The Dialogue of the Mind with Itself - Matthew Arnold




WITH Matthew Arnold the dilemma of the modern artist in society becomes fully explicit. For Arnold's critical habit of mind led him to attempt to analyze and define in objective terms that sense of alienation which we have most often encountered in the work of Tennyson and Browning under the guise of a vaguely realized malaise. In directly confronting the motives for his antipathy to the Victorian age, Arnold was concerned not only to clarify his own relationship to that age, but also to reaffirm the traditional sovereignty of poetry as a civilizing agent. Thus, whereas Tennyson and Browning ultimately relied on private revelation derived from mystical or instinctual, and in either case irrational, sources, Arnold looked for inspiration to the great humanistic idea which asserts that man is the measure of all possibilities.

This is not, of course, to imply that Arnold found it any easier than Tennyson or Browning to come to terms with the age. If the Victorians distrusted the visions of the seer and the instincts of the primitive, they were hardly more sympathetic to Arnold's advocacy of culture as enlisting the whole nature of man in opposition to the Zeitgeist. To a much greater extent than holds true for either Tennyson or Browning, the poetry of Arnold bears testimony to its author's refusal to compromise with the spirit of his era. The protagonists [147/148] of his poems are invariably lonely and isolated figures, alien to their environment. Mycerinus, the Forsaken Merman, the Scholar-Gipsy, Empedocles, the author of 'Obermann' display an unmistakable family likeness, since all are, in fact, projections of their creator's own essential homelessness in the Victorian world.

"To a Gipsy Child by the Sea-Shore" may serve to illustrate Arnold's fondness for themes traceable to an obsession with the problem of estrangement. The gipsies reappear in both "Resignation" and "The Scholar-Gipsy," where also their deracinated condition epitomizes spiritual exile. The gipsy boy and his mother are described as reluctant to acknowledge even the most elementary of ties: "half averse/ From thine own mother's breast, that knows not thee." Between the poet and the child, on the other hand, a passing glance creates a bond of sympathy. Searching for an analogy to the impression of sadness thus conveyed, Arnold surmises whether the other's mood is not like

Some exile's, mindful how the past was glad?
Some angel's, in an alien planet born?

More remarkable than the young gipsy's mournfulness, however, is the stoicism with which it is borne, a stoicism suggestive of clear-eyed and unflinching disillusionment:

Is the calm thine of stoic souls, who weigh
Life well, and find it wanting, nor deplore;
But in disdainful silence turn away,
Stand mute, self-centred, stern, and dream no more?

In truth, the secret of the gipsy's dignity is in his aloofness to the circumstances of earthly existence; his is the satanic sorrow of the infernal visitant who cannot forget lost felicity:

Ah! not the nectarous poppy lovers use,
Not daily labour's dull, Lethæan spring,
Oblivion in lost angels can infuse
Of the soil'd glory, and the trailing wing.

The vicissitudes of worldly being may dull the edge of grief; [148/149] but a mood so noble in its origin, the poet suggests, can never be wholly displaced. Rather, there is tragic grandeur in so accepting an alien fate.

The grounds for Arnold's antagonism to his age emerge in a large number of poems originally published in the volumes of 1849 and 1852. From these it is apparent that the author was in closer touch with the society about him than either Tennyson or Browning, so that his criticism of contemporary manners and morals has an authority and immediacy lacking in either of his brother-poets. Put quite simply, Arnold felt that the temper of Victorian society was destructive of individual integrity and wholeness of being. Any serious-minded person, who in all sincerity desired to cultivate his own garden, was obliged at every turn to resist intrusive pressures hostile to the philosophic mind. The threat to self-possession embodied in the superficial values of modern life is repeatedly formulated in such poems as "The World's Triumphs," "A Question, The World and the Quietist," and "Horatian Echo." This conflict receives what is perhaps its classic expression in "The Buried Life," which appeals to the innermost recesses of being as the ultimate refuge against the frivolous solicitations of the external world. Because he lacks the courage of his own innate convictions, the average man looks around him and invites: "Of all the thousand nothings of the hour/ Their stupefying power." In a manner prophetic of much twentieth-century writing Arnold equates the social whirl where "light flows our war of mocking words" with a flight from self-consciousness. We are reminded

How frivolous a baby man would be —
By what distractions he would be possessd,
How he would pour himself in every strife,
And well-nigh change his own identity —

But whether the social mask be worn instinctively to hide an inner vacuity or whether it be deliberately assumed to shield a central core of sensitivity, the penalty is the same: disintegration [149/180] of individuality, estrangement not only from one's kind, but from oneself as well:

I knew the mass of men conceal'd
Their thoughts, for fear that if reveal'd
They would by other men be met
With blank indifference, or with blame reproved;
I knew they lived and moved
Trick'd in disguises, alien to the rest
Of men, and alien to themselves. . ....

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