- Matthew Arnold
Through the years there has been a continuous interest in Arnold and the roles he played in British cultural history, literally the part he played in developing the key term "culture" and the widespread influence of his critical ideas, while interest in individual poems (apart from his concept of poetry and its central importance in social, aesthetic, and moral contexts) has been less constant. In last year's essay, however, I took note of several new readings [End Page 267] of individual poems by Arnold, and this year I will begin my discussion by pointing out articles from 2006 and 2007 that focus on individual poems, though the emphasis is on a "poetry of ideas."
In "Shaping the Self: Critical Perspective and Community in Sohrab and Rustum" (VP 45, no. 1: 17-28), E. Frances Frame discusses the narrative poem that Arnold intended to be the centerpiece of his new book of poems in 1853. In this tragic story based on an eleventh-century Persian epic, a celebrated warrior learns that the adversary he has mortally wounded in individual combat is his own son. Frame argues that 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 Frame's reading, Sohrab, the son, from the beginning, possesses critical perspective, while Rustum, the father, "shuts himself off to anything outside himself" until he realizes that he has killed his own son at the end. Rustum is like the "Philistines" who resist the message of the critic in Arnold's prose. Frame suggests that Sohrab is "Arnold's first depiction of the critic," and if that is the case the critic may expect to pay a high price indeed for his openness to ideas. Of course, in the final analysis one would not want to submit the poem to a reductive reading in which the meaning is confined to a preview of Arnold's critical ideas, but surely Frame is right in suggesting that Arnold identified with Sohrab's stance of reaching out to his father and, in a larger sense, opening his sense of selfhood to others in contrast to a violent, warrior culture that promotes prideful self-absorption like that of Rustum.
Not surprisingly, "Dover Beach," Arnold's best-known poem, was among those discussed in recent articles, and in "Dover Beach: Understanding the Pains of Bereavement" (Philosophy 81: 209-230), Mary Midgley begins by referring to the famous image of the receding Sea of Faith that is central to the poem and to the strong sense of the individual's isolation in a "dead, empty world" that has been associated with it. Midgley surveys the philosophical traditions that have supported this idea, including Descartes's "unreal split . . . between human minds and the rest of nature"; the emphasis of those like Jacques Monod, in the tradition of Jean-Paul Sartre, on the "total solitude . . . fundamental isolation" of mankind; and behaviorism's failure to deal with the problem of consciousness and how rational and moral thought can relate to the natural world. In her wide-ranging discussion of the continuing human need for a sense of connection with the world and with fellow human beings and "religious" experience, Midgley makes references to Friedrich Nietzsche and William James but comes back at the end to Arnold. In "Dover Beach" itself, Arnold stresses the continuing need for human companionship despite the apparently meaningless world outside ("Ah love, let us be true / To one another!"), as Midgley acknowledges, but she then turns to Arnold's [End Page 268] subsequent religious studies, especially Literature and Dogma (1873) and takes seriously his much maligned definition of God as "an enduring Power, not ourselves, that makes for righteousness." She quotes philosopher Michael McGhee's comment that "in Arnold we have the beginnings of the notion that 'conduct' or 'righteousness' increasingly opens us to realities that were formerly and otherwise concealed." In this expanded version of Midgley's entry entitled "Dover Beach Revisited: Continuing Concluding Reflections" from the Oxford...