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Mathew Arnold’s Pessimism

Arnold is the most consistently pessimistic of all the major Victorian poets. According to
Middleton Murry; “Arnold’s most consistent achievement was in the kind which we call
elegiac.” “He is,” observes Garrod, “the greatest elegiac poet in our language not by virtue
merely of Thyrsis but by virtue of the whole temper of his Muse. His genius was
essentially elegiac.” Thyrsis is, of course, a formal elegy written by Arnold at the death of
his friend Arthur Hugh Clough. But almost all the rest of Arnold’s poems are also
characterized by a sort of elegiac tone, melancholy brooding, and Stoic resignation. Much
of his pessimism comes from his ill-adjustment to the changing conditions of his times.
As has been said in the beginning, the advance of science in the Victorian age had given a
rude shock to the body of Christian beliefs. Arnold was neither too much influenced by
science so as to turn a downright atheist, nor so little as to remain an unquestioning
believer. He found himself standing on the parting of the ways and shaken by the gusts of
opposing winds. This spiritual disturbance took the form of despairing pessimism at the
consciousness of spiritual vacuity as well as a searching introspection combined with a
groping for a moral stance. In Dover Beach he observes that “the Sea of Faith” has now
withdrawn and the world as he sees it
Hath really neither joy, nor light, nor love,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain,
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant, armies clash by night.
Whatever little “certitude”, “peace”, or “help for pain” is possible, can be secured from
true love-of course, man-woman love. Hence his appeal:
Ah love, let us be true
To one another.
Likewise, in The Buried Life he points out what companionship may do to alleviate “the
fret and worry of life ”
Only but this is rare
When a beloved hand is laid in ours…
The eye sinks inward, and heart lies plain,
And what we mean, wesay, andwhatwe would, we now….
And there arrives a lull in the hot race
Wherein he doth for ever chase
That flying and elusive shadow, Rest.
The air of coolness plays upon his face,
And an unwanted calm pervades his breast.
But, mostly, Arnold strikes the note of melancholy loneliness.
Yes! in the sea of life enisled
With echoing strains between us thrown,
Dotting the shoreless watery wild
We mortal millions live alone.
Loneliness is a feature of nature also.
Alone the sun rises and alone spring the great steams.
Arnold’s attitude to life is, mostly, of pessimistic resignation. He believes that life is a
thing to suffer rather than to enjoy. But resignation is also of two kinds : one escapist, and
the other, Stoic. In the Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse his resignation is of the
former kind. Sick of the fever, fret and fury of life, he appeals to the monastic cloisters to
take him into their fold:
Oh hide me in your gloom profound;
Ye solemn seats of holy pain!
Take me, cowl’d forms, and fence me round,
Till I possess my soul again.
But more often Arnold’s resignation is of the Stoic kind. It is usually accompanied by a
paralysis of action. Arnold knows the inherent lot of men for whom each year we see
Breeds new beginnings, disappointments new. Who hesitate and falter life away And lose
tomorrow the ground won today.
Sometimes, like Hardy, he finds man like a straw knocked about by the waves of the dark
sea of destiny:
We are all like swimmers in the sea,
Poised on the top of a huge wave of fate
Which hangs uncertain to which side to fall.
And whether it will leave us up to land,
Or whether it will roll us out to the sea,
Back out to sea, to the waves of death,
We know not Arnold’s pessimism, however unmitigated and melancholy, is yet of a
manly character and singularly free from the weakness of sentimentalism or excessive
self-pity or clever attitudinisation. Observes Compton-Rickett: “No whining, no luxury of
grief, no sentimental pessimism. Neither is there any joy, any real peace. It is the serenity
of a troubled but brave spirit.”