139. (Matthew Arnold)

Showing, earlier this week, some poems I’d written to a critic I admire and trust, I received back some critical suggestions that struck at a peculiar blind-spot: the first-person singular, where it is needed and where not, how it shifts the weight of a poem, dragging a great deal in with it, and excluding a great deal also. To write, for instance, “I would say” in a  poem raises a question as “he would say” does not: why aren’t you saying it then?

A reader is always in a relationship with an author, or speaker, just as an author or speaker is always in a relationship with a world; the first-person singular pronoun does not change that fact, but it changes the dynamics of the relationships by freighting them with more claims and commitments. It might commit the poem to a particular perspective in space and time; it might commit the language to certain expectations of rhythm and syntax corresponding to a natural voice; it might raise doubts about motives and intents; it might alter the scope of a poem’s claims and observations, or it might raise the question of why the additional reminder of the first-person is required to make them; it might establish new claims on the reader, claims to attention and sympathy, perhaps over and against the claims of the world.

The topic of my speculation came into my head this morning when, eminded that today is the birthday of Matthew Arnold, I thought I’d at least glance over one of his poems or essays. There, at the start of the 1861 essay on “Democracy” is the characteristic Arnoldian turn to himself and his earlier writings: “In giving an account of education in certain countries of the Continent, I have often spoken…” And then, a few pages in, the same: “I have had occasion, in speaking of Homer, to say very often, and with much emphasis, that he is of the grand style.” From one perspective, here is another irritating tic of Arnold’s; from another, here is a symptom of the Victorian sage, permitted self-reference on the assumption that his writings, and his intellectual persona, were already established as a known oeuvre.

But from another, here is one of the sources of Arnold’s strength as a critic, and, from another yet, a source of technical mastery shared by the Victorian authors in poets and prose among whom Arnold sits anthologized. I would like to pursue the latter here, thinking especially of Arnold as a poet. Arnold’s distinctly persuasive critical voice (persuasive even when he is making a point against which post-Victorian experience and education and attitudes have inoculated one against persuasion) rests on a careful insertion of the first-person, and an implicit argument, and explicit demonstration, of first-person authority, reasoning, feeling, and judgment, but it is beyond my resources to pursue it.

In the case of the poetry, something more immediately discernible can be more briefly explored. As a starting point, I’ll assume what ought to be argued: that the early Victorian era, the poetry of the Brownings, Tennyson, and Christina Rossetti saw a new engagement with the techniques of the first-person singular pronoun, an exploration and experimentation with its place in poetry, and with the claims and commitments that follow. To say so is to agree with all of the critics who have written on the “self” in Victorian poetry, but to shift the starting point onto a matter of grammar would, I think, shift the substance of the discussion ultimately. The great achievements would be felt in the dramatic monologues of Tennyson and Browning, Aurora Leigh by EBB, and Rossetti’s lyrics. Arnold is to be understood in this context.

My goal is to show that he does something equally distinct and worth acknowledging with the first-person, and to understand what it is he is doing. The latter might be impossible, but the former is easily done. It should be evident in one of Arnold’s second-rate (among his body of works) poems, “A Summer Night”:

In the deserted, moon-blanched street,
How lonely rings the echo of my feet!
Those windows, which I gaze at, frown,
Silent and white, unopening down,
Repellent as the world,–but see,
A break between the housetops shows
The moon! and lost behind her, fading dim
Into the dewy dark obscurity
Down at the far horizon’s rim,
Doth a whole tract of heaven disclose!

And to my mind the thought
Is on a sudden brought
Of a past night, and a far different scene:
Headlands stood out into the moonlit deep
As clearly as at noon;
The spring-tide’s brimming flow
Heaved dazzlingly between;
Houses, with long wide sweep,
Girdled the glistening bay;
Behind, through the soft air,
The blue haze-cradled mountains spread away.
That night was far more fair–
But the same restless pacings to and fro,
And the same vainly throbbing heart was there,
And the same bright, calm moon.

And the calm moonlight seems to say:–
Hast thou then still the old unquiet breast,
Which neither deadens into rest,
Nor ever feels the fiery glow
That whirls the spirit from itself away,
But fluctuates to and fro,
Never by passion quite possessed
And never quite benumbed by the world’s sway?–
And I, I know not if to pray
Still to be what I am, or yield, and be
Like all the other men I see.

For most men in a brazen prison live,
Where, in the sun’s hot eye,
With heads bent o’er their toil, they languidly
Their lives to some unmeaning taskwork give,
Dreaming of naught beyond their prison wall.
And as, year after year,
Fresh products of their barren labor fall
From their tired hands, and rest
Never yet comes more near,
Gloom settles slowly down over their breast.
And while they try to stem
The waves of mournful thought by which they are prest,
Death in their prison reaches them,
Unfreed, having seen nothing, still unblest.

