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  • Shaping the Self:Critical Perspective and Community in Sohrab and Rustum
  • E. Frances Frame (bio)

To thee only God granted
A heart ever new —
To all always open,
To all always true.

("Parting," ll. 79-82)1

Most critics agree that Sohrab and Rustum marks a turn in Arnold's work from the exploration of the isolated self's emotional and existential plight, which characterizes such poems as "The Buried Life" and Empedocles on Etna, to what Arnold considered a more objective type of poetry. The poem is thus important because it is vital to understanding this major shift in Arnold's poetics. Further, Daniel Kline has persuasively demonstrated that Sohrab and Rustum is essential for comprehending Arnold's struggle with language.2 I would claim that the poem is crucial for another substantial reason. In Sohrab and Rustum Arnold first confronts not only the limits of language but also the major obstacle to human community with which he will battle throughout his prose: the individual's resistance to recognizing the boundaries of his own knowledge and power. In Sohrab and Rustum Arnold dramatizes this resistance to critical perspective, the role others play in helping the individual reach such perspective, and the cost of the struggle to attain it. Understanding how Arnold is working through these ideas in Sohrab and Rustum is particularly important because these concepts come to dominate much of his later writing on literature, politics, and religion. The resistance to critical perspective that Arnold dramatizes in Sohrab and Rustum he thematizes in his prose.3 In fact, his entire critical project is an attempt to overcome what Arnold perceives as his audience's resistance to other people and ideas. Arnold's prose also thematizes the importance of others in attaining critical perspective and the necessity of this perspective for maintaining community, both ideas that he first dramatizes in Sohrab and Rustum.4 Finally, I suggest that Hegel, with whom Arnold was in fact familiar if his reading lists are any indicator, can help to elucidate Arnold's dramatization of these themes in Sohrab and Rustum.5 [End Page 17]

In "The Function of Criticism at the Present Time," Arnold describes a critical perspective that is open to other voices:

That is what I call living by ideas: when one side of a question has long had your earnest support, when all your feelings are engaged, when you hear all round you no language but one, when your party talks this language like a steam-engine and can imagine no other,—still to be able to think, still to be irresistibly carried, if so it be, by the current of thought to the opposite side of the question, and, like Balaam, to be unable to speak anything but what the Lord has put in your mouth. I know nothing more striking, and I must add that I know nothing more un-English.

(CPW, 3:267-268)

In the course of this description, Arnold outlines the forces working against openness to others. To open one's self to others, a person must reject self-delusion encouraged by strong emotions ("when all your feelings are engaged"), prejudice ("when one side of a question has long had your earnest support"), convention ("when you hear all round you no language but one"), and partisanship ("when your party talks this language like a steam-engine and can imagine no other"). Self-delusion, prejudice, convention, and partisanship all support the individual's idea that he knows all.6 Rejection of these represents a moral choice. The mind is "irresistibly carried" to see another point of view, but not because it has no choice, rather because it has chosen to remain open. It has elected to serve the truth more than the delusion of its own perfect knowledge. Because this choice to hold the self open recognizes others, it offers company to the solitary individual, but it is still a difficult choice because it requires willingness to revise one's self image in light of others.7 As the speaker laments in "Parting," quoted above, the courage to hold one's self open to another is rare, and closedness can become habitual, as it has...