Tag Archives: Matthew Arnold

Evocative Fragments: from Arnold’s ‘A Summer Night’ (2)

And the rest, a few,
Escape their prison and depart
On the wide ocean of life anew.
There the freed prisoner, where”er his heart
Listeth, will sail;
Nor doth he know how there prevail,
Despotic on that sea,
Trade-winds which cross it from eternity.
Awhile he holds some false way, undebarred
By thwarting signs, and braves
The freshening wind and blackening waves.
And then the tempest strikes him; and between
The lightning-bursts is seen
Only a driving wreck,
And the pale master on his spar-strewn deck
With anguished face and flying hair
Grasping the rudder hard,
Still bent to make some port he knows not where,
Still standing for some false, impossible shore.
And sterner comes the roar
Of sea and wind, and through the deepening gloom
Fainter and fainter wreck and helmsman loom,
And he too disappears, and comes no more.

This fragment is the response to the previous fragment from Matthew Arnold’s ‘A Summer Night’ that I blogged a few days ago. As a teen in a well-regimented boarding school I found that previous fragment terrifying with its prospect of living as a bored wage-slave forever, and this second fragment exhilarating in its freedom despite the expectation of catastrophe. Altogether a very subversive poem, and I thank my schooling for including such works. For the next couple of decades I followed its path, failing to earn a degree at universities in three countries, never holding a job for more than 18 months, frequently moving. Eventually I found an occupation that was constantly changing, where I was my own boss, and that took me to dozens of countries to teach business seminars. So it all worked out.

Arnold originally ended his poem:

Is there no life, but these alone?
Madman or slave must man be one?

but ten years later added a much more wishy-washy piece about learning from the pure heavens and seeing what a nice life you could make for yourself. I always thought he should have stopped with the original “madman or slave” view of life. Much more dramatic – even though I have to admit his addition may have been justified.

“Storm at Sea” by gentlemanbeggar is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Evocative Fragments: from Arnold’s ‘A Summer Night’ (1)

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

Anomalous First Lines: Arnold’s ‘Scholar-Gypsy’

“Go, for they call you, shepherd, from the hill;”

The first line of ‘The Scholar-Gypsy’, one of Matthew Arnold’s best-known poems, is anomalous in two ways: first by the introduction of a shepherd whose identity and purpose are never detailed, and secondly by the use of the word “you”.

The shepherd is, according to various pieces of literary analysis, an evocation of the pastoral spirit. All well and good, but what is he doing? The poet summons him to get to his morning work, and then asks him to “again begin the quest” in the evening – the quest being (presumably) the search for the Scholar Gypsy. The first stanza reads in full:

Go, for they call you, shepherd, from the hill;
Go, shepherd, and untie the wattled cotes!
No longer leave thy wistful flock unfed,
Nor let thy bawling fellows rack their throats,
Nor the cropp’d herbage shoot another head.
But when the fields are still,
And the tired men and dogs all gone to rest,
And only the white sheep are sometimes seen
Cross and recross the strips of moon-blanch’d green,
Come, shepherd, and again begin the quest!

The poet will wait for the shepherd all day in the shady corner of a half-reaped field, rereading Glanville’s ancient account of the Oxford student who dropped out to join a band of gypsies. It is a slow start to a rambling poem, and though shepherds are mentioned again they prove unnecessary in the 24 stanzas that follow. The poet is determined to track down the scholar-gypsy who is a) seen from time to time, b) over 200 years old, and c) ageless because he is untainted by modern life (Matthew Arnold wasn’t that big on science or history, apparently). The purpose of tracking the scholar-gypsy down turns out to be to tell him:

But fly our paths, our feverish contact fly!
For strong the infection of our mental strife,

And then thy glad perennial youth would fade,
Fade and grow old at last, and die like ours.

Thanks a lot, Matthew Arnold! You want to track down someone who is hard to find, in order to warn him not to make contact because it will be fatal? Not sure you’re thinking clearly here…

The other anomaly in the first line of the poem is the use of the word “you”. It is natural enough, until you realise that the remaining 249 lines are purely “thee” and “thou”. If Arnold wanted to write in the artificial language that was still (barely) normal for poetry in his day, why didn’t he do so in the first line of the poem? I can’t think of any reason, and assume it was unintentional – perhaps the first line of the poem just came to him as it is, and he accepted it; but as he worked on the rest of the poem in more deliberate fashion he adopted the style he felt appropriate. A pity. He stood on the cusp of contemporary language, but didn’t quite get there.

Photo: “sheep at hillside” by christophercjensen is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Short poem: ‘Yogis’

Though mystified why yogis walk
Across the burning coals,
We know they stand upon their heads
To elevate their soles.

This was first published in Metverse Muse, an Indian magazine put out by Dr. Tulsi Hanumanthu that champions structured verse in English. The poem’s pun seems so obvious to me that I’m still surprised I haven’t seen it anywhere else. Be that as it may, I’m a proponent of the health benefits of five-minute headstands, which I have been doing irregularly since I wrote the poem nearly 50 years ago, after spending a month in the Sivananda Vedanta Yogashram in Val Morin, Quebec.

As for timing five minutes while in a headstand, I do it by mentally reciting the first 18 verses of Matthew Arnold’s ‘The Scholar Gypsy’. After years of those 180 lines, I keep thinking I could replace it with 45 quatrains of ‘The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam’… but somehow I always get stuck pondering which edition of the Rubaiyat I prefer…

Photo: taken by Eliza.

