Sunday, July 12, 2015

"The Buried Life"

On the one hand, there is Matthew Arnold the quintessential Victorian of caricature:  the school inspector of high-minded sentiments and of strict societal and critical judgments.  Culture and Anarchy and all that.  Wholly admirable, by the way:  he saw what was coming, and he tried to warn us. Well, here we are.

On the other hand, there is Matthew Arnold the poet, who vanished in 1867 or so, twenty-one years before the prosaic Arnold died of a heart attack in Liverpool.  I claim no originality in calling attention to this split in his life:  a great deal of ink has been spilled trying to account for it.

Who knows what happened?  One way of looking at it is that Arnold applied his exacting critical standards to his own poetry and found it wanting.  Consider, for instance, something that Arnold wrote in an essay about Wordsworth:

"I remember hearing [Wordsworth] say that 'Goethe's poetry was not inevitable enough.'  The remark is striking and true. . . . But Wordsworth's poetry, when he is at his best, is inevitable, as inevitable as Nature herself. It might seem that Nature not only gave him the matter for his poem, but wrote his poem for him."

Matthew Arnold, "Wordsworth," Essays in Criticism, Second Series (1888), page 155.

Benjamin Leader (1831-1923), "A Surrey Sandpit" (1890)

In the end, though, I suspect that the division in Arnold's life is a matter of passion:  what is poetry without passion?  Except in a few great instances (Hardy, Yeats, Stevens) poetic passion is in the main a matter of youth. (Fortunately, this applies to the writing of poetry, but not to the reading of it.)  Perhaps Arnold recognized that he had lost his passion, so he stopped. (An aside:  in our times, we confer academic degrees in the writing of poetry, certifying that someone is a poet.  How's that for passion?)

But, before he stopped, Arnold wrote poetry that is as passionate (and as inevitable) as anything that has ever been written.  For that we should be grateful.  We need not dissect his life.


The thoughts that rain their steady glow
Like stars on life's cold sea,
Which others know, or say they know --
They never shone for me.

Thoughts light, like gleams, my spirit's sky,
But they will not remain;
They light me once, they hurry by,
And never come again.

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

The following poem, which is one of the handful of poems that Arnold wrote after 1867, gets to the heart of his internal struggle.

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.

Matthew Arnold, in Kenneth Allott (editor), The Poems of Matthew Arnold (Longmans 1965).  The poem was published in The Cornhill Magazine in November of 1869.  Arnold did not include it in any of the collections of his poetry that were published during his lifetime.

Benjamin Leader, "Betws-y-Coed Church" (1863)

The notion of a "central stream" flowing within us -- our true self, untouched -- haunted Arnold.

"Deep suffering is the consciousness of oneself -- no less than deep enjoyment.  The disease of the present age is divorce from oneself."

Matthew Arnold, from "The Yale Manuscript," quoted in G. Robert Stange, Matthew Arnold: The Poet as Humanist (Princeton University Press 1967), page 192, footnote 18.

I would only suggest:  isn't divorce from oneself the disease of every age? Just a thought.

The stream image first appeared in Arnold's "The Buried Life":  "The unregarded river of our life . . . The buried stream."  (Lines 39 and 42.)  In the same poem, he writes:

But often, in the world's most crowded streets,
But often, in the din of strife,
There rises an unspeakable desire
After the knowledge of our buried life;
A thirst to spend our fire and restless force
In tracking out our true, original course;
A longing to inquire
Into the mystery of this heart which beats
So wild, so deep in us -- to know
Whence our lives come and where they go.
And many a man in his own breast then delves,
But deep enough, alas! none ever mines.
And we have been on many thousand lines,
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 ourselves.

Matthew Arnold, "The Buried Life," lines 45-60, Empedocles on Etna, and Other Poems (1852).

This prose passage parallels lines 57 through 60 of "The Buried Life":

"We have been on a thousand lines and on each have shown spirit[,] talent[,] even geniality but hardly for an hour between birth and death have we been on our own one natural line, have we been ourselves, have we breathed freely."

Matthew Arnold, from "The Yale Manuscript," quoted in Kenneth Allott (editor), The Poems of Matthew Arnold (Longmans 1965), page 274.

The influence of Stoic philosophy is evident in Arnold's poetry, and he wrote an admiring essay about Marcus Aurelius.  (The essay may be found in his Essays in Criticism, First Series.)  One can see why Arnold might find some comfort in the thought of the Stoics.  For example, his talk about the difficulty of pursuing "our own line" brings to mind this:

"If, therefore, now that you are near your exit, you quit thought about other things, and honour only that governing and divine part within you, and dread not the ceasing to live, but the not commencing to live according to nature; you will become a man, worthy of that orderly universe which produced you, and will cease to be as a stranger in your own country; both astonished, with what happens every day, as if unexpected; and in anxious suspense about this and t'other thing."

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book XII, Section 1, in Francis Hutcheson and James Moor (translators), The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (1742), pages 279-280.

Benjamin Leader, "An English Hayfield" (1878)

At times, the passion (there is no other word for it) of Arnold's preoccupation with the fear that he is missing his own life leads to something near despair.


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).

I am reminded of this:  "And we are here as on a darkling plain/Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/Where ignorant armies clash by night." ("Dover Beach.")  As for "the Powers that sport with man":  Thomas Hardy sounds the same note with his "Crass Casualty," "dicing Time," and "purblind Doomsters."  ("Hap," in Wessex Poems and Other Verses.)

Pretty dire stuff.  We all know the feeling though.  But, ah, Matthew (and Thomas), there is another way of looking at things.  And how we live our life lies somewhere in between.

