JUNE 21, 1999 ISSUE

The Unburied Life
by Helen Vendler

The provocative case of Matthew Arnold is raised again in this new but truncated life of that extraordinary man. By entitling his account A Gift Imprisoned: The Poetic Life, Ian Hamilton (a poet himself, and the author of the first full biography of Robert Lowell) gives short shrift to the last thirty- five years of his subject's life, during which Arnold's poetic composition declined while his writing of critical prose increased. Those latter three and a half decades of strenuous work occupy only the last fifth of Hamilton's book, which in effect ends when Arnold is thirty-one. One can imagine an antithetical twin to this new biography: it would be called A Gift Released: The Critical Life of Matthew Arnold, and it would go from strength to strength until Arnold's death from heart disease in 1888, at the age of sixty-six.

Is it plausible to split a man thus in two? Does Arnold the mature critic have nothing to do with Arnold the younger poet? Can we, in fact, understand the poetry adequately if we confine ourselves to its own chronological boundaries? Does anything of the later prose help us to understand the earlier poetry?

When I was a girl, I knew nothing of Matthew Arnold but his verse. Later I was surprised to find, when reading, the breadth and the wit of his prose-the submerged nine-tenths of the Arnoldian iceberg. I was already aware of the iceberg's famous remark when he was thirty-one: "I am past thirty and three parts iced over, and my pen, it seems to me, is even stiffer and more cramped than my feeling." Arnold meant seriously this heartbreaking disclosure; and yet the energetic, even racy prose of the rest of his life was not that of a gelid soul.

How, then, are we to read Arnold's life? Is it-as Hamilton would suggest-a tragic one, in which an early poetic gift is "imprisoned" and stifled by a later married life of repressed romance and daily drudgery? Or is it - as one might counter - an imaginatively successful life, in which a great critic, having trained his taste by the study of poetry and the practice of it "from the inside," decided to embark on a vigorous analysis of the state of his country? Arnold's ambition-which was nothing less than to reform English culture-is not the ambition of an "imprisoned" sensibility. Perhaps we should pay less attention to Arnold's own foreboding that he might not continue to write poetry, and pay more attention to the ardors released in his prose. After all, many writers (Joyce and Faulkner come to mind) began by thinking that they would be poets only to discover that they were cut out for something else.

We consider it disappointing, perhaps, when a young poet finds his eventual life-work in criticism (rather than in fiction or in drama). The gap between imaginative writing and critical writing is a real one, and Arnold mourned the departure of the wistful passion that had awakened his verse. Yet intellectual analysis and reforming zeal-the passions that awakened his prose-are also primary drives, and in Arnold they demanded fulfillment as much as his reverie and his grief had once done. No one can choose his own impulses, and it was Arnold's misfortune to have several-a fact that originally made him think he had none.

Arnold's famous and overpowering father, Thomas Arnold of Rugby, had one drive and one alone: to make his students into Christian leaders. In that ambition, he succeeded: his students went out from Rugby to govern England and the Empire. But Matt was a puzzle. His father wrote, as his son was ending his Rugby schooldays, that

"Matt does not know what it is to work because he so little knows what it is to think.... I think that he is not so idle as he was, and that there is a better prospect of his beginning to read in earnest. Alas! that we should have to talk of prospect only, and of no performance as yet which deserves the name of "earnest reading.""

And yet Matt won a scholarship to Balliol (as he had won prizes at Rugby for Latin verse and English verse). He was one of only two out of thirty to win the Oxford scholarship, but his father's response was: "I had not the least expectation of his being successful. The news actually filled me with astonishment." (I quote this remark from Park Honan's fine biography Matthew Arnold, which appeared in 1981. It is still the book to read for a balanced and original account of Arnold's life.)

By the end of Arnold's first year at Oxford, his forty-six-year-old father had died prematurely of a heart attack, and the son was left to bear, as an internalized self-criticism, his dead father's expectation that his sons would engage in public service. It is no wonder that Arnold adopted, almost immediately, a different father, who preached a better lesson-the lesson of self-chosen vocation. This second father was Shakespeare. The sonnet to Shakespeare was written within two years of Thomas Arnold's death, when his son was twenty-two. It characterizes Shakespeare as a man "Self-school'd, self- scann'd, self-honoured, self-secure."