And the rest, a few,
Escape their prison and depart
On the wide ocean of life anew.
There the freed prisoner, where’er his heart
Listeth will sail;
Nor doth he know how there prevail,
Despotic on that sea.
Trade-winds which cross it from eternity:
Awhile he holds some false way, undebarred
By thwarting signs, and braves
The freshening wind and blackening waves.
And then the tempest strikes him; and between
The lightning bursts is seen
Only a driving wreck,
And the pale master on his spar-strewn deck
With anguished face and flying hair
Grasping the rudder hard,
Still bent to make some port he knows not where,
Still standing for some false, impossible shore.
And sterner comes the roar
Of sea and wind, and through the deepening gloom
Fainter and fainter wreck and helmsman loom,
And he too disappears, and comes no more.

Is there no life, but these alone?
Madman or slave, must man be one?

Plainness and clearness without shadow of stain!
Clearness divine!
Ye heavens, whose pure dark regions have no sign
Of languor, though so calm, and though so great
Are yet untroubled and unpassionate;
Who, though so noble, share in the world’s toil,
And, though so tasked, keep free from dust and soil!
I will not say that your mild deeps retain
A tinge, it may be, of their silent pain
Who have longed deeply once, and longed in vain–
But I will rather say that you remain

A world above man’s head, to let him see
How boundless might his soul’s horizons be,
How vast, yet of what clear transparency!
How it were good to live there, and breathe free;
How fair a lot to fill
Is left to each man still!

A clue that something interesting happens with the first-person comes when we feel how gaseously  inflated the poem becomes once the first-person is abandoned and the figure on the ship is followed into the storm; the poem becomes melodrama, rigged to prove a point about human suffering; the allegory loses clear referent except for “despair”; then the clanging questions are easily answered (and answered easily to run against the tide of the poem’s intents), and the address to the clear heavens is obscured by a swirl of abstractions and negatives (and a straining 0ff-rhyme between “great” and “passionate”)….the verse advertises an experience of intense feeling, without communicating it.

But then the first-person enters in, and what seems to be a fake disowning (“I might say, but I won’t…” and yet he says it anyway–Praeteritian), is in fact a dramatization of the thought: “I will not be swept along any further to conclude”–it is as if the voice of the poet interrupts what had been an unconvincing performance. And with the first-person comes the phrase of social restraint and politeness, “it may be” (but why concede it only “may” be if you aren’t going to say it at all? because it was something you were almost going to say, had worked out well-enough to scrap at the last minute),  and then “rather,” flagging the process of a deliberate weighing of choices.  And the poem is grounded; Arnold’s first-person directs him away from attempts at the sublime, which he seems not to have been able to master (very few can; it is not a hard knock against him to say so). His poetry’s most sublime thoughts are expressed in a plain language, which evokes a humility that the  doubting, anxious nature of his sublimity demands, and which elicits a sympathy that is not presumed.

When Arnold writes “I will not say that your mild deeps retain,” he does make a claim on the reader’s attention, but does so in order to direct it outward again; in contrast to that first-person, the “their” of “their silent pain | Who have longed deeply once, and longed in vain” includes but is not limited to the poet; he does not wish to write about his own pain alone in terms of the universe, but instead to place his pain within a more universal prospect.

Because, to close the poem, he returns his language to the somewhat compromised uncertain vision of himself (as if the “I” reminds him that it is he who is doing the talking–the same “I” who earlier in the poem wrote that he was not sure whether he should yield and be “like all the other men I see”–that “I” cannot delude himself into loftiness for too long), the mode of his address changes, and even the nature of what he addresses: the “you” in “you remain” feels immediate, intimate, and accommodating, a second-person singular informal; it is difficult to imagine that second-person occupying the earlier lines about “Plainness and clearness without shadow of stain.”

And accommodation is reached in the simple hopeful yearning of the final lines: “How fair a lot to fill | Is left to each man still.” It is wishful, but it is not extravagant; it closes with the equanimity of Marvell’s Horatian Ode.

The dilemma for the poem is also the source of its success: it begins with corrosive, pricking self-doubts, and is moved by them to contemplate the universe and to speak to it grandly; but the insecurities with which the poem begins are not conducive to the sublime–the first-person is a source of irritation and object of neurotic scrutiny at the start of the poem, and to speak about the universe it would have to become a vessel of vatic impersonality, or at least of inspired self-transcendence; Arnold was not able to move from one to the other, and the attempts at the latter ring hollow. The upshot though is that the poem is a dramatic working out of what the “I” can say or do; where it can ground itself and stand in relation to the universe; and it finds, by its ending, a small voice  not only set in persuasively small proportion against the depths of the unknown heavens, but, in its mode of utterance, persuasively testifying to the experience of looking up into the depths.

The poet, I will end by saying, who learned a great deal from Arnold is T.S. Eliot. In poem after poem, he manages to find within the first-person as a source of irritation and object of neuroses moments of self-transcendence and vatic impersonality, and vice-versa (that is to find the former within the latter). Hear the rhythms of “Prufrock” in Arnold’s words:

And the calm moonlight seems to say:–
Hast thou then still the old unquiet breast,
Which neither deadens into rest,
Nor ever feels the fiery glow
That whirls the spirit from itself away,
But fluctuates to and fro,
Never by passion quite possessed
And never quite benumbed by the world’s sway?–
And I, I know not if to pray
Still to be what I am, or yield, and be
Like all the other men I see.


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