If it seems that a disproportionate amount of space has been devoted to the volumes of 1849 and 1852, it should be remembered how comparatively short Arnold's poetic career was to be and how much of the work for which he is now valued was written before he was thirty years of age. More immediately important considerations, however, center attention on this body of poetry. For Arnold's genius, maturing earlier than that of either Tennyson or Browning, was at the same time more subjective in its expression. Perceptions [178/179] which occur in the youthful poetry of Tennyson and Browning as vaguely sensed states of mind achieve full self-awareness and a high degree of articulation in Arnold. — The critic is already foreshadowed in the poet's tendency to analyze and to make discriminatory judgments even with himself as subject.
All the more significant, then, is the "volte-face" in aesthetic intent which took place during the year intervening between the publication of the "Empedocles" volume and the collected "Poems" of 1853. There can be no doubt that the change is in large part attributable to Arnold's dissatisfaction at the critical reception of his previous work. Try as he might to feign indifference over the unenthusiastic notices accorded to his maiden efforts, he was no more impervious than Tennyson or Browning to claims which the age made on its artists. In fact, the very inconclusiveness of Arnold's effort to locate some individual principle of integration must ultimately have been a decisive factor in turning him outward for relief from a suffocating sense of inner disharmony. With Empedocles on Etna he had pressed self-scrutiny to its farthest imaginable lengths, and come up against blank despair. As if appalled by the process of introspection, the poet drew back, never again to probe so deeply into the dark recesses of self.
During 1850 and 1851 Arnold and Clough were much together in London, and there was a resulting hiatus in their interchange of letters. When resumed in 1852, this correspondence at once indicated the road which Arnold bad been travelling in the interim. He finds the world increasingly "uncomfortable for those of any natural gift or distinction"; but now he has decided that part of the blame for this state of affairs belongs to the gifted artists who have "not trained or inspired or in any real way changed" society, so that "the world might do worse than to dismiss too high pretensions, and settle down on what it can see and handle and appreciate." After likening himself to "a gifted Roman falling on the uninvigorating atmosphere of the decline of the Empire," the poet concludes on the following note: "Still nothing [179/180]can absolve us from the duty of doing all we can to keep alive our courage."
Four months later, in October, comes a statement of poetic principle which amounts to a radical revision of the position so vigorously supported throughout the letters written during 1848 and 1849. Arnold has to a large extent abandoned the criterion of form in judging the merits of an artistic composition. Great art endures by reason of its thematic content. Especially is this true for modern poetry. Whereas the Elizabethan poets exhibit an "exuberance of expression" appropriate to "a youthful age of the world," the poets of more mature times should concentrate on meaning rather than manner. The romantic poets failed through taking the Elizabethans for models; and critics by bestowing praise in the wrong places have perpetuated the error:
They still think that the object of poetry is to produce exquisite bits and images . . . whereas modern poetry can only subsist by its "contents": by becoming a complete magister vitae as the poetry of the ancients did: by including, as theirs did, religion with poetry, instead of existing as poetry only, and leaving the religious wants to be supplied by the Christian religion, as a power existing independent of the poetical power. But the language, style, and general proceedings of a poetry which has such an immense task to perform, must be very plain direct and severe: and it must not lose itself in parts and episodes and ornamental work, but must press forwards to the whole.
On further consideration, Arnold reaches the conclusion that significance of theme is unavailing unless its treatment arouses in the reader a pleasurable reaction. "As for my poems," he writes at the end of 1852, "they have weight, I think, but little or no charm." He goes on to take his work to task for precisely the same reasons which had earlier formed the basis for his disapproval of Clough's writing. Consistent with these reformed views, he is ready to disown the "Empedocles" volume. It is only excusable, if at all, on the half-hearted plea that the author had therein endeavored [180/181] to portray with fidelity the alien circumstances under which the modern artist works:
"You" in your heart are saying "mollis et exspes" over again. But woe was upon me if I analysed not my situation: and Werter[,] Réné[,] and such like[,] none of them analyse the modern situation in its true "blankness" and "barrenness" and "unpoetrylessness."