Poem: ‘Chrysalis’

After a billion years of larval hit-and-miss
humans emerged, stood up, and fed, and grew,
started to build their city chrysalis
from which, 3,000 years entombed, now formed anew,
they burst in wild bright flight with wings deployed
out to the stars. The egg case of this final birth,
the Earth,
was, naturally, destroyed.

We have good news and bad news. The bad news is that the rate of change is ever-increasing in all aspects of human life–from our bodies to our planet–and we will never return to the old normal. The good news is that this is the process by which life advantages to higher levels of organisation and intelligence.

This poem was originally published in Star*Line, one of the two magazines of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association (SFPA). The other magazine is Eye to the Telescope (ETTT).

The poem rhymes and is written in iambics; but the rhymes are not structured to a pattern, and the lines are of uneven length. This casual form is used by Matthew Arnold and T.S. Eliot among others, in some of my favourite poems such as A Summer Night (I have always loved the three paragraphs beginning with:

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 The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. The form doesn’t have the musicality of more regular forms like the sonnet or limerick, but it provides all the memorising strength of rhythm and rhyme within a more conversational flow, and facilitates different lengths of thought including, if wanted, a punchline.

We live in difficult times, what with the unprecedented challenges of climate change, mass migration, infectious diseases, unpredictable technological advances in weaponry, and more. And the problems will continue to multiply and get larger, even as we develop solutions to the smaller, simpler ones. And from the inevitable destruction of our form of life will emerge… what? We cannot know, we probably cannot even imagine.

Photo credit: “Cicada emerging from old exoskeleton” by Shek Graham is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

The Spectator Competition: “Paradise Lost in four lines”

Milton Dictating to his Daughter, 1793, Henry Fuseli

Lucy Vickery runs a competition in the British weekly The Spectator–a truly venerable publication which recently reached its 10,000th weekly issue. Its politics are a bit too conservative for my taste, but the competition is in a class of its own (The New Statesman having dropped its similar competition a few years ago).

The most recent challenge was this: “In Competition No. 3163 you were invited to submit well-known poems encapsulated in four lines.” The gorgeous responses prompted Lucy Vickery to call the results “Paradise Lost in four lines”, after this entry by Jane Blanchard:

Satan found himself in hell —
Eve and Adam also fell —
Good gone bad got even worse —
Milton wrote too much blank verse —

(which exactly reflects my feelings, having had to waste too much of my A Level studies on Paradise Lost at the expense of more interesting poets such as John Donne and Matthew Arnold.)

My personal delight in The Spectator’s competitions is in seeing so many Potcake Poets there (in this case not just Jane Blanchard, but also Chris O’Carroll, Martin Parker, Jerome Betts, George Simmers and Brian Allgar), and in identifying more poets to keep an eye on for possible future chapbooks.

Anyway, if you want to see nice condensations of famous poems, have a look at that specific competition’s results. My favourite is Martin Parker’s take on e.e. cummings’ ‘may i feel said he‘:

foreplay
(more play)
errings, ummings
(and cummings)

Poem: “The Trendy”

In the future when your bioluminescent pet
Provides controllable lighting to your house from mine
In the Zero Light Pollution of night’s jet,
The Trendy flip on inefficient retro lights and pay their fine…

In the future when the media’s fight
Is over whether you should spray on clothes
Or blowing them on instead’s more right,
The Trendy grow them overnight from scalp to toes…

In the future when the Parking lots
Reserve the easiest, convenient spots
For Normals, called the Unenhanced (or Dead),
The Trendy disassemble their aircars instead,
Grow new wings to get home…

In the future when a thought
Will activate your airjets, wings and wheels
(Charged while you sat in sun)
To move a mile or two to friends or meals,
The Trendy paleolocomote, they “walk”,
Even relearn to “run”…

In the future when direct mind-linking 
Lets your band of friends share feeling, thinking,
“Anyone with telekinesis, raise my hand”
Becomes a daily battle for control of prey;
A Natural Leader manages subordinates –
Whole groups of Zombies which one man coordinates –
The Trendy dare to live offlinked, un-band,
As though alone as in the Olden Days…

In the future when Earth’s overcrowded
And you turn on AI, AR, AV
And instead of crowds and concrete, see a tree,
And follow a manipulated path, alone as Truman,
And mole-like tunnel, blind, controlled, enshrouded,
The Trendy leave the Earth for Mars and stars,
Wrapped in themselves and their AIs, ARs,
Sublimate selves into the posthuman,
Are never seen again alive…
But they see all. They are become the Hive.

“The Trendy” is yet another SF poem, this one first published in Bewildering Stories. The editor, Don Webb, commented that “The syntax in ‘Trendy’ is hair-raising at times, but I figure it goes with the humour. And I am fond of humour!” Very tolerant of him. But then, he’s Canadian, eh?

The formality of the poetry is also somewhat questionable, but for the most part it’s in iambics and rhymes. No different from some of Matthew Arnold’s work:

And the rest, a few,
Escape their prison, and depart
On the wide ocean of life anew.
There the freed prisoner, where’er his heart
Listeth, will sail;
Nor doth he know how there prevail,
Despotic on that sea,
Trade-winds which cross it from eternity.
Awhile he holds some false way, undebarred
By thwarting signs, and braves
The freshening wind and blackening waves.
And then the tempest strikes him…

From ‘A Summer Night’, which I learnt by heart in school and have been inspired by ever after. That’s my excuse, anyway.