Matthew Arnold: Poems

Matthew Arnold: Poems Study Guide

Matthew Arnold is sometimes called the third great Victorian poet, after Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Robert Browning.

Today, Matthew Arnold is remembered mostly for his critical essays; he did, however, write a lot of poetry during his career, beginning while still a student at the Rugby School. There, he wrote the poem "Alaric at Rome," which was printed by Rugby as the recipient of a prize. In 1942, while Arnold was attending Oxford, his poem "Cromwell" won the Newdigate Prize.

Overall, Arnold's poems often deal with issues of psychological isolation, and he focused a lot on the dwindling faith of his time period, even though he himself had doubts about religion. Arnold is sometimes considered the bridge between Romanticism and Modernism; he used symbolic landscapes characteristic of the Romantic Era, but he was skeptical and pessimistic, qualities more associated with Modernist poetry. His work is more reflective than emotional — he considered poetry to be a "criticism of life" rich in philosophy. Arnold was also a proponent of the idea that happiness comes from within, and that we should seek goodness within ourselves and accept external factors that are thrown at us. He believed that we would inherit eternal bliss one day.

Further, Arnold's poetry places high value on natural scenery; he appreciated it for its constancy and steadfastness, since when juxtaposed with humankind, it changes so little and so slowly. His descriptions of nature are picturesque, and admired elements like subdued colors, mist, and moonlight.

Throughout the course of his literary career, Matthew Arnold released his poems in clusters of anthologies. In 1849, he published his first volume comprised entirely of poetry, entitled The Strayed Reveler. Only one of those poems, "Desire," is discussed here.

His second volume, Empedocles on Etna, gained much greater critical recognition, including poems such as "To Marguerite: Continued," "A Summer Night," and "Consolation."

Poems: A New Edition followed shortly after, containing "A Dream" and one of his most famous, "The Scholar-Gipsy," which recounts the famous story of an Oxford student leaving his studies behind to join a band of gypsies and learn their priceless secrets.

In 1866, Arnold published a eulogy for his deceased friend Arthur Hugh Clough, titled "Thyrsis." It describes a visit back to the Oxford countryside that they once frequented. There, he looks for an elm tree they had long admired, since they believed its existence means the Scholar-Gipsy remains alive.

In 1867, the anthology New Poems was released, containing Arnold's most famous poem, "Dover Beach." Like many of his other poems, "Dover Beach" criticized the dwindling faith of his time period; in the face of advancing scientists, more and more people were becoming skeptical of what they had always believed in.

New Poems also included many other works such as "A Wish," "Bacchanalia," "Austerity of Poetry," "East London," "West London," and "Epilogue to Lessing's Laocoon." Most of these reflect the theme of anti-modernism, something Arnold felt very strongly about throughout his entire life but particularly at this point in his literary career. Arnold believed this change was detrimental to society, and he condemned it over and over again in his poetry.

Though Arnold wrote poetry throughout his life, he was elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford in 1857, and much of his later career was dedicated to his essays rather than to his poetry.

Ultimately, while Arnold wrote on a wide variety of subjects, his recurring fascinations - with nature, faith, mankind, and the power of art - make his work feel parts of a unified whole.