Having decided that his poetry has so far been inconsequential in content, Arnold next brings the process of reappraisal to bear on the stylistic qualities of his compositions. And here too he finds no cause for complacency. The initial failure in conception carries over into the performance; an inchoate condition of inner consciousness is reflected in disunity and incongruity of outer form. In answer to his sister's expressions of bewilderment over the tenor of "Empedocles on Etna, and Other Poems," Arnold writes:
Fret not yourself to make my poems square in all their parts, but like what you can my darling. The true reason why parts suit you while others do not is that my poems are fragments — i.e., that I am fragments, while you are whole; the whole effect of my poems is quite vague indeterminate — this is their weakness; a person therefore who endeavored to make them accord would only lose his labor. . . .
For a full and orderly declaration of the changes which had taken place in Arnold's aesthetic theories, however, one must turn to the Preface which he affixed to the Poems of 1853. This was the poet's first venture into the field of formal criticism; and although ostensibly written to vindicate his poetic practice in the accompanying volume, it lays down many of the principles which were to characterize his future critical pronouncements. By implication at least, this essay is a refutation of everything that no longer satisfied him in the content and form of his earlier poetry. The Preface opens with an explanation of why "Empedocles on Etna" is omitted from the collection. Arnold allows that the poem is a truthful [181/182] presentment of the temper of modern life. "The calm, the cheerfulness, the disinterested objectivity" so typical of Greek genius in its prime, Empedocles has lost, to fall victim to morbid self-consciousness:
. . . the dialogue of the mind with itself has commenced; modern problems have presented themselves; we hear already the doubts, we witness the discouragement, of Hamlet and of Faust.
But an artistic representation is not justifiable on the score of its relevance to the reader's experience, however strong the contemporary appeal. For, the argument continues, if the representation is to be truly poetical: "It is demanded, not only that it shall interest, but also that it shall inspirit and rejoice the reader. that it shall convey a charm, and infuse delight." Because "Empedocles on Etna" seems calculated to depress rather than to exhilarate the feelings of the reader, Arnold finds it unsuitable for inclusion among the poems by which he wishes to be known. "What then," he asks, "are the situations, from the representation of which, though accurate, no poetical enjoyment can be derived?" With his treatment of Empedocles in mind, he makes the following answer:
They are those in which the suffering finds no vent in action; in which a continuous state of mental distress is prolonged, unrelieved by incident, hope, or resistance; in which there is everything to be endured, nothing to be done.
Having accounted for the suppression of "Empedocles on Etna," Arnold turns to a discussion of the principles which should govern the modern poet in the practice of his art. The first consideration, we learn, is the selection of the kinds of actions which have been "the eternal objects of Poetry, among all nations and at all times." Excellent actions are defined as: "Those, certainly, which most powerfully appeal to the great primary human affections: to those elementary feelings which subsist permanently in the race, and which are independent [182/183]of time." As indicating a fundamental shift in Arnold's aesthetic position, two implications emerge from the foregoing statement. In the first place, the principal emphasis is now placed on content, rather than on form. Secondly, theme must be connected with the primal human sympathies in such a way as to awaken a general emotional response. Arnold borrows the term "pragmatic" to describe the kind of poetry which he has in mind. This is to say that the artist's controlling intent must be communicative on a level of impersonal apprehension; his purpose is the objective one of providing grounds for imaginative activity in which the largest possible audience can participate. Judged by such standards, poems of the type to which "Empedocles on Etna" belongs can hardly be regarded otherwise than as the selfinfatuated lucubrations of a hopelessly private and introspective individual. In the zeal of his reformed beliefs Arnold harshly condemns a contemporary critic's advocacy of false aims in stating that: "A true allegory of the state of one's own mind in a representative history is perhaps the highest thing that one can attempt in the way of poetry." The words are attributed to another, but one can hardly avoid the suspicion that Arnold introduced the quotation with his own previous work in mind.
