Friday, May 15, 2009

Might, passion, vehemence, grief, daring - Baffled, unknown, self-consumed - Matthew Arnold and Emily Brontë

As he aged, Matthew Arnold wrote fewer poems. Many of those are memorial poems, culminating in the glorious trilogy "Geist's Grave" (1881), "Poor Matthias" (1882), and "Kaiser Dead" (1887). Geist was a dachshund, Matthias a canary, and Kaiser a dachshund-collie mix. These are not manuscript poems; they were all published, by England's greatest critic, in magazines.

"Poor Max, with downcast, reverent head,
Regards his brother's form outspread;
Full well Max knows the friend is dead
          Whose cordial talk
And jokes in doggish language said,
          Beguiled his walk."

These are the only Arnold poems that contain any evidence of a sense of humor. The poems are heartfelt, but the poet does see that they're a bit ridiculous.

Many of the elegies are among Arnold's best poems: "Memorial Verses" (1850), to Wordsworth; "Rugby Chapel" (1867), to his father, "Zealous, beneficent, firm!"; "Heine's Grave" (1867).

My favorite, or perhaps just the one that most surprised me, was "Haworth Churchyard" (1855), about when:

"I saw the meeting of two
Gifted women. The one,
Brilliant with recent renown,
Young, unpractised, had told
With a master's accent her feign'd
Story of passionate life" (7-12)

That's Charlotte Brontë, and the other woman is Harriet Martineau. A "feign'd \ Story of passionate life" - Arnold seems a little suspicious of fiction, doesn't he? But that description 's accurate, and not just of Jane Eyre.

Most of the poem fits the title - a tour of the Haworth churchyard - so when Arnold reaches Charlotte's graveside, he also sings the praises of Anne and Emily and even, rather gassily, of Branwell ("the child \ Of many hopes, of many tears"). Look how the rhetoric ramps up when he discusses a fellow poet:

"-and she
(How shall I sing her?) whose soul
Knew no fellow for might,
Passion, vehemence, grief,
Daring, since Byron died,
That world-famed son of fire - she, who sank
Baffled, unknown, self-consumed;
Whose too bold dying song
Stirr'd, like a clarion-blast, my soul." (92-100)

As with every line of Arnold I've mentioned here, as soon as I copy it out I want to edit it. Why do we need to drag Byron into this, for example? But overall this is meaningful, a recognition of the power of a poet of a very different breed than Matthew Arnold (Arnold definitely lacks vehemence and daring), like the scholar-gypsy another hero in his modern Pantheon.

I've been thinking, for a while, about trying to write about Emily Brontë's poems. Matthew Arnold has inspired me. I like her more than Arnold, but understand her even less. Next week, or part of it, I'll see if I have anything to say about this strange, difficult poet.


  1. Oh, I'm excited. I've never read any of her poetry. Poetry is a huge hole for me though. Actually been thinking about filling it lately.

  2. Her best poems are absolutely amazing. She saw the world differently than anyone else. But they are hard to describe, hard to deal with. I have made a terrible mistake. Failure looms. The dark grave awaits. Doubly will the dark world grieve me. Etc.