Lord Alfred Tennyson, a consummate poetic artist, is regarded as the most representative poet of the Victorian age. That his poetry was an epitome of his time, that it exhibited the society, the art, the philosophy, the religion of his day, was proved by the welcome which all classes gave it. Though not a representative poet of the age, in the sense Tennyson was, Matthew Arnold, having an acute sense of his age, represented perhaps more truly than Tennyson, the contending, contemporary intellectual and religious ideas, the illogical contradictions in men’s minds, the sick hurry and the divided aims, the shattered hopes and the spiritual distress of his age.
Arnold’s verse is a more truthful mirror of his mind and character than his prose. As Arnold himself writes in a letter to his mother in 1869-“My poems represent, on the whole, the main movement of the last quarter of a century.” Examined as a reflection of Arnold’s mind and character and taken as a whole, the poems appear a sandheap of shifting judgements, of trembling opinions, of crumbling creeds. They strike the ear like a medley of conflicting cries which cannot be reduced from dissonance to harmony.
The Victorian age was an age of transition, social unrest, spiritual conflict, and of new and newer discoveries. Darwin’s “The Origin of Specis” gave aa devastating blow to the existing religious faith. New impulses, new motives and new ideas stirred in men’s minds. Protests, fulminations, doubts and discussions startled as well as delighted people with their novelty and vivacity. The spreading scientific spirit, scarching investigations and skeptical grouping, dug up the foundation of Christianity and men were questioning about the authencity and validity of “The Bible” and what it told them. It was a period of intellectual disintegration. Arnold himself noted this and later reflected it in his essay—
“There is not a creed which is not shaken, not an accredited dogma which is not shown to be questionable, not a received tradition which does not threaten to dissolve.”
Though Arnold was throughout life a critic first and a poet afterwards, three distinct epochs of intellectual progress seem to stand out with some degree of prominence. In the first he expresses the unrest, the bewilderment the perplexity of a doubting age; in the second he has adopted paganism as his own model of artistic composition and his moral rule of life; in the third his aesthetic and moral stoicism is leavened by that Hebrew element which he affected to despise and stove prematurely to suppress.
In his first three volumes Arnold expresses with unequalled power and completeness the languor and self-disdain, the dissatisfaction and weriness of the age, the yearning for a creed and the craving for peace which drove men like Sterling, F.H. Newman, Clough, and Froude to attempt the ascent of the Mount of vision by new paths instead of the ancient beaten ways. His poetry cannot pretend to guide the tendencies of his days, or to embody the results of its confused struggle; but it gathers up and reflects with minute fidelity the forces that were at work.
In Victorian period, science and religion confronted each other with bitter enimosity; the conflict between matter and spirit was rife and as an inevitable consequence barrenness and emptiness of faith found abode in men’s hearts, which Arnold records in “Dover Beach”—
“The sea of faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar
Retreating, to the breath.”
Arnold’s poetry represented its age in a far profounder way. Here is the true voice of the sensitive Victorian intellectual brooding over inevitable loss of faith and the meaning of life. He gave moving expression to a modern malaise that is still very much with us, a sense of the isolation of the individual, of “Wandering between two worlds, one dead/The other powerless to be born” (Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse), of the fears, hopes and despairs of the thoughtful and sensitive man in a world of rapid change and increasing standardization.
One of Arnold’s best known poems, ‘The Scholar Gipsy’, ostensibly about s seventeenth century Oxford student who disappeared among the gypsies, is really about the poet himself, and his generation; the scholar gipsy becomes a symbol in the light of which Arnold can develop his own position and state his own problems.
The theme of ‘The Scholar Gipsy’ is really Arnold himself, his doubts and problems, and introspective melancholy developed indirectly in an elegiac context and in association with aspects of the English landscape, which are most appropriate to the contemplative mood. In Arnold’s view, as expressed in this poem, Victorian life was nothing but a bundle of feverish hate, conflicting aims and pursuits, over-work, paralyzed hearts –
“…this strange disease of modern life,
With its sick hurry, its divided aims,
Its heads o’ertaxed, its palsied hearts, was rife -”[The Scholar Gipsy: Matthew Arnold]
And in the same poem we find that the Scholar has gone to the gypsies to escape from –
“—- the sick fatigue, the languid doubt.”[The Scholar Gipsy: Matthew Arnold]
The Victorian age was an age of hurry,, change, alarm, surprise, without shelter to ripen thought or leisure to store genial wisdom –
“Like children bathing on the shore,
Buried a wave beneath,
The second wave succeeds before
We have had time to breathe.”
Arnold feels himself ‘a wanderer between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born’. Life became more exacting in proportion as it ceased to be great; his limbs are paralyzed, his senses stupefied, his spirits benumbed by its thousands nothings; his very soul is choked by its petty penetrating dust. His perception of the Victorian world, which resulted from the barrenness of hope created by the conflict between spirit and matter goes thus –
“—- 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;”[Dover Beach: Matthew Arnold]
once the stream of life flowed along a single channel, in a broad, unbroken majestic whole, straight for the Polar Star. Now, damned by beds of sand, chopped into eddies of blind uncertainty, choked by obstructing island of matted drift, thwarted this way and that way by conflicting currents; the stream has forgotten its once bright speed, flows sullenly along, a baffled, circuitous wanderer.
These are the feelings to which Arnold gave expression in his early poetry. The almost unvarying theme of his lyric verse is the divorce of the soul from the intellect and the perplexity which the separation produces.
Arnold could not share with Tennyson his genial faith or the robust and buoyant optimism of Browning; the conflict between science and religion, between matter and spirit arrested his attention. Perhaps more them any other man of his time and nation, he perceived the changes that were taking place in the conditions of life and the minds of men to bring into being the world we now know in certain respects he was, of all the intellectual figures of his period, the most modern. Both in his early poems, which make up the larger body of his cannon and in the infrequent later poems, some of which are among his best, Arnold showed an awareness of the emotional conditions of modern life which far exceeds that of any other poet of his time.
Arnold as a poet-speaks with the voice of one who has been disturbed by Victorian conflicts, doubts and problems, rendered permanently melancholy by a sense of tears at the heart of things, illuminated a vision of ancient Athens and cheered and comforted by Wordsworthian vision of the relation between Man and Nature.