Matthew Arnold felt permanently displaced in the world in which he lived, impatient with the cultural and social inadequacies of the recent past yet unable to reconcile himself with the self-confidence and materialism of the present and probable future. He saw the Victorian age as having shaken off the reality but not yet the mind set of the past, as championing national complacency at the expense of criticism, stifling individualism and creativity, and thus without a great culture of it’s own. His alienation from the age in which he lived, exacerbated by both self doubt and the general disintegration of universal certainties, led him to produce not only poetry but a wide range of critical material dealing with the function of literature and of criticism itself, the administration and purpose of education, the nature of faith and the role of culture in modern society.
Arnold’s critical mind led him to define the feeling of alienation from the age that only vaguely pervades the work of other contemporary authors such as Tennyson and Browning as a general sense of faint unease. The quotation of the title comes from a poem Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse1 in which the poet visits the monastery, despite his profound lack of faith, because he feels that, like him, their beliefs separate them from the modern world and ultimately doom them both to irrelevance and extinction, as seen here in lines 109-112
But -if you cannot give us ease-
Last of the race of them who grieve
Here leave us to die out with these
Last of the people who believe!.
He feels that he must escape modern life in order to be able to think freely again, suggesting Arnold’s view that the spirit of the age impeded individual philosophising, as seen in lines 93-96
Take me cowl’d forms, and fence me round
Till I possess my soul again;
Till free my thoughts before me roll,
Not chafed by hourly false control!
where his ideas seem to have been checked by the industrial efficiency and mass uniformity of Victorian Britain. He senses that his is a dying point of view and compares it to the beliefs of the long gone Hellenic civilisation that
he idealised in line 81. Matthew Arnold visited this seven hundred-year-old foundation in 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition that celebrated the new age of machinery and industrialisation, presenting us with an interesting illustration of the clash between his priorities and those of the period. Robert Giddings sees Chartreuse as Arnold’s ‘rock of certainty in a crumbling world’2, although I think that he was very aware that it was a rock which was becoming increasingly less certain in such a faithless, transient and self concerned world.
Arnold’s personal sense of isolation in refusing to compromise with the spirit of the Victorian era is very evident in much of his work. Much of his poetry features solitary protagonists, for example Empedocles in Empedocles on Etna, The Scholar-Gipsy, The Forsaken Merman and the voice in Stanzas in Memory of the Author of ‘Obermann’ all seem to represent in some way their creator’s essential loneliness in his own time. The repeated use of gipsies, which appear not only in The Scholar Gipsy but also in Resignation and To a Gipsy Child by the Sea-shore, seems to emphasise this sense of a rejection of an alien society. The gipsy child in the last is so cut off from human contact that even the most basic bond of blood is questioned
From thine own mother’s breast, that knows not thee; (line14-15)
yet the glance the poet exchanges with him seems imbued with sympathy, as if Arnold can relate to this detachment, if not the child’s calm sorrow and stoic acceptance of his isolation. Mycerinus also exhibits this same lonely stoicism, resigned to the ‘stern sentence of the Powers of Destiny’ he cuts himself off from the world after disillusionment with the gods and their judgement, taking comfort from his own inner peace.
In poems such as Mycerinus and The Forsaken Merman Arnold deliberately distances himself from the situations, emotions and characters by using an alien setting yet the parallels are clear. The Merman pining over his lost love is perhaps a metaphorical representation of the poet’s passion for ‘Marguerite’ combined with the knowledge of their spiritual incompatibility. Arnold believed that real human attachment was impossible in a false society built on the suppression of the individual will, and the problems of love in a modern age are explored in the Marguerite series of poems, which are also his most subjective comments on his own detachment. In Isolation. To Marguerite the poet abandons all hope of gaining complete fulfilment through union with another
The heart can bind itself alone,
And faith may oft be unreturn’d. (line 9)
yet throughout the relationship is viewed in completely internalised terms as the poet struggles with his fear that submission to love and the irrational, uncontrollable world of the senses will impair his inner unity and power of self direction. In this way Marguerite is less a real woman than a symbol of modern love, and indeed the difficulties inherent in any kind of true communication with other individuals ‘We mortal millions live alone’ (To Marguerite -Continued, line 4).
Arnold does not only feel alienated from relationships with others but
from any kind of higher power, whether religious or in the sense of human affinity with nature. Dover Beach encapsulates the lonely vastness of a world without the traditional refuge of faith, and the failure of religion as an informing principle for modern life
…for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams…
…Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight
Where ignorant armies clash by night.. (lines 30-37)
The image at the end of this extract represents the disorder of a generation who had the security of the Christian faith that had underpinned life for sixteen hundred years ripped from them. This raised questions about what, if anything, we can be certain of, yet at the time the shock was such that any answers seemed unconvincing replacements for unquestioning faith. Science had undermined Christianity but Britain was not yet able to fully accept and fill the chasm it had left in society and ideas. Arnold was not able to compensate by elevating nature to a position of control and interaction with mankind, for he saw a sharp division between humanity and the natural world, as in lines 12 and 13 of In Harmony with Nature
Man must begin, know this, where Nature ends;
Nature and man can never be fast friends..
