“How Matthew Arnold Impressed Me,” VII (1888), 53-56.




[Harvard Monthly 5.2 (November, 1887): 53-56]

How Matthew Arnold Impressed Me.

It is five years since I first met with any of Matthew Arnold’s writings. I do not now remember what accident brought a volume of his verses to my hands. I recollect, however, that I began to read it while taking my solitary luncheon after returning from school. My eyes naturally fell first upon the sonnet “Quiet Work,” and such a feeling of satisfied sympathy rushed through my soul that I believe I read every word of the volume before the end of the day. Volume after volume did I read them, and before long there was no more Matthew Arnold to read. But meanwhile I was continually re-reading the poems and the dramas. And it is of these poems that I think when I think of Matthew Arnold. I enjoy all his writings more than I can tell; I keenly appreciate his excellent criticism, his moral and political sermons, the delicate, almost esoteric humor of his he is the only master. But by side of his poems all his other works seem of little importance to me.
[54] For two years after I met with his verses, I read through a great part of them almost every day. I read them to all the people I cared about. I read them aloud in the early morning hours to my own ears. It was as if I had all at once, after living speechless for sixteen years, been endowed with a voice. Every verse seemed like an utterance from my innermost heart. It was such a glorious thing! After living alone with one’s thoughts, and anguish, and despair for ten years, what wonderful, new thing it was to find one day that another had lived the same inner life, and another, happily, who knew how to express himself in forms of the most magical and soothing kind. It made me feel that after all there was hope in life. I was not a creature apart, alone, with no hope of finding a fellow. Here was one surely; and others there must be. I may say that my social life began with Matthew Arnold. I may almost say that it was caused by him.
It was as an impulse to seek for friendship that he affected me dynamically. I do not think I ever found new thought or new feeling in him. All that he wrote I knew well, although his statement doubtless made my knowledge definite. It is curious, however, to not the order in which the different poems became of especial interest to me. Among the first were those of the narrative kind. “Sohrab and Rustum” took me bodily to the banks of the Oxus, to the land of my dreams. The atmosphere of the poem was something in which I breathed so lightly, so much more lightly than I did the air of the streets, that I used to go to it with the same joy that the wearied Indian officer feels when he gets his first whiff of the Himalayan air, after his escape from the malarial camp in the jungles of Bengal. Furthermore, “Sohrab and Rustum” was, to me, a fuller and nobler development in a similar spirit of a poem already familiar and dear to me, the old German fragment of “Hildebrant and Haderbrant.” It was because Matthew Arnold had so much in him to remind me of all that was noblest, even if saddest, in the old Norse and German spirit, that those poems in which this spirit is most permeating, as in “Balder Dead,” “St. Brandan,” “The Forsaken Merman,” and “Tristan and Iseult,” became my earliest favorites. Among those earliest favorites were some I used to read with a fierce intensity. These were such as “The Prayer of [55] Stagirius,” “Self-deception,” “The Buried Life,” “The Youth of Man,” “The Future.”
I did not grow tired of these at all, but after a while others superseded them in my daily reading. Foremost in this series was “Empedocles,” of which I used to read the songs of Callicles, especially the last one, which I still consider the noblest poem of the past fifty years, and the monologue, which commences:—

“The out-spread world to span
A cord the Gods first slung”—

these I used to read day after day for many a week. I forgot all about Empedocles, all about Matthew Arnold, and read the drama as a transcript of my own thoughts of the world, and man, and myself. I cared not what effect it was having upon me. But now I think at times that “Empedocles” was to me as the fatal pool to Narcissus. With “Empedocles” the especially classic poems became my delight,—the “Fragment of an Antigone,” the “Chorus of a Deianeira,” the “Strayed Reveller” and its companion “Consolation,” “Bacchanalia,” and “Merope.” At very nearly the same time “The Scholar-gypsy,” “Thyrsis,” and “Rugby Chapel,” as well as “Obermann,” became wholly mine.
Among the last to be enjoyed were the poems of sentiment, the poems in the series “Faded Leaves,” and “Switzerland.” One of them, however, had been among the earliest I loved. It begins:—

“Yes—in the sea of life enisled.”—

To me the order in which Matthew Arnold’s poems came to be especially dear is full of meaning. To one acquainted with the poems I have mentioned, that meaning is almost obvious.
I do not intend to spoil this sincere though quite uninteresting confession by any attempts at comprehensive criticism. I remember with pride that during the years when Matthew Arnold seemed nearer to me than any writer of any time, I never called him a great poet, nor did I attempt to place him among his fellows. I did not think of him as a poet at all. I thought of him as my mouthpiece. Now that I can look upon [56] Arnold’s poems as verse I am compelled by my canons of criticism to place him very high among the poets of the age.
But I can not close without making the attempt—a hopeless one, I know—to express what I feel to be the especial virtue of Matthew Arnold’s poetry. In a poem, the mention of which I purposely have put off, “The Palladium,” occur two lines, that, in as far as they can be applied to poetry, precisely express the quality of Mr. Arnold’s verse. They are:—

“It stood, and sun and moonshine rain’d their light
On the pure columns of its glen-built hall.”

Pure columns of a glen-built hall, where the sun and moonshine play, are Arnold’s poems. They are perfect in form, austere and chaste in expression, solemn and cooling. We have an expression in German that we may aptly apply to them. It is marmor-schön. Yes, they are as beautiful as Praxitelian marbles seen in a moonlit Italian garden. No heat of passion is there, no glow of mere life. But there is calm, and solemnity, and the sublimity of Promethean solitude. Their air seems thin at times, but not too rare. It is the air upon a limitless snow-field that brings the blood mantling to the cheek, and makes us rejoice in a fullness of life all our own. These qualities Matthew Arnold possesses alone. Not even Platen, and Leconte de Lisle have his austerity,—and Marmor-schönheit.