     Simply trust:
Do not the petals flutter down,
     Just like that?

Issa (1763-1828) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 1: Eastern Culture (Hokuseido Press 1949), page 229.

Benjamin Leader, "At Evening Time It Shall Be Light" (1897)


Fred said...


Beautiful post. An excellent introduction to Matthew Arnold of whom I have heard much but of whose works, I must admit, I have read little.

At the end of the day, after reading the day's headlines and listening to the clamor from so-called political "leaders," I need Issa's insight.

Clarissa Aykroyd said...

Interesting - the lines from The Buried Life "But often, in the world's most crowded streets,/But often, in the din of strife" reminded me of Yeats' Lake Isle of Innisfree ("While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey/I hear it in the deep heart's core") and Ted Hughes' The Horses ("In din of crowded streets, going among the years, the faces/May I still meet my memory in so lonely a place"). Particularly the Hughes. The Yeats and the Hughes had, of course, reminded me of each other previously.

As usual I'm wondering if there's direct influence, or if it's just those cross-patterning echoes that appear in the work of poets of different eras and places.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: Thank you for the kind words. I'm pleased you liked the post. Arnold is interesting. His poetry can be a bit ponderous, in a Tennysonian way (particularly the long verse-drama type poems), but there are many shorter lyrical poems that are wonderful. And his emotional and philosophical concerns remain current (at least I think so).

Yes, Issa's haiku puts things in perspective, doesn't it? I've been pretty good at completely avoiding both daily headlines and political pontifications recently, but reading the haiku still puts me at rest.

As always, thank you very much for stopping by.

Stephen Pentz said...

Ms Aykroyd: Interesting: I also think of "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" whenever I read Arnold's lines. I'm not familiar with Hughes' poem, so I appreciate your reference to that as well. In his A New Commentary on the Poems of W. B. Yeats, A. Norman Jeffares does not mention any intended echo of Arnold's lines. (The only allusion he suggests is a line in Shelley's Adonais as perhaps being the source of "heart's core.") Nor does Kenneth Allott mention Yeats in his annotations to "The Buried Life." He does, however, suggest that the lines you quote from Arnold may have their source in two lines by Wordsworth from "Tintern Abbey": "But oft, in lonely rooms, and 'mid the din/Of towns and cities." Perhaps Yeats and Hughes were thinking of Wordsworth? It's hard to say, as you suggest.

I lean toward your latter view: "those cross-patterning echoes that appear in the work of poets of different eras and places." For instance, I often find ancient Chinese poems, Japanese haiku and waka, and English poems that echo each other where there is no possibility of direct influence. It is serendipity. And a shared human way of looking at the world.

As ever, it is a pleasure to hear from you. Thank you very much for visiting again, and for your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Never did people believe anything more firmly, than nine Englishmen out of ten at the present day believe that our greatness and welfare are proved by our being so very rich. Now, the use of culture is that it helps us, by means of its spiritual standard of perfection, to regard wealth as but machinery, and not only to say as a matter of words that we regard wealth as but machinery, but really to perceive and feel that it is so. If it were not for this purging effect wrought upon our minds by culture, the whole world, the future as well as the present, would inevitably belong to the Philistines. The people who believe most that our greatness and welfare are proved by our being very rich, and who most give their lives and thoughts to becoming rich, are just the very people whom we call the Philistines. Culture says: "Consider these people, then, their way of life, their habits, their manners, the very tones of their voice; look at them attentively; observe the literature they read, the things which give them pleasure, the words which come forth out of their mouths, the thoughts which make the furniture of their minds; would any amount of wealth be worth having with the condition that one was to become just like these people by having it?" And thus culture begets a dissatisfaction which is of the highest possible value in stemming the common tide of men's thoughts in a wealthy and industrial community, and which saves the future, as one may hope, from being vulgarised, even if it cannot save the present.
--excerpt from part 1 of Arnold's "Culture and Anarchy"

One might ask if the "future" Arnold hopes for has been saved from being "vulgarized." We know that Arnold was disillusioned by the time in which he lived. Some might say, and some have, that Arnold, despite his erudition and obvious great intelligence, is, at bottom, just another poet ensnared with nostalgia, always looking backwards for a golden age. I know bright people who don't read Arnold--don't read Tennyson or Browning either. Oh, all three poets comprised great talent, but their heavily oppressive times crippled them. Is it possible that could he somehow live in our present he'd rethink his views of his own time, find it a golden age compared to ours?

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you very much for your thoughts on Arnold, and for sharing the passage from Culture and Anarchy.

Perhaps I should reflect more carefully, but I have an immediate response to the two questions you pose. 1. The "future" has not been saved from being "vulgarized." Alas. 2. Yes, Arnold's own time was indeed "a golden age compared to ours." No dispute there.

An aside: I'm not sure that the Victorian period was any more "heavily oppressive" than our own period, or any other period in history. This is why I made my small point about Arnold's use of the term "present age" in his observation about "divorce from oneself." Each age believes that it is unique. But it isn't, when it comes to the perennial human issues. Of course, each age has its own peculiar goods and evils, but the underlying human condition does not vary. Only the technology changes. In my humble opinion.

Thank you again.

Esther said...

One of your best posts ever.

Stephen Pentz said...

Esther: That's very nice of you to say. Thank you very much.

I'm pleased you liked the post. I suspect that the haiku by Issa was already known to you, either in the original and/or in various translations. I understand well Arnold's preoccupations, but it is always good to remind ourselves of another way of looking at things.

It's always a pleasure to hear from you. Thank you very much for visiting again, and for your kind words.