Monday, May 11, 2009

Why did I read so much Matthew Arnold poetry?

I suppose it would have been smarter to have read a carefully culled, tastefully selected Selected Poems, to put Matthew Arnold's poetry in the best possible light. Instead, I went straight to The Poetical Works of Matthew Arnold, Oxford University Press, 1950. Not only that, but I constructed, from within that volume, Matthew Arnold's original published books.* The 1849 The Strayed Reveller and Other Poems, for example, and the 1852 Empedocles on Etna and Other Poems.

Why did I do this? I am not completely sure, aside from an unfortunate Completeness Neurosis. I did skip two undergraduate prize poems, but perhaps that was just a neurotic attempt to counter the completeness neurosis. Also, I assumed they would be terrible. Maybe not "And the dark cucumber" (from "The Strayed Reveller," 1849) terrible, but not worth my time.

A better reason: Sometimes the non-selected original book turns out to be a masterpiece on its own - Robert Browning's Dramatic Lyrics (1842), for example, home of "My Last Duchess" and many other much-anthologized poems, or the 1798 Lyrical Ballads, great books on their own ground.

I did not discover that Matthew Arnold had written one of those. Each volume - the two mentioned before, Poems: First Series (1853), Poems: Second Series (1855), the verse drama Merope (1858), and New Poems (1867) - was of mixed quality, with some duds, some hits, and some surprises.

A less good reason: I had enjoyed Arthur Hugh Clough so much that I wondered what his much more famous, longer-lived school chum was up to at the same time. Clough sometimes seems to have devolved into a footnote to Matthew Arnold's life. Doesn't seem fair. I still enjoy Clough more. Arnold, in his poems, not his prose, has no sense of humor, and I think gets himself too caught up in conceptual apparatuses that do not always serve him well. For a disciple of Wordsworth, Arnold sure could be artificial. Based just on what they had published by the mid-1850s, I would have judged Clough the better poet, easily. Clough died young, though, and Arnold wrote additional good poems, and it turns out that in 1851 he had already written but not published "Dover Beach," one of the greatest poems in the language. Clough is wonderful, but he never wrote a "Dover Beach." I don't think Arnold wrote a second one.

This has all been plenty vague. Let's have a bit of "Dover Beach," even if everyone is sick of it:

"Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then begin again,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in."

It's the commas, isn't it, the short phrases? They mimic the waves hitting the beach, help us hear the "grating roar." I don't hear that eternal note of sadness, but my ear for poetic music is not so strong. Then comes Sophocles, and the Sea of Faith, almost too powerful a conceit, and lastly the darkling plain and the ignorant armies clashing by night.

Am I really going to spend the whole week writing about a poet I don't especially like or understand? Maybe I won't, but maybe I will.

* You can do it, too, with the help of this handy 1892 bibliography.


  1. Curses on the Completeness Neurosis! Still, it's cool to have given Arnold a good try. I do admire that.

  2. Scholar gypsy coming up?

    Interesting comment on the comparison to Clough in 1850. Isn't that the big Victorian poetry year? A version of Wordsworth's Prelude, and Tennyson stepping up with In Memoriam? Probably should check that--ha, got it right! Since you mention Browning, where does Tennyson stand in this discussion? And have you done GM Hopkins? Should he be in the mix here? Who else? One bumps into the PreRaphaelites soon enough, I suppose. I like the idea of giving Clough the edge.

  3. This is probably a good time to fess up to one of those humiliations - I didn't even know Matthew Arnold wrote poetry. I've only read his critical essays and assumed he had no lyrical please do spend a week on him!

  4. "I don't hear that eternal note of sadness"

    That was my exact thought when I read that line, but prefaced with "what the....?!?" And similar to when I read the line before it, tremulous cadence slow.

    However, I do like "and the dark cucumber", as it sounds like something Ashbery would come up with. Right because its so wrong, equalling to 'funny'.

  5. I do love Arnold's criticism, but after ALL of his poetry, I would counteract right away with some Swinburne to shake things up.

  6. Depsite my joking and whining, there was only one Arnold piece that I actually regretted reading. The flawless book of poetry, the flawless poem, is such a rare thing.

    I understand that, for some critics, Arnold may as well have written just one poem. So, verbivore, hie thee to "Dover Beach," definitely. Otherwise, see what you think this week.

    Like Brian, as soon as I focus in on a stanza, or line, even in a poem as good as "Dover Beach," I start to have doubts. "tremulous cadence slow" - exactly, what does that really mean. Ashbery - exactly, he could make that line work. For one thing, in an Ashbery poem, it wouldn't have to scan.

    I've not read a complete "as published" Tennyson book. That would be a good experiment. Let's see, Hopkins is defnitely later. 1850 really is a big year for English poetry - besides the ones zhiv mentions, there're R Browning's Christmas Eve and Easter Day, EB Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese, and, most importantly for my purpose here, the return of the other EB (saving that for Friday). "The Scholar Gypsy" is Thursday!

    Art Ravels - nice golem post! I've crossed the Channel to Gautier and Nerval for my palate cleansers - no, what's the opposite of a palate cleanser? Swinburne will have to wait. Swinburne makes me nervous.

  7. Reading all of Matthew Arnold is pretty hard core! I admire your fortitude.

  8. It didn't seem that hardcore. Less than 500 pages over the course of two months. Still, I would recommend a Selected Poems to anyone interested, including my future self.