52. (Matthew Arnold)

Born this day, December 24, in 1822, Matthew Arnold would have today celebrated his one hundredth and ninety second birthday, had he been a tortoise or a koi. A man, he lived to sixty six.

T.S. Eliot said that he was more of an advocate for criticism than a critic, but that would mean a great many Victorians were not sure what criticism was; R.H Hutton, the best of the second rank of Victorian critics, thought Arnold without equal as a critic, and possessed of infallible taste; Housman, from whom praise was never cheap, proclaimed him, on his death, the greatest classical critic of the era, whatever the limitations of his Latin and Greek.

Eliot disliked especially Arnold’s emphasis on “ideas” through the criticism; Arnold uses the word repeatedly (“the application of ideas to life”—“moral ideas”), and often vaguely. And perhaps, for Eliot, Arnold did not touch the concrete particulars of the poems sufficiently; did not often enough describe them. But Arnold’s criticism, or his advocacy for criticism, does, at a more general level, what criticism should: it imagines the creativity of others and asks that we do the same.

The most infamous of Arnold’s critical pieces is the essay on Shelley; it’s unfairly maligning at times, but it’s not entirely unfair, and Arnold has probably been more maligned for it than he deserves.

The great phrase is the last one: “A beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain.”

And it is a great phrase, as Arnold recognized, which is why he quotes it, rather than writing afresh: he had first used it in the essay on Byron, also describing Shelley. But the quotation is not exact. In the Byron essay, it appeared in apposition to Shelley’s name, so there was no article “a,” and in the Byron essay the italics were absent.

Those italics in the quotation about are peculiar, since italics are themselves not only a way of insisting, but a confession that the language is ineffectual at insisting without the aid of typographical indication.

And perhaps Arnold’s prose is to criticism what Shelley’s verse is to poetry… Confessedly ineffectual at reforming the critical attitude, or effecting the renewal of the critical spirit. Shelley mattered so much to so many in the nineteenth century because he wrote poetry conditioned by the belief that poetry might do something impossible, that it might bring about some sort of genuine vision, that it might even contain the trace—and not just the memory or the disappointed recollection (as in Wordsworth, whose poetry is at a remove from the visions to which it attests)—of an insight into something fundamental and otherwise inaccessible. Of course it failed; of course he beat its wings in vain; it probably gave life to English poetry for a century, too, since it convinced people that poetry could aspire to something.

Larkin and Bishop, as great as they are, have had the opposite effect in the twentieth century, especially when people fail to see the Stevens in Bishop and the early Auden and Eliot in Larkin.

Most of the poet-critics who write about Shelley seem to resent that they, at one time or another, worshipped that angel. Arnold seems to.

He is the most Shelleyan of the Victorians—and Shelley, rather than Keats, is the source of his strength as a poet. In the letters to Clough, he lumps Keats together with Shelley, dismissing them in their efforts at recreating Elizabethan effects, dissatisfied with their desire to “produce exquisite bits and images.” But at his best, neither Shelley nor Arnold do any such thing.

Wordsworth saw it first—made the initial discovery—but Shelley explored and staked his poetic well-being on it: the power of vagueness in language. Vagueness stands in opposition not only to precision, but to ambiguity. Empson notes that vagueness, rather than ambiguity, is the chief Romantic resource. Whereas ambiguity depends on a set of defined alternatives, vagueness suggests that set with unknown objects, or a set whose limits are unknown. Neither ambiguity or vagueness prevent clear understanding but a clear understanding needs to account for each differently, enumerating alternative meanings or plotting out a space of uncertainty and provisionally filling it.

We might think Swinburne was the vaguest of the Victorians (“Algernon was vague”–not Stevie Smith), but vagueness is only apparent against a field of precision and ambiguity; vagueness itself needs to have its outlines and contours established; Arnold establishes those outlines better than any Victorian, in the best of the poems…The best of the poems are those that do not go in for exquisite images; that do not attempt Keats’ sensual effects.

Arnold brings vagueness to life in the poetry—and later, once he had given up his dedication to poetry, in the criticism.

Arnold is most powerfully vague in “Dover Beach,” of course: “We find also in the sound a thought.” “The eternal note of sadness.” Arnold may even have played with the thought that vagueness was in the ocean at Dover beach, in les vagues themselves.

But Arnold, unlike Shelley, despairs at the encounter with vagueness—both because what is vague is probably a cause of despair, and because the fact that it is vague is dissatisfying. Shelley is an optimist, and he takes the fact of vagueness itself to be something that enriches life.

