of the Protestant religion,” his “stream of tendency not ourselves making for righteousness,” his classification of “Philistines and barbarians”—and so forth. His death at Liverpool, of heart failure on the 15th of April 1888, was sudden and quite unexpected.
Arnold was a prominent figure in that great galaxy of Victorian poets who were working simultaneously—Tennyson, Browning, Rossetti, William Morris and Swinburne—poets between whom there was at least this connecting link, that the quest of all of them was the old-fashioned poetical quest of the beautiful. Beauty was their watchword, as it had been the watchword of their immediate predecessors—Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley and Byron. That this group of early 19th-century poets might be divided into two—those whose primary quest was physical beauty, and those whose primary quest was moral beauty—is no doubt true. Still, in so far as beauty was their quest they were all akin. And so with the Victorian group to which Arnold belonged. As to the position which he takes among them opinions must necessarily vary. On the whole, his place in the group will be below all the others. The question as to whether he was primarily a poet or a prosateur has been often asked. If we were to try to answer that question here, we should have to examine his poetry in detail—we should have to inquire whether his primary impulse of expression was to seize upon the innate suggestive power of words, or whether his primary impulse was to rely upon the logical power of the sentence. In nobility of temper, in clearness of statement, and especially in descriptive power, he is beyond praise. But intellect, judgment, culture and study of great poets may do much towards enabling a prose-writer to write what must needs be called good poetry. What they cannot enable him to do is to produce those magical effects which poets of the rarer kind can achieve by seizing that mysterious, suggestive power of words which is far beyond all mere statement. Notwithstanding the exquisite work that Arnold has left behind him, some critics have come to the conclusion that his primary impulse in expression was that of the poetically-minded prosateur rather than that of the born poet. And this has been said by some who nevertheless deeply admire poems like “The Scholar Gypsy,” “Thyrsis,” “The Forsaken Merman,” “Dover Beach,” “Heine’s Grave,” “Rugby Chapel,” “The Grande Chartreuse,” “Sohrab and Rustum,” “The Sick King in Bokhara,” “Tristram and Iseult,” &c. It would seem that a man may show all the endowments of a poet save one, and that one the most essential—the instinctive mastery over metrical effects.
In all literary expression there are two kinds of emphasis, the emphasis of sound and the emphasis of sense. Indeed the difference between those who have and those who have not the true rhythmic instinct is that, while the former have the innate faculty of making the emphasis of sound and the emphasis of sense meet and strengthen each other, the latter are without that faculty. But so imperfect is the human mind that it can rarely apprehend or grasp simultaneously these two kinds of emphasis. While to the born prosateur the emphasis of sense comes first, and refuses to be more than partially conditioned by the emphasis of sound, to the born poet the emphasis of sound comes first, and sometimes will, even as in the case of Shelley, revolt against the tyranny of the emphasis of sense. Perhaps the very origin of the old quantitative metres was the desire to make these two kinds of emphasis meet in the same syllable. In manipulating their quantitative metrical system the Greeks had facilities for bringing one kind of emphasis into harmony with the other such as are unknown to writers in accentuated metres. This accounts for the measureless superiority of Greek poetry in verbal melody as well as in general harmonic scheme to all the poetry of the modern world. In writers so diverse in many ways as Homer, Æschylus, Sophocles, Pindar, Sappho, the harmony between the emphasis of sound and the emphasis of sense is so complete that each of these kinds of emphasis seems always begetting, yet always born of the other. When in Europe the quantitative measures were superseded by the accentuated measures a reminiscence was naturally and inevitably left behind of the old system; and the result has been, in the English language at least, that no really great line can be written in which the emphasis of accent, the emphasis of quantity and the emphasis of sense do not meet on the same syllable. Whenever this junction does not take place the weaker line, or lines, are always introduced, not for makeshift purposes, but for variety, as in the finest lines of Milton and Wordsworth. Wordsworth no doubt seems to have had a theory that the accent of certain words, such as “without,” “within,” &c., could be disturbed in an iambic line; but in his best work he does not act upon his theory, and endeavours most successfully to make the emphasis of accent, of quantity and of sense meet. It might not be well for a poem to contain an entire sequence of such perfect lines as
“I thought of Chatterton, the marvellous boy,”
“Thy soul was like a star and dwelt apart,”
for then the metricist’s art would declare itself too loudly and weaken the imaginative strength of the picture. But such lines should no doubt form the basis of the poem, and weaker lines—lines in which there is no such combination of the three kinds of emphasis—should be sparingly used, and never used for makeshift purposes. Now, neither by instinct nor by critical study was Arnold ever able to apprehend this law of prosody. If he does write a line of the first order, metrically speaking, he seems to do so by accident. Such weak lines as these are constantly occurring—
|“The poet, to whose mighty heart|
Heaven doth a quicker pulse impart,
Subdues that energy to scan
Not his own course, but that of man.”
Much has been said about what is called the “Greek temper” of Matthew Arnold’s muse. A good deal depends upon what it meant by the Hellenic spirit. But if the Greek temper expresses itself, as is generally supposed, in the sweet acceptance and melodious utterance of the beauty of the world as it is, accepting that beauty without inquiring as to what it means and as to whither it goes, it is difficult to see where in Arnold’s poetry this temper declares itself. Surely it is not in Empedocles on Etna, and surely it is not in Merope. If there is a poem of his in which one would expect to find the joyous acceptance of life apart from questionings about the civilization in which the poet finds himself environed (its hopes, its fears, its aspirations and its failures)—such questionings, in short, as were for ever vexing Arnold’s soul—it would be in “The Scholar Gypsy,” a poem in which the poet tries to throw himself into the mood of a “Romany Rye.” The great attraction of the gypsies to Englishmen of a certain temperament is that they alone seem to feel the joyous acceptance of life which is supposed to be specially Greek. Hence it would have been but reasonable to look, if anywhere, for the expression of Arnold’s Greek temper in a poem which sets out to describe the feelings of the student who, according to Glanville’s story, left Oxford to wander over England with the Romanies. But instead of this we got the old fretting about the unsatisfactoriness of modern civilization. Glanville’s Oxford student, whose story is glanced at now and again in the poem, flits about in the scenery like a cloud-shadow on the grass; but the way in which Arnold contrives to avoid giving us the faintest idea either dramatic or pictorial of the student about whom he talks so much, and the gypsies with whom the student lived, is one of the most singular feats in poetry. The reflections which come to a young Oxonian lying on the grass and longing to escape life’s fitful fever without shuffling off this mortal coil, are, no doubt, beautiful reflections beautifully expressed, but the temper they show is the very opposite of the Greek. To say this is not in the least to disparage Arnold. “A man is more like the age in which he lives,” says the Chinese aphorism, “than he is like his own father and mother,” and Arnold’s polemical writings alone are sufficient to show that the waters of life he drank were from fountains distilled, seven times distilled, at the topmost slope of 19th-century civilization. Mr George Meredith’s “Old Chartist” exhibits far more of the temper of acceptance than does any poem by Matthew Arnold.
His most famous critical dictum is that poetry is a “criticism