Nature functions without any human intervention and to try to connect us to it is to confuse two separate planes of existence.
Arnold not only saw humanity as between two worlds in terms of belief, but also in the sphere of culture. In his 1864 essay The Function of Criticism at the Present Time he outlined the idea that England will not see a golden age of creativity and culture unless it sheds the self satisfied complacency of its arts and even its science, history and philosophy and makes an effort ‘to see the object as in itself it really is’. He believed that this critical atmosphere would in turn produce an intellectual climate that would feed the creative power, one where the best ideas would prevail through close examination and filter down through society, and advocated such a culture to enlist the whole nature of man in opposition to the Zeitgeist he saw as stifling individual thinking and therefore great art.
Arnold admitted that ‘the critical power is of a lower rank than the creative’ but argued that a man may exercise creativity in other ways than the production of great art, otherwise the vast majority would be excluded from this ‘true happiness’ , and also that if the material conditions of the time were not right a man could labour in vain in attempting to produce a great work of literature, and thus would be more gainfully employed in criticism to shape the world in preparation for a ‘master work’.
Britain was seen to be entering an ‘epoch of expansion’, in spite of the ‘brutalising influence’ of rapid material progress, and Arnold hoped that this would lead to an era of intellectual greatness. This depended however on the emergence of a disinterested criticism, unimpaired by political or practical aims, created by free minds allowed to run unchecked. Only then will criticism achieve its spiritual aim to lead men towards beauty and perfection so that creativity might be stimulated. He believed that the burst of creative activity at the beginning of the nineteenth century, involving such poets as Shelley and Byron, had been premature, as the poets had the necessary creative energy but were without sufficient knowledge, hindered by the lack of an inspiring, elevating intellectual climate to sustain their skills. Thus it is apparent that Arnold saw British culture as between two intellectual phases, having moved out of the politicised ‘epoch of concentration’ epitomised by the writings of Burke but unable to truly enter the intellectual ‘epoch of expansion’ until a culture of detached criticism was developed.
Politically and socially Britain was also in a state of limbo with an ever growing urban working class, the rise of Chartism and the subsequent expansion of the franchise in 1867. Arnold, a firm believer in the virtues of social order, was worried that this modern spirit had entirely dissolved any respect for this age old hierarchy and that the new found liberty would lead to anarchy
‘this and that man, and this and that body of men, all over the country, are beginning to assert and put in practice and Englishman’s right to do what he likes; his right to march where he likes, meet where he likes, enter where he likes, hoot as he likes, threaten as he likes, smash as he likes.’3.
The demonstrations in the mid 1860s for the extension of the franchise seemed to Arnold, as to many of his contemporaries, to signify a more general breakdown of social rules which would almost inevitably be followed by the collapse of society into barbarism. He proposed culture as a solution, believing it would bring with it social harmony and respect for civilisation, and reduce the possibility of public disorder by the very authority of it’s views, produced as they would be by the ‘disinterested pursuit of perfection’ 4 that is criticism, rather than by self interest.
As a School Inspector Arnold was well placed to participate in this civilisation of the dangerous working classes before they could threaten society seriously. Poetry was his main weapon, full of edifying and uplifting sentiments to impress upon the character of the young and remain in their heads throughout their lives to remind them of all that is noble in life
‘Good poetry does undoubtedly tend to form the soul and character; it tends to beget a love of beauty and truth…it suggests…high and noble principles of action and inspires the emotion so helpful in making principles operative.’5.
A cultivated elite from the rising middle class were to govern this new order with the help of schooling in the well organised and coherent society and literature of the ancient Greeks in order to suggest the ‘greatness and…noble spirit, which the tone of these classes is not itself at present adequate to impart’6. He believed that by forcing pious, moral poetry into the heads of the lower classes and Hellenising the education of the middle classes, this new, democratic society would become just as obediently harmonious as the old order, yet infinitely more cultured and conducive to the emergence of an ‘epoch of expansion’.
The gradual detachment evident in Arnold’s poetry shows a dedication to his art and ideas, as he isolates himself ever further not only from the spirit of the age, but also from those parts of him which seemed to concur with it; the settings of the poems become far less immediate to the author or reader, and there are no more works as personal and subjective as the Marguerite series. In looking back to Hellenic civilisation for a model of social and cultural order he was caught between the glories of the dead past and his yet unrealised hopes for the future, for he saw the ideal modern spirit as that critical mind set which refused to accept things on authority, and recognised the ancient Greeks as much closer to that ideal than the English had ever been.
He felt that Victorian society had rejected true values from the past such as critical objectivity, but he hoped that the future might be rescued from ruin by a reorganisation of education and culture along critical lines so that the country might move from this strange state of fragmentation and uncertainty into a new age of social and cultural coherence.