Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The knights drew sword, the ladies scream'd - the heroic Matthew Arnold

Matthew Arnold wrote a lot of heroic poems, imitations of old stories and old forms. They are not pastiches, or updates, but are more like fake translations. His play Merope, for example, is a convincing imitation of Euripides, as if Arnold had translated a newly discovered play. Or "Sohrab and Rustam," a long episode from Firdawsi's epic Shahnameh - if it were labeled a translation from the Persian, I would believe the label, but it's in fact a convincing rewrite.

"Balder Dead" is a from the Norse Eddas. "The Forsaken Merman" is a Danish folktale. There's a compressed "Tristram and Iseult," and a couple of good ballads:

"'-I am no knight,' he answered;
'From the sea-waves I come.'-
The knights drew sword, the ladies scream'd,
The surpliced priest stood dumb."

That's from "The Neckan," also about a merman, who is miraculously converted to Christianity. What is the deal with Arnold and mermen? Seems kind of silly, now that I look at it again. Anyway.

This all adds up to 40% or so of the Oxford Poetical Works; a lot. What was Arnold trying to accomplish? Maybe I should first say that although the poetic quality varies, I enjoyed most of these poems. The Euripidean Merope seems like a botch, and the philosophical pastoral "Empedocles on Etna" is over my head, but "Sohrab and Rustam" is vivid and exciting and "The Forsaken Merman" has a lot of good descriptive lines and some interesting uses of line length. "Balder Dead" is excellent, and has an ending that I think is Arnold's own, except that I suspect it's really a dramatization of Goethe's notion of resignation. The imagery is good, too; here's the very end (Hermod has tried and failed to release the dead Balder from Hell):

"And as a stork which idle boys have trapp'd,
And tied him in a yard, at autumn sees
Flocks of his kind pass flying o'er his head
To warmer lands, and coasts that keep the sun;--
He strains to join their flight, and from his shed
Follows them with a long complaining cry--
So Hermod gazed, and yearn'd to join his kin.

At last he sigh'd, and set forth back to Heaven." (559-566)

In the preface to the 1853 Poems: First Series, Arnold makes his case for these poems, although I suspect misdirection. "A great human action of a thousand years ago is more interesting to it [our nature, our passions] than a smaller human action of to-day, even though upon the representation of this last the most consummate skill may have been expended, and though it has the advantage of appealing by its modern language, familiar manners, and contemporary allusions, to all our transient feelings and interests."

As evidence, says Arnold, "I fearlessly assert that Hermann and Dorothea, Childe Harold, Jocelyn, The Excursion, leave the reader cold in comparison with the effect produced upon him by the latter books of the Iliad, by the Oresteia, or by the episode of Dido," because "the action is greater," and not because the Goethe and Byron poems are deliberate anti-epics and Wordsworth's Excursion is almost indescribably dull (The Prelude might too obviously challenge his argument).

Arnold proceeds to deny the value of praising individual lines in a poem, rather than the overall effect, and points to Faust, King Lear, and Keats as exemplary modern failures! Eh, enough - it's a lot of smoke.

Arnold was an immensely skilled and intelligent writer with little sense of poetic purpose. The subjects, at least, of the heroic poems are purposeful, although what they mean in a modern context becomes a problem. The problem of poetic form is similarly solved by the choice of subject. I assume that Tennyson, in The Idylls of the King, and William Morris had to deal with the same problem, and I don't know what answers they found. I'm pretty sure that Arnold found no answers at all, just frustration, empty perfection.

I associate Arnold's rummaging through antique poetry's box of heroes with Thomas Carlyle's call for hero-worship a decade earlier. Undergraduate Arnold even won a prize for a long poem on Oliver Cromwell, Carlyle's great shining perfect hero (it's one of the poems I skipped). The irony is that, among all of these slightly sterile experiments, Arnold did write one poem about a genuinely modern hero figure. But I'll save "The Scholar Gypsy" for tomorrow.


  1. I remember liking the The Forsaken Merman in the "I would read it alound to little children, except it sad" kind of way.

    I called your blog lovely today on my blog--check it out : )

  2. Is it wrong that I read that first quote and started singing 'Dead or Alive'?

    I'm a cowboy, on a steel horse I riiiiiiiiiiiide...

  3. I'm currently stuck with that merman surrounded by swords image in my head. And on to other matters, I was wondering if you'd seen the post at Three Percent about Sholem Aleichem ( All these sources telling me to read his works... it's hard to stay ignorant for so long.

  4. "The Forsaken Merman" is excellent, I agree - it stands well on its own, like a Hans Christian Andersen story set to verse. Those melancholy Danes.

    'There dwells a loved one,
    But cruel is she!
    She left lonely forever
    The kings of the sea.'

    Thanks for the award, by the way!

    Raych, John Francis Bongiovi and Richie Sambora are true spiritual descendents of Matthew Arnold.

    I had not seen the Three Percent, post - thanks for the tip. I don't visit there as often as I perhaps should.

  5. Sholem Alecheim's "Wandering Star" is an incredible book. One I highly recommend.