Another sonnet ("To a Friend") of the same period, after praising Homer and Epictetus, gives "special thanks" for Sophocles, "Who saw life steadily, and saw it whole." These early moral aims-to discover, through Shakespeare's example, his own selfhood, and to see all of life disinterestedly, as Sophocles taught him-remained before Arnold's eyes forever. When he was still a student, both aims seemed compatible with poetry; but it is significant that the poets whom he honors in these sonnets were writers of plays, whose eyes were on the panorama of society rather than on the inner, hidden life proper to lyric. Arnold's own destiny was eventually to make him, too, look toward that wider social panorama, forsaking the intimate landscape of his best private poems.

At Oxford and after, Arnold became the poet of what he himself diagnosed, in the Preface to his Poems of 1853, as "the dialogue of the mind with itself ... in which the suffering finds no vent in action; ... in which there is everything to be endured, nothing to be done." As his father's son, he wanted action, wanted to do; but he found that he could not change his inner self. With respect to that, there was nothing to be done. And yet no single career presented itself to the young Matthew Arnold as satisfactory. (No one says to a student, "Your destiny is to be a wide-ranging writer in poetry and prose, thinking about religion, social welfare, the claims of the imagination, the differences between French and English culture, the ways literary taste is formed, the vexations of translation, the role of the state in a democracy, the evolution of Christianity, and a hundred other things.")

And so, insensibly, the familial expectation-that one should be a forceful headmaster, a scholar, a lawyer, or a civil servant-made Arnold think of himself as a failure, because he was only writing poetry. He did take up, at twenty-five, a sinecure as Private Secretary to Lord Lansdowne, a post that he left at twenty- nine for a better-paying Inspectorship of Schools that enabled him to marry Frances Wightman. But the Secretaryship was obtained through family influence, and the Inspectorship through Lord Lansdowne's influence; in neither case had Arnold felt any vocation for the work. During his first trip as school Inspector in Manchester, he wrote bravely to his new wife that "I think I shall get interested in the schools after a little time."

Shortly before taking up the post of Inspector, perhaps during his honeymoon, Arnold composed "Dover Beach," the poem by which he is still best known. In it, his mind turned to the chief predicament of his society: its loss of the cultural idealism and personal hope once provided by Christianity.

"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
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges
And naked shingles of the world."

In such a passage we see Arnold's technical strength as a poet-the expression that ebbs and flows with the movement of thought; the managing of vowels (as "full," "round," "shore," and "folds" peak into radiance at "bright girdle"); the way in which "withdrawing roar,/Retreating" amplifies itself phonetically at "roar" and ebbs in "retreating." Arnold is never less than deft as a stylist, and this deftness makes his lyrics (though not his narrative poems) transparently readable and often piercing.

Yet something central to Arnold's sensibility is revealed in "Dover Beach." The poem shows Arnold's tendency to keep the private life separate from social life. "Ah, love," says the young husband, "let us be true to one another" (the italics are mine)-because surely, given the nature of the world, we can count on no one else for either love or fidelity. I italicize Arnold's contradictory statements:

"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
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle
and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night."

It is not clear how the lovers can love and be constant in a world which in fact has neither love nor certitude. The fissure that is visible here between the private and the social suggests that the Arnoldian lyric, unable to bridge those two worlds, is doomed to sequester itself within the first. Yet the real interest in the poem gathers toward the last terrible image of the social world, in which one cannot tell friend from foe.

Another fissure comes into view: the "seeming" world is described in terms solely aesthetic ("various, beautiful, new"), while the "real" world is described in terms solely emotional, intellectual, and moral (as it lacks "joy, love, light, certitude, peace, help for pain"). The aesthetic is sequestered in the deceptive, while the other, negative, qualities are said to be "real." No poetry that regards the aesthetic as deceptive can long endure. Yet for a moment, on his honeymoon, Arnold stands balanced between love and a disbelief in love, fidelity and a disbelief in certitude; and in that moment he writes a poem that compels, by its own vacillation, our assent.