Excellent actions, however, are not enough in themselves; they "are to be communicated in an interesting manner by the art of the Poet." In order to convey the precise function of artistic form, Arnold takes over from Goethe the concept of "Architectonicè," by which we are to understand "that power of execution, which creates, forms, and constitutes: not the profoundness of single thoughts, not the richness of imagery, not the abundance of illustration." In other words, form rightly conceived is the means whereby the imagination externalizes its operations. The form of a work of art is important only as an unobtrusive construct, imparting coherence and lucidity to theme. It must never call attention to itself; it is rather to be sensed as the shaping faculty making for unity of impression. On these grounds Arnold takes issue with such imitators of Shakespeare as Keats, who, endowed [183/184]with verbal felicity, overlay and so obscure or falsify their meaning out of undue attention to surface effects. In their work the sum of the parts is greater than the whole; and manner, superseding matter, leads to the worst excesses of art for art's sake. Preciosity is the technical counterpart of the dialogue of the mind with itself; the one is as harmful to perfection of artistic performance as the other is to nobility of artistic conception. The ancients are "the best models of instruction for the individual writer," Arnold says, because they above all others exemplify "three things which it is vitally important for him to know: — the all-importance of the choice of a subject; the necessity of accurate construction; and the subordinate character of expression."
No final evaluation can be placed on the poetic theories defined in the Preface without taking into account the artistic goal which Arnold contemplated as attainable through their application. Poetry of the highest order, he says, always aims at instilling a "moral impression." To the creation of this effect both content and form contribute. Thus, "a great action treated as a whole" results in "unity and profoundness of moral impression." These sentiments bespeak Arnold's theoretical mastery over those elements in his artistic consciousness which had previously made for alienation. Henceforth he would address himself directly to his age, seeking to combat its "spiritual discomfort" by writing poetry of "moral grandeur," such as springs from "great actions, calculated powerfully and delightfully to affect what is permanent in the human soul."
Insofar as the 1853 Preface is a disavowal of the life of the imagination lived in isolation from the outer world, it reflects an evolution in the author's aesthetic philosophy similar to that which we have already followed in Tennyson and Browning. Arnold's attempt to deal with the dilemma of the artist in Victorian society, however, is more systematic and thoroughgoing than the similar efforts made by his fellow poets. Whereas Tennyson and Browning were principally concerned to remedy those personal eccentricities which the critics had stressed as militating against their [184/185]popular acceptance, Arnold, no less eager to gain for himself an audience, dreamed likewise of recapturing for poetry its former prestige as a cultural agent. Tennyson's early poetry had seemed thematically insignificant; Arnold, indeed, must have had some such notion in mind when he wrote of this poet's "dawdling with [the] painted shell" of the universe. Then with the English Idylls Tennyson began to treat realistic subjects deliberately chosen for their relevance to the life of the period. The youthful Browning, on the other hand, had suffered opprobrium for his obscurity; and here again Arnold was acutely voicing the prevailing view when he remarked that in failing to clarify his ideas, Browning had allowed himself "to be prevailed over by the world's multitudinousness." Browning's experiments with the dramatic mode and eventual development of the monologue came about, as we have seen, under the impulse to find a manner more conformable to the aptitudes of contemporary readers.
In his Preface Arnold proposed for himself an all-inclusive reform in poetic practice which would affect both form and content in their communicative aspects. Like Tennyson, he had come to accept the poet's obligation to concern himself only with themes of general moral import. Like Browning, he was now prepared to sacrifice the subtleties of private intuition to meaningful structure. But unlike either Tennyson or Browning, his concessions imply no disposition to allow the age to influence his actual performance, such as is too often recognizable in the work of the two others. Contemporaneity cannot guarantee thematic significance any more than liveliness of expression can pass as a substitute for the grand style. By taking the writers of Greece as his models, Arnold had nothing less in mind than to restore to Victorian England the literary magnificence of classic times. The Empedoclean dialogue of the mind with itself was to be replaced by an outward communion between the artist and his public conducted on a no less elevated plane.
Last modified June 2000