But both Shelley and Arnold take vagueness to be a sign of something irreconcilable with, alien to, or surpassing everyday experience. The strategy is risky for a poet because it is easy to be vague—and if vagueness is taken as evidence of sublimity or power, then these in turn are reduced or rendered facile or rendered counterfeit whenever the vagueness is felt to be unearned. Both Shelley and Arnold struggle to earn vagueness.

For Arnold, italics are both a part of the struggle to earn vagueness and also evidence that something is vague.

The opening of “To Marguerite—Continued”:


Yes! In the sea of life enisled,

With echoing straits between us thrown,

Dotting the shoreless watery wild,

We mortal millions live alone.

The islands feel the enclasping flow,

And then their endless bounds they know.


And a late, untitled poem:


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.


From “The Scholar-Gypsy”:


Thou hast not lived, why should’st thou perish, so?

Thou hadst one aim, one business, one desire;

Else were thou long since number’d with the dead!

Else had thou spent, like other men, thy fire!

The generations of thy peers are fled,

And we ourselves shall go;

But thou possesses an immortal lot,

And we imagine thee exempt from age

And living as thou liv’st on Glanvil’s page,

Because thou hadst—what we, alas! have not.


From “Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse”:


If it be pass’d, take away,

At least, the restlessness, the pain;

Be man henceforth no more a prey

To these out-dated stings again!

The nobleness of grief is gone—

Ah! leave us not the fret alone.


“A Caution to Poets”


What poets feel not, when they make,

A pleasure in creating,

The world, in its turn, will not take

Pleasure in contemplating.


From “Self-Deception” (the closing stanza):


We but dream we have our wish’d-for powers,

Ends we seek we never shall attain.

Ah! Some power exists there, which is ours?

Some end is there, we indeed may gain?


From “Self-Dependence”:


From the intense, clear, star-sown vault of heaven,

Over the lit sea’s unquiet way,

In the rustling night-air came the answer:

“Wouldst thou be as these are? Live as they”


From “Fragment of a Chorus of a ‘Dejaneira'”:


O frivolous mind of man,

Light ignorance, and hurrying, unsure thoughts!

Though man bewails you not,

How I bewail you!

But him, on whom, in the prime

Of life, with vigour undimm’d,

With unspent mind, and a soul

Unworn, undebased, undenay’d,

Mournfully grating, the gates

Of the city of death have for ever closed—

Him, I count him, well-starr’d.


The obvious explanations for italics are not wrong: they add emphasis, they create contrast between one word and another, between one person and another. I have excluded the instances when Arnold uses italics to indicate another voice speaking, but the principle that allows italics to indicate quotations is the same that allows italics to indicate emphasis and differentiation: it suggests a shift in voice, or even the voice fracturing.

But I think we can add a further description to the italics above: they are reaching, straining, to indicate, to select an object, to define a word or to deepen it or to dredge something from its depths. And those various strains towards indication, definition, deepening or dredging are all instances of reaching after something that is not already available to the reader, in the other words on the page, or the context of the words, and the poet, in the words and thoughts available to him.

Italics arise because of a confrontation with something vague; they register the experience of vagueness.

I am not saying that Arnold’s italics make for the most powerful moments of the poetry; but I do think they are a great deal more powerful than we might think italics can or should be, and this because Arnold is using them to earn vagueness as well as to register it.

In the italics, we see Arnold squirming against his own voice, ill-at-ease with himself, with the form he has chosen; he seems clumsy, and, in so far as italics are an abnegation of aspiration, he seems humble.

Arnold’s poetry is moving because of his sudden swerve from the confident to the bumbling; from the oracular to the insecure. And the italics represent a mingling of both. He is confident enough elsewhere not to let vagueness bother him, but the vagueness does both him when he uses italics—he does not seem to be happily passing a forged check along to his readers.

Instead, he seems to be imploring: “try,” the italics say, “to hear what I am getting at, since I am not able to better get at it.” Elsewhere, he does get things more or less right, though; the italics are a recognition of his own limitations, a confession that he is maybe only a very good minor poet. But they also demonstrate a belief that, whether the poetry fails, there is something of pressing urgency to communicate and see—that he will sacrifice perfection, or even the aspiration to perfection, for the sake of getting something across…and what he gets across is not even the idea, but the idea that there is an idea or feeling or insight that is there to be had, to be captured, to be dredged up. As a matter of communication, revelation, and expression, the italics are ineffectual, and not very luminous; but they are at least a gesture that there is something worth illuminating, something that could and should be made clear.


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