This essay on Matthew Arnold was an attempt to do at least two things. It was first, a consideration of Matthew Arnold’s place within the context of modern literature and the modern psyche as a whole. Second, it was an attempt to develop a more discursive voice for my prose. This second purpose meant handling the material differently than with a simple academic focus, but rather with a kind of poetic rhapsodizing. Thus the essay is a meditation on the fragmentation of the modern psyche using Matthew Arnold as the focal point around which that consideration revolves. Disparate elements play into it, but return to him as a leading representative at the beginning of its manifestation in the world.
Matthew Arnold: Man that is Not
By Michael T. Young
“You must be something to be able to do something.”
-- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Matthew Arnold was the reluctant modern. “Resolve to be thyself” he pleaded because he was unable to embrace his own spirit. He longed for unity but wrote to his sister, “I am fragments.” These expressions seem excessive to us only because we are its natural descendents. “Man is the only creature that refuses to be what he is” said Camus. And George Oppen wrote, “We have chosen the meaning of being numerous.” The multitudinous and fragmented world that daunted Arnold can no longer overwhelm us because we are it. Arnold was among its firstborn, for what Arnold the critic resisted, Arnold the poet embraced. He refused to be wholly himself, and this war with himself made him as modern as any poet writing today.
Arnold was appointed to an inspectorship of schools in 1849. He valued education and knowledge perhaps as highly as we value information. That he turned to the Greeks as models of the best in poetry and thought was all too instinctive. For the Greeks understood ignorance as the enemy of integrity. The Delphic Oracle said, “Know thyself,” to help conduct people to a noble life. But modern man is beyond the Delphic dictum for he has foregone integrity for multiplicity. The modern person in quest of self-knowledge does not seek to know himself; he seeks to “find himself.” And Arnold was such a man because he knew “who finds himself, loses his misery!” Modern man is not ignorant but lost. A labyrinth of constant self-analysis confounds him. He is the Daedalus of his own mind, an inventor of mazes and convolutions of thought for which his conscience imprisons him. It does not let him rest. It drives him to circle his cell, to ever move and never get anywhere, to ever learn and never come to a definite knowledge.
Hither and thither spins
The wind-borne, mirroring soul,
A thousand glimpses wins,
And never sees a whole;
Looks once, and drives elsewhere, and leaves its last employ.
("Empedocles on Etna," 2.82-86)
This same spirit is why Hamlet remains contemporary. He is one of the first modern characters not because he is petrified with inaction but because he must unpack his heart to the air and holds a mirror up to the heart of all around him. He is a mind discovering itself, haunting the world with his brooding confessions, a voice of enchantment echoing inside each of our privately bounded nutshells. This is relevant because Arnold, recognizing Hamlet as a type characteristic of his own age, said, “The dialogue of the mind with itself has commenced; modern problems have presented themselves; we hear already the doubts, we witness the discouragement, of Hamlet and of Faust.”
Modern man’s identity is a series of momentary stays against confusion. He is perpetually asserting his psyche’s identity to withstand the threat of other identities. Arnold noted that “Hardly have we, for one little hour,/been on our own line, have we been ourselves.” Keats could not have conceived of the numberless selves springing up and dissolving in the modern psyche because negative capability was, to him, a poetic talent or character trait. But to the modern mind it is either its nature or its neurosis. This dualistic psychology gives birth to our multiple warring personalities. Seeing this multitude rising in himself and in the world, Arnold was one of the early thinkers to conceive of “the masses.” He knew man was getting lost in the multitudes both in the world and in himself. “Each half lives a hundred different lives” he said. And none of those halves are in harmony, but moving in a growing discord. Sartre’s remark that “hell is other people” was foretold when Arnold said, “Other existences there are, that clash with ours.” Feeling the perpetual struggle, Arnold looked at nature with envy.
And with joy the stars perform their shining,
And the sea its long moon-silver’d roll;
For self-poised they live, nor pine with noting
All the fever of some differing soul.
The stars were not only tranquil but joyful in their shining because they were not the victim of a “differing soul.” They remained themselves, always shining, always there, reliable enough to navigate by. Arnold labored to order the flying fragments of the new world, the multitudinous scatterings of industrial society. He pressed images of nature hoping to transform them into symbols of man’s potential ideal. The stars were
A world above man’s head, to let him see
How boundless might his soul’s horizons be,
How vast, yet of what clear transparency!
How it were good to abide there, and breathe free;
How fair a lot to fill
Is left to each man still!