Hamilton, a poet himself, gives less credit than he might to Arnold's inner honesty and seriousness. Of course Arnold mistook the nature of his own poetic talent by attempting to treat "noble," "epic," "heartening" stories from ancient literature (in such works as Sohrab and Rustum, Merope, and Balder Dead). Yet Hamilton's way of writing about Arnold's poetic failure is a contemptuous one. He remarks, on the narrative poem Balder Dead (1855):

"The good student Arnold, we suspect, is resolved first of all to cover what he knows to be the set requirements, as if for an end-of-term prize poem: the high-flown rhetorical address, the magnificent-ceremony episode, the heroic-action sequence, the hair-raising Hades evocation, and so on."

Surely no one so genuine as Arnold sat down to write poetry thinking, even un- consciously, "Now I'll do the magnificent-ceremony episode," much less "Now I'll do the hair-raising Hades evocation." Hamilton continues, in the same dismissive vein, deploring Arnold's lack of narrative momentum:

"Arnold's heroic posture is at best a grim-jawed, pumped-up thing. Sky-high apostrophes, big brazen adjectives, mechanically strummed pentameters, gratuitous inversions-all the epic-style- aids are deployed, but with no real story- telling drive."

When he comes to Merope, the failed Sophoclean drama that Arnold composed in 1856-57, Hamilton adopts once again this strained jauntiness:

"[The chorus] stands around listening to long speeches ... with not much more to offer in response than the occasional: "And I too say, Ah me!" The Greek gods are a problem, also. Like the chorus, they have to be there even though Arnold does not quite know what to do with them. But then he is generally uncertain when it comes to fathoming Greek moral values."

From what peak of Hellenic certainty, I want to ask, does Hamilton declare that Arnold, with respect to fathoming Greek moral values, "is generally uncertain"? And how faithful an account of the chorus's speeches in Merope is it to say that the chorus has "not much more to offer in response than the occasional 'And I too say, Ah me!'" It is true that once (and only once) the chorus says "Ah me" as its entire response, but Arnold also gives it responses and counsels running to eighty lines or more.

The chorus in Merope often has some moving Arnoldian things to say:

"But, more than all unplumb'd,
Unscal'd, untrodden, is the heart of

Yea, and not only have we not explor'd
That wide and various world, the heart
of others,
But even our own heart, that narrow
Bounded in our own breast, we hardly
Of our own actions dimly trace the
Whether a natural obscureness, hiding
That region in perpetual cloud,
Or our own want of effort, be the bar."

It is easy to forget how stirring it was to read, in pre-Freudian days, assertions of the existence of the unconscious and of the denial of unconscious motives.

Elsewhere in Merope, Arnold attempts-by adopting dimeters-a more "Greek" swiftness, as the chorus recounts, in explaining the origin of a constellation, how Arcas unwittingly slew his mother Callisto after she had been transformed into a bear. Callisto, unable to speak, grieves and is recognized by her son:

"Low moans half utter'd
What speech refus'd her;
Tears cours'd, tears human,
Down those disfigur'd
Once human cheeks.
With unutterable foreboding
Her son, heart-stricken, ey'd her.
The Gods had pity, made them Stars.
Stars now they sparkle
In the northern Heaven;
The guard Arcturus,
The guard-watch'd Bear."

Hamilton might have made something of these efforts by Arnold to naturalize Greek literary effects into English. Yet he exhibits no interest at all in Arnold's Greek tragedy, concluding only that "there is a sadness in contemplating the whole enterprise: so diligent, so well intentioned and so wrong!" (Hamilton here unconsciously echoes Arnold's "So various, so beautiful, so new," proving how the power of "Dover Beach" lingers in the mind.) Hamilton seems to agree with the diagnosis that Arnold made of his own case: that the congealing of his poetic talent sprang from the difficulty of writing poetry in the modern age. A more vigorous Arnold, according to Hamilton, might have made a stronger effort. Hamilton calls a letter that Arnold wrote at thirty-six about this predicament "his letter of resignation, one might say" from poetry. It is true that Arnold-with his parents' critical remarks always alive in him-blamed himself for his absence of poetic production. But might it not be truer to say that his ultimate adult vocation-the vocation of criticism-began to assert itself powerfully in him, rather than that he "resigned" voluntarily from poetry?

