Matthew Arnold: Poems

Matthew Arnold: Poems Essay Questions

  1. 1

    Discuss Matthew Arnold's stance on global modernization, and how that outlook manifests in his poetry.

    Matthew Arnold was clearly opposed to modern industrialization; he believed that it created a laborious work ethic, and that people ended up wasting their lives away on mundane tasks. He referred to such a life as a "prison." Many of his poems incorporate this viewpoint. For example, in "The Scholar-Gipsy," he lauds the scholar-gipsy for breaking away from this type of lifestyle. In "A Summer Night," he condemns how this modern world breaks everyone into either imprisoned laborers or those who are willing to be considered "madmen" by breaking away. He often poses nature as a contrast to this industrialized life. Overall, this desire to transcend the limitations of the modern world constitutes Arnold's most common theme.

  2. 2

    How does the theme of faith manifest in Matthew Arnold's poetry?

    Though he often questioned the nature of organized religion, Arnold was a huge proponent of using faith to guide life, and this shows in his poetry. In his opinion, the rising prominence of science and rapid modernization was pushing faith farther and farther away from people's lives, and this was inexcusable and detrimental. As evidenced in "East London," Arnold believed that only faith could brighten one's path during this dark time, and yet it was still being shunted to the side. In Arnold's most famous poem, "Dover Beach," the speaker laments the difference in the way faith was valued in earlier times and the way it is valued now. Overall, faith is less important in Arnold's work as a religious sentiment than it is as an escape from the perils of modern life.

  3. 3

    Why did Arnold believe poetry was more difficult than any other art?

    In "Epilogue to Lessing's Laocoon," Arnold expresses his belief that poetry is unfairly appreciated in comparison to other arts, particularly painting and music. Those latter two mediums tend to garner more attention. And yet Arnold believes that poetry is both the most difficult and all-encompassing. Whereas a painter can only capture a single moment in time, and the musician has only a limited number of notes with which to work, a poet is charged with capturing the entire movement of the world and its people, and with a multitude of tools at his disposal. Further, a poet is responsible for not only the present, but the past as well, making his art into a huge responsibility. In short, because poetry has the most potential, it also poses the most difficult challenge.

  4. 4

    Why does Arnold so frequently incorporate natural metaphors and outdoor imagery into his poetry?

    Since so much of Arnold's work condemns the state of humanity and society in the modern world, it makes sense that he would be so enamored of nature. Whereas society seemed to be changing incessantly before his eyes, nature remained a much more reliable constant. Nature is beautiful, pure, and never-changing. In other words, nature serves as an expression of man's transcendent potential, while the physical world only reflects man's limitations. (Arnold tends to represent these limitations through the symbol of cities, a clear juxtaposition to nature.) One good example is "A Wish," in which the speaker expresses his desire to look out towards nature as he dies, to contemplate greater possibilities, rather than focus on the superficialities of the human world.

  5. 5

    Discuss Arnold's use of language, structure, and rhyme in his poetry.

    Though he may not have followed strict parameters as did many other poets of his time, style and structure are still both important components of Matthew Arnold's poetry. Further, while different poems use different approaches, there are some overlapping ideas. Arnold's diction paints many mental pictures throughout his poems; through his word choice, readers can imagine the locations and scenes he describes. This is particularly important since he tends to juxtapose the serenity of nature with the hustle and bustle of modern life. Also, he uses a variety of poetic structures, including sonnets such as "East London" and "West London," and utilizes shorter lines and enjambment when a poem is meant to be read at a fast pace. Through his decisions in this regard, he makes his ideas about modern life seem important and pressing, not simply abstractions. Finally, Arnold frequently uses rhyme schemes, though his patterns are often simple so as not to distract the reader. Whenever rhyme is noticeable, it usually connotes an innocence or childishness that underlines the theme of that particular poem.

  6. 6

    How does Matthew Arnold juxtapose the earthly elements in his poetry, particularly in "A Dream?"

    Though he incorporated all four elements into many of his poems, Arnold most commonly juxtaposed water and fire, two elements that are notably opposite from one another. The most obvious occurrence of such juxtaposition occurs in "A Dream." In this poem, the speaker and his friend begin their journey sailing on a small creek surrounded by beautiful, natural scenery. The creek is deemed the "River of Life," and it whisks them farther and farther along, until they pass by "burning plains of cities." These cities represent societal corruption and modernization, expressed negatively by fire. This fire threatens to ruin their journey until the River of Life whisks them into a calm sea; water again offers security. This basic juxtaposition - whereby water represents peaceful salvation, and fire potential devastation amongst humanity - is present in many of the poems.

  7. 7

    How and why does Matthew Arnold draw upon classical mythology?

    Arnold frequently incorporates the tales of classical mythology into his poetry, usually as an example of a type of serenity that has been lost in the modern world. Some of the most notable examples are "Apollo Musagetes" and "Cadmus and Harmonia." During the time of the ancient gods and goddesses, faith was a huge component of everyday life; people explained the happenings of the world by way of the deities they believed in. Further, the gods were human-type figures who had an inherent connection to the immortality of nature. For Arnold, this connection made figures like Harmonia or Apollo enviable. Overall, Arnold draws upon mythology to emphasize and condemn the difference between a world that valued faith and a modern world that values work and toil more highly.

  8. 8

    Does Arnold take a reflective or an emotional stance in his poetry? Explain.

    Though there are bouts of emotion in Arnold's poems (particularly in those involving love and his idealized "Marguerite"), the poems typically take more of a reflective stance. In particular, they remark on (and typically criticize) the human condition. In other words, they tend to have a more intellectual than emotional agenda. Arnold believed, as evidenced by "Austerity of Poetry," that poetry should express a simple philosophy or hold some sort of moral, even if it is disguised under layers of figurative language and beautiful imagery. He certainly practiced what he preached; after reading of a set of his poems, it becomes quite clear that Arnold had a lot to say about modern life.

  9. 9

    Discuss the speakers in Arnold's poetry.

    In his poetry, Matthew Arnold most frequently uses his speaker as a representation of himself, rather than as fictional characters with distinct voices. Though his speakers may have experienced things that he did not, they always share his opinions and express his own ideas. Also, his speakers will often relate personal anecdotes that are eventually translated into worldly lessons and criticisms, something that can be noticed in the pair of sonnets "East London" and "West London."

  10. 10

    Arnold chooses to personify a number of intangible ideas in his poems. What effect does this have?

    Arnold's use of personification feeds his intellectual approach, since he can then treat abstract ideas as things to be physically reckoned with. For instance, in "Desire," Arnold personifies both "The Soul" and "Pride" in order to emphasize the way that pride can corrupt the soul. By making these aspects of humanity into physical beings, Arnold creates a more immediate picture of their power. He does something similar in "Consolation," personifying Time to better explore how time affects our experience. Overall, his use of personification suggests that certain forces are virtually out of our control. We must almost literally battle the problems of the world and ourselves; they are more than abstract ideas.