(“A Summer Night, “87-92)
But all the exclamation points belie his passion to believe his own words. Arnold was not an optimist in his taste or his sentiment. He admired the melancholic poetry of Leopardi and ended his own most famous poem by saying of modern man’s condition that,
. . . we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
(“Dover Beach,” 35-37)
Arnold in his social criticism chastised British society for “the anarchical tendency of [their] worship of freedom.” He knew that some authority must exist to which people answer, even if it were only his cherished “right reason.” But Arnold was, as Blake said of all true poets, “of the Devil’s Party without knowing it.” In his prose Arnold knew where poetry was going and why, and in his prose he struggled against it with all his might. But his poetry was authentic as his prose was desperately sincere. His prose demanded guidance from right reason, but his poetry enshrined the boundlessness of man’s soul and the endless struggles it was condemned to engage.
Charge once more, then, and be dumb!
Let the victors, when they come,
When the forts of folly fall,
Find thy body by the wall!
(“The Last Word,” 13-16)
Torn by the force of the indifferent mechanism which modern society has become, he is in fragments. But driven by the rage to assert his integrity or charged by the very power that rips at him, modern man tries to understand himself, hoping enlightenment or knowledge will save him.
But often, in the din of strife,
There rises an unspeakable desire
After the knowledge of our buried life;
A thirst to spend our fire and restless force
In tracking out our true, original course;
A longing to inquire
Into the mystery of this heart which beats
So wild so deep in us—to know
Whence our lives come and where they go.
And many a man in his own breast then delves. . .
(“The Buried Life,” 45-55)
It’s to “know thyself.” But at some point the quest becomes a red herring. Faust sold his soul for knowledge and for all he knew, it could not save him. Solomon proclaimed, “The fool hath no delight in understanding, but that his heart may discover itself.” He turns and turns in himself to understand his own fragments, to gather them into some organized whole. It was the poetic project of Stevens who was always diving and mining for “Words of the fragrant portals dimly-starred,/And of ourselves and of our origins.”
Modern man does know himself. He is better informed than all before him about psychology, physics, and the numberless scattered trivia that compose his external and internal worlds. His failure is that he “isn’t” himself.
. . .we try in vain to speak and act
Our hidden self, and what we say and do
Is eloquent, is well—but ‘tis not true!
(“The Buried Life,” 64-66)
To the problems he saw in the world, Arnold tried to interject solutions, but his poems ring true when he simply records his observation of the discord that he cannot resolve. Even in his prose, when he defines culture “not in resting and being, but in growing and becoming” he has already embraced the spirit of an age he condemned. While he warned against the “unrestrained swing of the individual’s personality,” he hoped to fill a cultural need by “spontaneity of consciousness.” Like us, Arnold had enough self-knowledge to know the faults if his time but not enough inspiration to know the way to resolve them. His ultimate abandonment of poetry was inevitable.
Arnold excluded “Empedocles on Etna” from later collections of his poetry. He said it was because its sufferings had no release in action, that there was no relief from the pain through hope or resistance. And this is partly true because Arnold already understood what Sartre said in the 20th century, that for modern man “there is no reality except in action.” Empedocles’ most assertive self-expression was self-destruction, the most valid action for the man “whose insight has never born fruit in deeds” (“The Scholar-Gipsy,” 174). That is, a violent action becomes the only action for those whose self-knowledge has no expression in their being.
Empedocles leaps into the fires of Mount Etna,
My soul glows to meet you.
Ere it flag, ere the mists
Of despondency and gloom
Rush over it again,
Receive me, save me!
(“Empedocles on Etna,” 2.412-416)
“Empedocles on Etna” is the earliest expression of Amor Fati, the only control left for the non-existent. Death is Empedocles’ salvation.
A character in Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano says, “What is a lost soul? It is one that has turned from its true path and is groping in the darkness of remembered ways.” It is caught in a circuit of habit and recollection, reiterations of yesterday which it mistakes for tomorrow. This is what produced the nostalgic poetries of Leopardi and Hood. In them, it was innocent and young but in Arnold, it was a spirit of self-knowledge and fragmentation. For us, in the 21st century, it is simply the nature of things. As Larkin said, “nothing like something, happens anywhere.” The non-existent has taken place of our being. Arnold was the first poet to register this displacement with something like conscience. His struggle against it became part of the discord which made him one of its primary representatives in the Victorian age. In his poetry he affirmed the fragmentation, the fears and the self-assertions that he denied in his prose, but not because he lacked self-knowledge but because his self-knowledge could not change what he was.