyre. But fainter, as the stars rose high, it buin'd ; The bodies were consumed, ash choked the pile : And as in a decaying winter fire A chared log, falling, makes a shower of sparks
So, with a shower of sparks, the pile fell in,
Reddening the sea around ; and all was dark."
Fine as this is, especially in its freedom from any overdoing, we only the more regret that Mr. Arnold cannot detect the elements of grandeur and beauty in the world of which his own life forms part. Affectation, unintelligibility, conceit, and rant, were never more rife than now among aspirants for poetic honours. Never was the public car more invaded by the horrid din of men who cannot write a page of sensible prose, who have not a healthy sentiment or a distinct thought, and yet—God help them and their unfortunate audience !—would " set their age to music." Howling idiotcy is rampant and loose upon our streets ; and WO cannot afford that a man so free from all these faults, at any rate, should weaken his influence by a selection of subjects which chills the sympathy of his readers.