The Poetry of Matthew Arnold: Criticism of Life

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Matthew Arnold is the greatest elegiac poet in the world of poetry. His most famous elegiac poems are The Scholar Gipsy, Thyrsis, Dover Beach, A Summer Night, Rugby Chapel. His elegiac poetry is more than a mere expression pf sorrow. His poetry invariably becomes reflective and philosophical.

 Poetry according to Matthew Arnold is a criticism of life. This is quite true about his own poetry. Garrod rightly says: “His poetry, profoundly melancholic, runs from the world, runs from it, as I think, hurt, hurt in some vital part. It believes itself able to sustain life only in the shade.” His poetry is a spontaneous expression of “his native melancholy, of the Virgilian cry over the mournfulness of mortal destiny” (Hugh Walker). The above facts are easily substantiated by the following immortal lines from Dover Beach:

Ah, love, let us be true To one another! for the world, which seems To lie before us like a land of dreams, So various, so beautiful, so new, Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain; And we are here as on a darkling plain Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, Where ignorant armies clash by night.

The poet hears “the eternal note of sadness” near the Dover Beach. The fact is that Arnold feels that only true love can save us. He very aptly says that we are like “ignorant armies clashing by night”. This elegiac mood is persistent in his poetry.

His famous poem Rugby Chapel written as a tribute to his father is full of melancholy. He criticizes the materialistic world devoid of any divine spark:

What is the course of the life Of mortal men on the earth?– Most men eddy about Here and there–eat and drink, Chatter and love and hate, Gather and squander, are raised Aloft, are hurl’d in the dust, Striving blindly, achieving Nothing; and then they die– Perish;–and no one asks Who or what they have been

In his immortal poem The Scholar Gipsy the poet asks the the scholar gipsy to protect himself from the polluted modern life:

O born in days when wits were fresh and clear, And life ran gaily as the sparkling Thames; Before this strange disease of modern life, With its sick hurry, its divided aims, Its heads o’ertax’d, its palsied hearts, was rife– Fly hence, our contact fear! Still fly, plunge deeper in the bowering wood! Averse, as Dido did with gesture stern From her false friend’s approach in Hades turn, Wave us away, and keep thy solitude!

What a magnificent expression of poetic fire :”Fly hence, our contact fear”!

Thus it is evident that the most attractive thing about Arnold’s poetry is its persistent elegiac quality. Arnold is at his best in his mood of lament and melancholy. Cazamian aptly remarks that Arnold’s poetry shall continue to be read “because of its inner Romanticism”.


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