It is easy to be taken in by Arnold's own version of his life, so plangently phrased in the poetry, and nowhere more plangently than in "Growing Old"-the poem from which Hamilton takes the prison of his subtitle. (The poem is undated, but it was probably written in Arnold's mid-forties.) To grow old, says the barely middle-aged Arnold in his most self-lacerating tone, is like this:

"It is to spend long days
And not once feel that we were
ever young;
It is to add, immured
In the hot prison of the present, month
To month with weary pain.

It is to suffer this,
And feel but half, and feebly,
what we feel.
Deep in our hidden heart
Festers the dull remembrance of
a change,
But no emotion-none.

It is-last stage of all-
When we are frozen up within, and quite
The phantom of ourselves,
To hear the world applaud the hollow
Which blamed the living man."

Hamilton thinks that here is the profound truth of Arnold's life. One answers, Yes, but....

For where, in Arnold's account of himself in "Growing Old," are the past and future swinging energies of the prose works? Or any sense of the brilliant mockery to be found in one of the earliest of these, Arnold's Oxford inaugural lecture "On Translating Homer" (which was contemporary with the failed Merope)? In 1857, Arnold had been elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford, a post wherein one has to give three lectures a year. Full-time school inspector though he was, Arnold held on to the Oxford post for two five-year terms, and became-through his lectures published as Essays in Criticism (1865) and On the Study of Celtic Literature (1867)-the most important literary critic in England. And what, in "Growing Old," augurs the man of savage and denunciatory verve who will write Culture and Anarchy (1869)? Where in the poem is the man who will compose the bold, even blasphemous, revisionary writings on Biblical interpretation (St. Paul and Protestantism in 1870, Literature and Dogma in 1873, God and the Bible in 1875)? At the time of his death, Arnold was collecting the essays for Essays in Criticism, Second Series (which appeared posthumously).

In sum: busy though he was writing lengthy school reports, burdened though he was emotionally (not least by the tragic deaths of three of his four sons), occupied though he was with family affairs (he was one of eight children), Arnold went on writing, writing, writing. (Which meant that he went on thinking and feeling.) It is to limit the word "feeling" unduly to restrict it to the emotions that are congenial to the production of lyric poetry. If Arnold himself so limited the word (at least in "Growing Old"), we should not merely for that reason follow his example.

If we look back from the prose-writer to the writer of poetry, we can see that Arnold's lyrics, though they strike an unforgettable Victorian elegiac note, embody only one part of the man. We cannot find in them satisfactory representations of his raillery, his social and historical breadth of concern, his intellectual and political convictions, his strong impulse to teach. The poems are those of a limited, if intense, talent. (The truly great poet puts all of himself and his age, somehow, into his poetry, even if he is a lyric poet. Think of Yeats.) We would have a smaller idea of Arnold the man if we did not know the prose. By looking back at the poetry through the prose, we can see how little we would have known of Arnold's mind and heart if the lyrics had been his only written communication of himself. That he went on writing-unlike, say, Rimbaud-suggests that his personality had other crucial aspects of itself to express.

Hamilton's funereal judgment (borrowed in part from Auden's remark that Arnold "thrust his gift in prison till it died") is not the only judgment to make, even if one considers solely Arnold's life as a poet. It is not a tragedy when an original minor poet succeeds in working his characteristic vein to the fullest. Arnold, I believe, did exactly that. He was the finest modern articulator of what he called "The Buried Life," the authentic life within ourselves of which we have only occasional glimpses:

"But often, in the world's most crowded
But often, in the din of strife,
There rises an unspeakable desire
After the knowledge of our buried life....
And many a man in his own breast
then delves,
But deep enough, alas! none ever mines.
And we have been on many thousand
And we have shown, on each,
spirit and power;
But hardly have we, for one little hour,
Been on our own line, have we been

Only rarely, when "Our eyes can in another's eyes read clear," is something revealed:

"A bolt is shot back somewhere in
our breast,
And a lost pulse of feeling stirs again.
The eye sinks inward, and the heart
lies plain,
And what we mean, we say, and what
we would, we know."

One can see in such excerpts a mastery of plainness and a naturalness of idiomatic intonation. Arnold's invention of a plain modern verse-style ultimately served Eliot (his chief disciple) well, especially in the Four Quartets. In the never-ending dispute about what poetry should sound like-plain, like Homer? difficult and exalted, like Pindar? exquisite, like Sappho?-Arnold came down on the side of the plain. In this way he differed from his contemporaries Browning, Tennyson, and Hopkins; and in this way he generated a stream of modern British verse going from Hardy through Eliot's late style to Larkin.

