For most men in a brazen prison live,
Where, in the sun’s hot eye,
With heads bent o’er their toil, they languidly
Their lives to some unmeaning taskwork give,
Dreaming of naught beyond their prison wall.
And as, year after year,
Fresh products of their barren labor fall
From their tired hands, and rest
Never yet comes more near,
Gloom settles slowly down over their breast.
And while they try to stem
The waves of mournful thought by which they are prest,
Death in their prison reaches them,
Unfreed, having seen nothing, still unblest.
I’m very grateful to my schooling for putting Matthew Arnold on the curriculum – this subversive little passage seems designed to undermine the office and factory culture which has flourished since his time, to undermine even the student writing endless essays. Arnold was an inspector of schools as well as a poet and social critic, so we can assume he knew what he was doing. But isn’t it suggesting that a dissatisfied person should just drop out? More on that in the next fragment.
The other thing I like about the piece is its easy, flowing style. Every line rhymes, but without pattern. The lines are iambic, mostly pentameter, but a scattering of them are shorter. It feels very conversational, and it is certainly very easy to learn by heart (which is one of the reasons that poetry evolved in the first place). The only hiccup to natural speech are the displacement of ‘live’ and ‘give’ to the ends of their lines for the sake of the rhyme and even that, though artificial, is done conventionally enough to read smoothly. The rest of it is in normal speech. When T.S. Eliot came out with ‘Prufrock’ some decades later, though it had a different, Imagist sensibility, the only real difference in style was in dropping the thou’s and thee’s that Arnold still clung to.
Photo: “Office workers in Executive Building Room No. 123 prior to alterations, Brisbane” by Queensland State Archives is marked with CC PDM 1.0