Tuesday, May 12, 2009

What dost thou in this living tomb! - not a quotation from a Gothic novel by Matthew Arnold, but from "Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse"

While an older generation of poets - Tennyson, Browning, and so on - spent their youth absorbing Shelley and Keats, Matthew Arnold jumped back a generation, to William Wordsworth. Hints and scraps of Wordsworth are all over Arnold's poems, the "Switzerland" sequence (1852), for example.* If I were better at this, I might find some specific examples, echoes of "Tintern Abbey" and whatnot. I can sure hear them, but my memory's not that good, and tracking them down would be real work, and really all I would need to do would be to get a book where someone else has already done it. Where was I?

Right. Arnold actually retraces Wordsworth's actual steps in some of his poems, fifty years later. In the 1850 Prelude, ll. 418+, Wordsworth writes of his visit, circa 1790, to the severe Carthusian Monastery in Switzerland. Arnold's poem on the same subject, "Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse," is from 1855:

"The silent courts, where night and day
Into their stone-carved basins cold
The splashing icy fountains play -
The humid corridors behold!
Where, ghostlike in the deepening night,
Cowl'd forms brush by in gleaming white." (31-6)

Why is Arnold there? Good question; Arnold was wondering the same thing:

"For rigorous teachers seized my youth,
And purged its faith, and trimm'd its fire,
Show'd me the high, white star of Truth,
There bade me gaze, and there aspire.
Even now their whispers pierce the gloom:
What dost thou in this living tomb?" (67-72)

One of those "rigorous teachers" was Arnold's own father. The poem is, like "Dover Beach," in the "faith and doubt" genre. Arnold compares his visit to the monastery to an ancient Greek visiting a "fallen Runic stone," a remnant of a dead faith. But, if Arnold is like the Greek, and the religion of the Greek is also long dead, then what value, what future, has Arnold's own faith? Arnold asks to be left with the:

"Last of the people who believe!
Silent, while years engrave the brow;
Silent - the best are silent now." (112-4)

I think I have a basic grasp of the "faith and doubt" stuff, an early formulation of a modern problem. Maybe not the next step, though, where things get interesting, and puzzling. "The kings of modern thought are dumb," Arnold writes, "Silent they are, though not content." A footnote in my Norton anthology suggests that this may refer to Newman or Carlyle, for which I will take its word, I guess (Silent? Newman and Carlyle? Silent!?!).**

Then comes the Hall of Heroes - stanzas about Byron, Shelley, and French Romantic novelist Senancour, specifically about how Arnold and his generation "learnt your lore too well," resulting in melancholy, torpor, and a general sense of the pointlessness of effort. An army passes the monastery, and calls for the monks to join it (this is a weird inversion of Wordsworth, where the troops expel the monks from their home). The monks, and I guess Arnold, reply that it is too late, "Too late for us your call ye blow \ Whose bent was taken long ago" (197-8).

It's really quite a good poem. I've no idea if these excerpts convey that - I've skipped, for example, all of the descriptive parts. This poem was particularly helpful for whatever understanding of Arnold I might have gained. More on Arnold and his heroes tomorrow.

* Prof. Novel Reading singles out the final line of "To Marguerite - Continued," one of the "Switzerland" poems, as an all-time favorite:

"The unplumb'd, salt, estranging sea."

** I do not, at all, understand Carlyle's whole "Worship of Silence" thing. "Silence, the great Empire of Silence: higher than the stars; deeper than the Kingdoms of Death! It alone is great; all else is small," etc., On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History, Ch. VI. Maybe he means everyone else should be silent?

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