- Matthew Arnold and Giacomo Leopardi: Modernist Lyric Poetics and Stoic Pessimism in “Dover Beach”
Both the Romantic-era poet Giacomo Leopardi (1798–1837) and the Victorian bastion of “culture” Matthew Arnold have been lauded as pioneers of modernism. On the one hand, Jonathan Galassi describes Leopardi’s best known poems, his Canti, as “the first truly modern lyrics, the wellspring of everything that follows in the European poetic tradition.”1 On the other hand, Dwight Culler observes that “[i]t is only the modern poet who has followed Arnold in his vision of the tragic and alienated condition of man.”2 Culler’s uncompromising statement was echoed several decades later by Alan Grob, who claims, in his monograph on the poet, that Arnold’s “courageous recognition of the painful cosmic circumstances of secularized man” situated him “in the main line of modern development.”3 Thus, Arnold might be seen as having inherited Leopardi’s crown as the poet of pessimism—a crown bestowed on Leopardi by no less a pessimist, Arthur Schopenhauer.4 Yet, despite the tantalizing implications regarding the poets’ shared modernist poetics and philosophical pessimism conveyed by these comments, Arnold and Leopardi are treated together in but a (tiny) handful of essays. Only sporadically have critics such as J. C. Maxwell, Ghan Singh, and Ottavio Casale and Allan C. Dooley drawn attention to these poets’ profound affinities.
Such attention is overdue, given how much it adds to our reading of Arnold’s work, especially to our reading of his great lyric “Dover Beach.” The Leopardian context of this poem illuminates, for instance, Arnold’s experimental prosody. Unusually anarchic in the context of Arnold’s oeuvre, “Dover Beach” presages the modernists’ vers libre and, I argue, does so—in part—via Leopardi’s innovation of the “canzone libera” (free-verse ode, more or less). In addition, Arnold’s conception of the delusive forces operating in the world, so clearly in evidence in “Dover Beach,” is also at the root of his structural [End Page 455] prioritization of sound, which is another distinctive element of his poetry that betrays an affinity with Leopardi’s work. The Victorian poet-critic’s pessimistic disavowal of the world we see, however, gives way to a stoic pessimism that is highly reminiscent, even in its expression in the “night battle,” of Leopardi’s late poetic testimony “La ginestra” (“Broom”). Thus, in light of Arnold’s response to Leopardi, “Dover Beach” can be read not only as opening out to a bleak, anarchic world but also as culminating in a call to arms—a reading that has, recently, been much neglected.
Besides deepening our understanding of Arnold’s work (and of its protomodernism), a comparison of Leopardi and Arnold also highlights an important and neglected aspect of Arnold’s cosmopolitan poetics and of his attitude toward Romanticism. While scholars recognize Arnold’s indebtedness to French writers, such as George Sand and Étienne Pivert de Senancour, and to German writers, such as Goethe, they tend to marginalize his interest in Italian writers. At least one critic has claimed that Arnold had little understanding of Italian culture—an assertion that is at least complicated by Arnold’s acute sensitivity to the extraordinary qualities of Leopardi’s poetry. In addition, Arnold’s admiration for Leopardi complicates the critical consensus on the Victorian critic’s dismissive attitude toward Romanticism, since Arnold clearly recognized in Leopardi a Romantic-era poet who, in a reversal of Arnold’s famous judgment of English Romantic poets, did “know enough.”5 In fact, despite Arnold’s reputation as an anti-Romantic, it was he who solidified Leopardi’s reputation in nineteenth-century England, and he did so in the context of discussing two other (English) Romantic poets whom he greatly admired: Wordsworth and Byron. This illuminating comparison is found in Arnold’s 1881 essay “Byron,” which was originally published as the introduction to his selection of Byron’s poetry and was seminal to the recognition of Leopardi’s stature in nineteenth-century England. As Peter Lecouras puts it, “Matthew Arnold put Leopardi on the literary map by comparing him to Wordsworth and Byron.”6
In light of Arnold’s appreciation...