‘The rhymes are sometimes poor’ - Matthew Arnold

Matthew Arnold published New Poems – in which “Dover Beach” makes its first appearance – 150 years ago. It was his last substantial collection of verse, his farewell to the art. In the remaining years of his life he collected and re-collected his poems, and added a few minor pieces; but the poetry had all but dried up, and he re-trenched as a writer of tendentiously brilliant prose: religious controversy, cultural commentary, and literary criticism. W. H. Auden, always fascinated by the business of repression, analysed the phenomenon in his mercilessly clinical sonnet about Arnold who, he wrote, “thrust his gift in prison till it died”. Arnold himself saw it more as a desertion, the pity of which was not so much being unable to write poems any more as remembering that one could, once. As epigraph to New Poems he set a sad little quatrain, which in later printings he would call “The Persistency of Poetry”:

Though the Muse be gone away,
Though she move not earth today,
Souls, erewhile who caught her word,
Ah! still harp on what they heard.

His sharper critics, though, had long maintained that his intimacy with “the Muse” was only ever sporadic.

Was Arnold any good as a poet? Or rather, to anticipate an answer – which is that, yes, I think he was very good – what are we to make of the fact that so many of his readers, both contemporary and since, have thought he wasn’t up to much? Reviewing New Poems, Leslie Stephen described Arnold as “one of the poets who are made, who are not born”, probably unaware that he was echoing a terrible remark of Harriet Martineau’s in the Daily News sixteen years before: “[Arnold] was not born a poet, and therefore never can be one”. Others were even harsher: roughest of them all, Henry Buxton Forman, the editor of Keats, was spurred by New Poems to complain: “From his poems, taken as a body, it is difficult to imagine how pleasure or profit is to be extracted; for the style is unpoetic in the extreme, and the sense of rhythm and sound faulty to the last degree”.

It is a strikingly peculiar thing about his reputation: the point is not that he wrote for dismayingly long stretches with the engine idling (as Tennyson was reputed to do) or that you couldn’t understand what he was talking about (as they all said about Browning); but rather that he was someone who just wasn’t particularly adept at writing verse. In his boisterous review of the 1867 volume Swinburne called Arnold “the most efficient, the surest-footed poet of our time”, but this was a fine piece of provocation: few would have agreed with the contention that “he knows what as a poet he should do, and simply does that”, and even Swinburne later changed his mind. For if what a poet “should do” includes, as a minimal requirement, composing lines of words that hang well together, then many readers have thought that Arnold falls short. George Saintsbury, for one, puzzled at “those inadequacies, those incompetences of expression, which are so oddly characteristic”. When G. W. E. Russell, the editor of Arnold’s letters, embarked on his early study (1904), the opening question must have seemed obvious if uninviting: “Are we to call him a great poet? The answer must be carefully pondered”.

And it should be said that Russell did not sound wholly hopeful about the answer. Arnold “wrote with difficulty”, his work giving the “impression of frustrated and disappointed effort”; and although Russell duly mustered a qualified defence of Arnold as “a true poet” for “a chosen few”, nevertheless there was no question that, no, he was “not a great poet, for he lacked the gifts which sway the multitude, and compel the attention of mankind”. With champions like that, it is not surprising that more simply hostile voices expressed themselves without inhibition. Edith Sitwell said that his poetry was the sort you liked if you didn’t really like poetry at all; and it was common to think of Arnold as an author who wrote verse somehow against the grain of his gifts, which were really for prose or, perhaps (like his father), education. Edward Quillinan, Wordsworth’s son-in-law, felt mildly puzzled by the whole spectacle: “To tell the truth . . . I never suspected that there was any poetry in the family”.

“I am not sure that he was highly sensitive to the musical qualities of verse”, T. S. Eliot informed his lecture audience at Harvard in 1933, which must have been an urbane joke: everyone had been saying the same thing about Arnold for the last seventy five years. The favourite jaw-breaker was probably the opening line of his sonnet “To a Friend”: “Who prop, thou ask’st, in these bad days, my mind?” “Surely a strong contender for the worst opening line of a sonnet in English”, ventured Dame Helen Gardner, which wasn’t risking much: she must have been the fiftieth person to say it, according to Frank Kermode. But perhaps, if inadvertently, Gardner suggests what really matters in this whole odd critical history. For the line is certainly tangled up, but what it articulates is a troubled mind, one that is inhabiting “bad days”; tripping mellifluousness or rhetorical self-confidence would hardly have been to the point. If it offers its readers an unexpected cacophony, then, as Park Honan observed in a fine essay (in Victorian Poetry, 1963), the noise it makes is “emblematic for the ‘bad days’ that it treats”, days characterized, as Arnold put it in another sonnet, by “a thousand discords”.

Such a defence was not quite a new one. “Much has been made of Arnold’s lack of a fine ear though not with entire justice”, remarked Lionel Trilling in his magnificent study of 1939. “His verse does not always ‘please’, but we know that not to ‘please’ is no fault of music, that iron harmonies are no less harmonies and that dissonance has its value.” And that “we know” it, as Trilling knew, was largely thanks to the example of Eliot – who in his essay “The Music of Poetry”, published a couple of years after Trilling’s book, himself announced that “dissonance, even cacophony, has its place”.

Park Honan, who went on to write a remarkable biography of Arnold, saw these moments of functional cacophony occurring mostly in what he called “a handful of admittedly craggy sonnets”; but I think the uses of dissonance extended beyond that. The critic Frederic Harrison once gathered a little anthology of what he confidently took to be exemplarily Arnoldian train crashes: “The sandy spits, the shore-locked lakes”; “Could’st thou no better keep, O Abbey old?”; “The strange-scrawled rocks, the lonely sky”. Harrison dutifully observed of such lines: “where Nature has withheld the ear for music, no labour and no art can supply the want”. Russell quoted them in the opening pages of his study, and threw in another of his own: “As the punt’s rope chops round”. Indeed, a mouthful; but here things get more interesting, for the very same line had been singled out by the great Spectator critic R. H. Hutton for praise. Hutton rightly says of the line that it “is poetical, because it brings the peculiar motion so vividly before you”. So a bad line can look, from another angle, very much like a good line, as though getting it wrong could sometimes be, in the special circumstances of Arnold’s self-doubting genius, a way of getting it right. Much the same can be said of other “bad” Arnold lines: “The strange-scrawled rocks, the lonely sky”, say, is a fine example of how, as John Bayley once said of Keats, “awkwardness is a part of the accuracy” – not just the perceptual accuracy about a motion that Hutton admired, but accuracy about an emotion too.

The solemn hills around us spread,
This stream which falls incessantly,
The strange-scrawl’d rocks, the lonely sky,
If I might lend their life a voice,
Seem to bear rather than rejoice.

That clogged and faltering line bears memorable witness to unspecified inward trouble, the awkwardness of its own strange scrawl registering the existence of some unnamed, unmitigated thing to be borne.

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