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»NO WOMAN MORE": MATTHEW ARNOLD AND THE LOSS OF THE FEMININE Douglas Thorpe University of Saskatchewan Twentieth-centuiy judgments on Matthew Arnold, whatever the critical method or sense of value invoked, unite in seeing the publication of the 1853 Poems as the focus of any clear view of Arnold. The event conveniently (ifsomewhat inaccurately) balances the career as poet against the career as critic, with one crucial moment of choice memorably relating the two. The self-censorious Preface, somewhat disingenuously gliding from a critical consideration of his own poem to a theoretical pronouncement on the principles that govern poetry, seems to mark Arnold ' s shift from struggling, doubting poet to magisterial self-assured critic. The arbiter of culture learns his trade by first looking for the touchstones of excellence in his own work. As if to help maintain his own critical standard, his poetry must avoid prominence. Though he continued to write poetry, his output dwindled and by his own admission he was unable to commit all of himself to it anymore. Such a public, and self-conscious, gesture toward the construction of both one ' s own personal reputation and an emerging criticism supposedly impersonal is hard to ignore. The twentieth century has nourished a body of myth about Matthew Arnold. This myth sees Arnold as a potential, yet failed modernist. Thus, Arnold's early poetry presents an honestly fractured view of life, a speaker perpetually divided against himself, and alienated from his audience. Yet Arnold shrinks from the insecurity of this pose, and takes refuge in the certain and the impersonal. The public assurance is a kind of recoil from his private wasteland. W. H. Auden, for one, sees Arnold as one who was gifted to write of the "dark disordered city," yet who betrayed this gift to submit to the father's authority: But all his homeless reverence, revolted, cried: "I am my father's forum and he shall be heard, Victorian Review 162 (Winter 1990). Douglas Thorpe Nothing shall contradict his holy final word, Nothing." And thrust his gift in prison till it died, And left him nothing but a jailor · s voice and face, And all rang hollow but the clear denunciation Of a gregarious optimistic generation That saw itself already in a father · s place. (45) Ironically, the energy which might have given modern poetry a voice is expressed only in anger against a world which he seems powerless to change, and is even in a way supporting. The critic of the bourgeoisie is himself a bourgeois, no longer "observant like a beggar." This establishment Arnold is also briefly figured in T. S. Eliot's "Cousin Nancy," where the distressingly "modern" behavior ofNancy concerns her New England aunts, whose heritage is defined by the closing image: Upon the glazen shelves kept watch Matthew and Waldo, guardians of the faith, The army of unalterable law. (30) How strange that Arnold, the poet almost obsessively concerned with flux, and change, and restless division, should find himself aligned with "unalterable law." The myth thus implies that Arnold's certainty is a false one, itself a measure of the shakiness he was trying to overcome. The "repose" and "calm" he perpetually, and vainly, pursued in his poetry, becomes an opening critical position, one which makes all literature and all experience again available. Since the critic is by definition one who sees everything and is therefore involved with nothing, he cannot be shaken into narrow preferences and petty enthusiasms, and can safely pronounce the law. In recent years, both feminist and postmodernist theorists have attacked the traditional authority of criticism, and Arnold has for them been as convenient a target as his desertion of poetry made him for Eliot and Auden. Nina Auerbach, for example, writes: . . . such eminent and self-conscious Victorian sages as Thomas Carlyle and Matthew Arnold say little about women when they attempt to formulate new systems of belief adequate to the jaded secularism of the age. The myth of womanhood flourishes not in the carefully wrought prescriptions of sages, but in the vibrant half-life of popular literature and art, forms which may distill the essence of a culture though they are rarely granted Culture ' s...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 8-23
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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