Many of Arnold's poems define for us a whole episode in modern feeling, as he speaks of himself as a man "Wandering between two worlds, one dead,/The other powerless to be born" ("Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse"). Writing to his mother in 1869, Arnold said of his poetry:

"My poems represent, on the whole, the main movement of mind of the last quarter of a century, and thus they will probably have their day as people become conscious to themselves of what that movement of mind is, and interested in the literary productions which reflect it. It might be fairly urged that I have less poetical sentiment than Tennyson and less intellectual vigour and abundance than Browning; yet ... I am likely enough to have my turn as they have had theirs."

Looking at the Victorian public intellectuals-Carlyle, Newman, Mill, Arnold, Ruskin-we see men of great literary gifts insisting that there were fundamental economic and spiritual needs not being satisfied under the conditions of nineteenth-century social and intellectual life. It seems astonishing, in retrospect, that a single small island should have for some years conducted its public controversies at such a high level, whatever the intellectual or political failings of its individual writers. (Those failings are much insisted upon by those critics availing themselves of twentieth-century hindsight.) It is scarcely remembered now, by those characterizing Arnold as an "elitist," that he insisted, in Culture and Anarchy, that culture "seeks to do away with classes." He told his fellow-citizens the ugly truth about their materialist aristocracy, their vulgar middle class, and their brutalized lower class, and his near-despair shows through his plain and sardonic prose:

"In the immense spiritual movement of our day, the English aristocracy ... always reminds me of Pilate confronting the phenomenon of Christianity. [As for the middle class], they are deficient in openness and flexibility of mind, in free play of ideas, in faith and ardour.... They are thrown back upon themselves-upon a defective type of religion, a narrow range of intellect and knowledge, a stunted sense of beauty, a low standard of manners. And the lower class see before them the aristocratic class, and its civilisation, such as it is, infinitely more out of their reach than out of that of the middle class; while the life of the middle class, with its unlovely types of religion, thought, beauty, and manners, has naturally, in general, no great attractions for them either. And so they too are thrown back upon themselves; upon their beer, their gin, and their fun. Now, then, you will understand what I meant by saying that our inequality materialises our upper class, vulgarises our middle class, brutalises our lower.'

No one writing such a passage, with such appalled adjectives-"deficient, de- fective, narrow, stunted, low, unlovely"-is lacking in feeling. Yet the feelings visi- ble here are not the ones that Arnold considered suitable to poetry; they are the strong, even savage, feelings of one who sees his fellow-citizens living humanly stunted lives. And none were offered less to widen their sensibilities than "the masses." Arnold is unsparing on what is being given to them by their so-called sympathizers among popular novelists and ideological propagandists. (His words will strike home to anyone in America contemplating what our schools offer to children as food for their hearts and minds.) "Plenty of people," Arnold writes,

"will try to give the masses, as they call them, an intellectual food prepared and adapted in the way they think proper for the actual condition of the masses. The ordinary popular literature is an example of this way of working on the masses. Plenty of people will try to indoctrinate the masses with the set of ideas and judgments constituting the creed of their own profession or party. Our religious and political organizations give an example of this way of working on the masses. I condemn neither way; but culture works differently. It does not try to teach down to the level of inferior classes; it does not try to win them for this or that sect of its own, with ready-made judgments and watchwords. It seeks to do away with classes; to make the best that has been thought and known in the world current everywhere."

"The great men of culture," he adds, "are the true apostles of equality."

It is no tragedy, then, that Arnold's adult feelings-even if they were conditioned, as no doubt they were, by paternal influence-went out to the English multitude instead of remaining bound to the sentiments of elegy and romance expressed in the lyrics of his twenties and thirties. We honor in writers, after all, their lives as writers. If they can develop and extend their writing while staying within one genre, well and good; but if one vein dries up, a courageous writer-and Arnold was such a writer-explores another seam. By underplaying Arnold's upward trajectory to greatness as a literary critic and a social theorist, by uncritically endorsing Arnold's pained remarks about himself, Hamilton's book leaves us with a limited idea of what it was to be Matthew Arnold.

(Copyright 1999, The New Republic)