- Matthew Arnold
Although the record of Arnold scholarship over the past year contains no single item to match the significance of the final volume of Cecil Lang's edition of Arnold's letters or the monograph on Arnold's poetry by Alan Grob discussed in last year's essay, I will be reporting on numerous book chapters and journal articles that add to our understanding of Arnold's poetry, critical prose, and his role in the development of nineteenth-century culture, as well as his continuing influence in our own times.
Several of the articles offer new readings of individual poems. In "Matthew Arnold's 'Rugby Chapel' and Thomas Arnold's Travel Journals" [End Page 324] (ELN 40 no. 4: 61-73), Francis O'Gorman shows how the persona of Matthew Arnold's father as reflected in his own lengthy travel journals—"that of the continually moving and continually learning subjectivity, sometimes seeking particular forms of information, always documenting with precision the practical movements of his journey"—contributed to the portrait of Dr. Arnold in these well-known "memorial verses." O'Gorman even speculates that a somewhat ironic reference in Dr. Arnold's account of a tour through Belgium in 1816 (six years before the birth of Matthew) may have suggested the powerful "City of God" image at the end of the poem, but his central point is the poem's "bold, masculinist troping of Dr. Arnold as tireless continental traveller" that had not been studied in depth by previous critics. In addition to providing a new reading of an important poem, O'Gorman's article gives us new insight into a complex and fascinating Victorian father-son relationship (as do some of the publications discussed below).
It was refreshing to see a study of Arnold's much maligned poem Sohrab and Rustum that makes new claims for its importance. Arnold intended that poem to be the centerpiece of his 1853 Poems. The tragic story, in which a heroic warrior learns that the adversary he has mortally wounded in individual combat is his own son, is taken from the Persian Shah Nameh of Firdousi and other sources. Arnold was proud of the epic characteristics of his blank-verse narrative, which he called—in the Homeric tradition—an "episode." He created elaborate similes: in the opening section, Sohrab rises from bed and "Through the black Tartar tents he passed, which stood / Clustering like bee-hives on the low flat strand / Of Oxus" (ll. 12-14). Initially, Arnold believed that he had achieved his newly formulated poetic goals in this poem, with its noble subject, its heroic characters and action, and its precision; however, critics through the years have been less than enthusiastic. In "'Unhackneyed thoughts and winged words': Arnold, Locke, and the Similes of Sohrab and Rustum"(VP 41, no. 2: 173-195), Daniel Kline takes a close look at Arnold's efforts to use the simile in order to achieve precision and accuracy in his poetic language. While conceding that David Riede and other critics are correct in arguing that Arnold's ideal of a transparent language cannot possibly be realized, Kline shows that it is worthwhile to examine this key poem in terms of Arnold's "lifelong struggle with language." Kline's most original contribution is his claim that in developing his use of the simile Arnold was indebted to his study of the linguistic philosophy of John Locke, especially as outlined in Of the Conduct of the Understanding, a text that is not as well known as Locke's famous Essay. Kline's close reading of Sohrab and Rustum is interesting, as are his insights about Arnold's "evolving poetics" and his use of the simile in other poems. Although Kline is not primarily interested in Arnold's [End Page 325] career as a whole, his study reminds us that Arnold's sensitivity concerning Sohrab and Rustum during the composition process and his eagerness to seize upon praise of the poem after its publication revealed his anxiety about the new direction he was taking in his poetry.
Also focusing on individual poems by Arnold are Nigel Fabb's "The Metres of 'Dover Beach'" (Language and...