Monday, July 11, 2011

Life Explained, Part Eighteen: "An Aimless Unallayed Desire"

I confess that I tend to think of Matthew Arnold as a staid Victorian:  the inspector of schools, the prescriptive author of Culture and Anarchy, the long-winded poet of "Empedocles on Etna," et cetera.  But I should know better.  In fact, his poetry has surprising moments of passion and directness.  For instance, the following poem sounds like something that Thomas Hardy could have written in the early 20th century.


Why each is striving, from of old,
To love more deeply than he can?
Still would be true, yet still grows cold?
-- Ask of the Powers that sport with man!

They yoked in him, for endless strife,
A heart of ice, a soul of fire;
And hurled him on the Field of Life,
An aimless unallayed Desire.

Matthew Arnold, Empedocles on Etna and Other Poems (1852).

Kenneth Allott, who edited and annotated The Poems of Matthew Arnold (1965), believes that Arnold wrote "Destiny" in 1849 or 1850, when he was 27 or 28 years old.  For an interesting investigation of Arnold's poetic career, I recommend Ian Hamilton's A Gift Imprisoned: The Poetic Life of Matthew Arnold (Bloomsbury 1998).  Nicholas Murray's A Life of Matthew Arnold (Hodder & Stoughton 1996) is also excellent.    

Although I have posted the following poem once before, I think that reading it in conjunction with "Destiny" may throw some light upon both poems.  (It is untitled.)

Below the surface-stream, shallow and light,
Of what we say we feel -- below the stream,
As light, of what we think we feel -- there flows
With noiseless current strong, obscure and deep,
The central stream of what we feel indeed.

The poem was published in The Cornhill Magazine in November of 1869, but it was never reprinted in any of the collections of Arnold's poetry that were published in his lifetime.

                                        Gilbert Spencer, "Allotments"


Fred said...


Yes, that does the flavor of Hardy, especially this line:

"Ask of the Powers that sport with man!"

As for the untitled poem--I wonder if Freud had read it.

Dave Lull said...

In a review of a new biography of G.K. Chesterton the reviewer writes:

Ker highlights the magnanimity of Chesterton. Again, like Newman, he looked for what was good in those he criticized-- even those, like Matthew Arnold, who never shared his religious convictions. In his biography of the painter G.F. Watts, for example, Chesterton had occasion to praise Watts's great portrait of Arnold, about which he said:

["]The portrait-painter of Matthew Arnold obviously ought not to understand him, since he did not understand himself. And the bewilderment which the artist felt for those few hours, reproduced in a perfect, almost an immortal picture, the bewilderment which the sitter felt from the cradle to the grave.["]

Most critics would have left matters at that, but how typical of Chesterton to add that "the bewilderment of Matthew Arnold was more noble and faithful than most men's certainty."


Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: Yes, that's the line that reminded me of Hardy as well. It is reminiscent of Hardy's "purblind Doomsters," isn't it? As for Freud: if perchance he did read Arnold, I'm not sure that Arnold would approve of the results! (Just guessing.)

Thank you for stopping in again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Lull: Thank you very much for visiting again, and for the links to Chesterton's wonderful observations on Arnold and the Watts portrait. Chesterton's comments are marvelously acute! I must admit that my view of Arnold changed (for the better) when I first came across the Watts portrait in 1997 on the cover of the American edition of Nicholas Murray's A Life of Matthew Arnold. Up till then, I had only seen photographs of Arnold. None of them captures anything close to the character that comes through in the Watts portrait. Even though Chesterton asserts that Watts may not have "understood" Arnold, and may have been "bewildered," he nonetheless captured something essential about Arnold.

Again, thank you very much!

Shelley said...

Yes, with certain writers--Matthew Arnold and Emily Dickinson being two of them--they once in a while break out in almost a science-fiction way, piercing the membrane of their time, and seem more at home in ours.

zmkc said...

Does anyone know why the second poem was never included in his lifetime again? Did he, like Auden, suppress poems he regretted?

Stephen Pentz said...

Shelley: thank you for visiting and commenting again -- your point is a good one, and Dickinson fits well.

Stephen Pentz said...

zmkc: you raise a very interesting question. I had thought to mention in my post (but didn't) that Arnold never reprinted "Destiny" in any of the subsequent "collected" editions of his poetry. My conclusion was the same as yours: that he did not wish to preserve the poems. Perhaps he thought that they were too "personal" or too "pessimistic" (my quotes). They do tend to conflict a bit with his "sweetness and light" approach to art and culture in his later years.

As always, thank you for visiting, zmkc.