Matthew Arnold: Poems

Matthew Arnold: Poems Summary

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.

"Desire," the earliest poem discussed here, expresses Arnold's desire that humankind be saved from the troubles and toils of life

"To Marguerite: Continued" compares humans to islands, to explore how people are all separated and distant from one another in the modern age.

"A Summer Night" explores the speaker's difficult decision between conforming to society's demands and running away from society but being considered a "madman" because of it.

"Consolation" is about Time (which the poem personifies as a goddess), who moves on incessantly despite the fact that man does not understand her ways.

"A Dream" is a metaphorical poem in which the speaker and his friend Martin float down the River of Life, passing by two lovely ladies whom they cannot join because of the river's motion.

"Absence" is addressed to the speaker's beloved Marguerite, who is unfortunately far away.

One of Arnold's most famous poems, "The Scholar-Gipsy" recounts the story of an Oxford student leaving his studies behind, in order to join a band of gypsies and learn their priceless secrets. Through the poem, Arnold explores his desire to escape society.

"Thyrsis" is a eulogy of sorts for Arnold's deceased friend Arthur Hugh Clough. 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.

Arnold's most famous poem, "Dover Beach," criticizes 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.

"A Wish" recounts a dying man's desire to have an unconventional funeral, and to be placed so as to study nature as he retires.

"Bacchanalia" is in two parts. The first part tells how some wild youths disturb the serenity of a peaceful field, while the second part relates this interruption to the emergence of the "new age" of modernism.

"Cadmus and Harmonia" alludes to an ancient myth in which two lovers were turned to snakes. Arnold admires how this transformation allows them to live outside society.

"Austerity of Poetry" tells of a beautiful woman who is struck by a falling stage. People then realize that she wears only a sackcloth robe, and Arnold uses the metaphor to express how poetry seems ornate but is quite simple.

"East London" compares a miserable weaver to an optimistic preacher, to express how faith makes life better.

"West London" describes a tramp who only begs from other workers and never from the rich. Arnold uses the situation to attack how class distinctions separate people from one another in the modern world.

"From the Hymn of Empedocles" is a plea for people to enjoy their small successes, rather than becoming mired in doubt and misery.

In "Apollo Musagetes," the speaker stands near the volcanic Mount Etna, admiring the serenity that the god Apollo and his muses enjoy on a distant cliffside.

"Epilogue to Lessing's Laocoon" recounts a conversation between the speaker and his friend, in which they debate the merits of poetry as compared to other arts. Eventually, they decide that poetry is the most difficult and thorough of the arts.