"These are damned times -- everything is against one -- the height to which knowledge is come, the spread of luxury, our physical enervation, the absence of great natures, the unavoidable contact with millions of small ones, newspapers, cities, light, profligate friends, moral desperadoes, our own selves, and the sickening consciousness of our difficulties..."
Thus wrote my newest literary find: Matthew Arnold.
He was no stereotypical English poet who sacrificed his life to poetry and literature. Arnold was described thus by Lionel Trilling, as "one of the first of modern writers who undertook to maintain, by means extraneous to literature, both a literary career and a respectable life in the world."
Matthew Arnold was an inspector of schools for the Education Department for 37 years, which left him little time for his writing. His canon of works is therefore quite small, but of what I've read of him in my Viking edition of the Portable Matthew Arnold, he is a most rewarding author to read. His views on society, politics, and literature as a vital part of civic life, are close to my own.
A champion of humanism, he believed that the arts served as "mute measures of what life may be and is not." In his essay, "Culture and Anarchy," I have finally found an author who set out clearly my own belief that the only way to improve our country (and the world) is not through violent revolution, but through a "perfection" of individuals which will be achieved through education and culture. His analysis of the different classes of society is more coherent (I believe) than the Marxist model, and his insight is penetrating. "All of us," he said, "imagine happiness to consist in doing what one's ordinary self likes." Arnold claims that culture/education leads men to their best selves, which takes them out of petty class interests and inspires them to pursue truth and justice in the world, to make it more humane. Ordinary people desire mere power and wealth. They must be taught to desire equality and justice instead.
Arnold is not all sweetness and light. He remarked upon the modern age as being "arid" and "unpoetical," a time when science and technology and business matters were becoming the new gods of man, robbing the cosmos of its beauty and mystery, increasingly dehumanizing and isolating man from himself as well as the rest of the universe.
Here are some excerpts from his poems:
"I, on men's impious uproar hurl'd,
Think often, as I hear them rave,
That peace has left the upper world,
And now keeps only in the grave...
... Calm soul of all things! Make it mine
To feel, amid the city's jar,
That there abides a peace of thine,
Man did not make, and cannot mar!
The will to neither strive nor cry,
The power to feel with others give!
Calm, calm me more! nor let me die
Before I have begun to live."
-- Lines Written In Kensington Garden
"This is the curse of life: that not
A nobler calmer train
Of wiser thoughts and feelings blot
Our passions from our brain;
But each day brings its petty dust
Our soon-chok'd souls to fill,
And we forget because we must,
And not because we will..."
Weary of myself, and sick of asking
What I am, and what I ought to be,
At the vessel's prow I stand, which bears me
Forwards, forwards, o'er the starlit sea...
..."Ah, once more," I cried, "ye Stars, ye Waters,
On my heart your mighty charm renew:
Still, still let me, as I gaze upon you,
Feel my soul becoming vast like you..."
From the intense, clear, star-sown vault of Heaven,
Over the lit sea's unquiet way,
In the rustling night-air came the answer --
"Wouldst thou BE as they are? LIVE as they...
... Bounded by themselves and unobservant
in what state God's other works may be,
In their own tasks all their powers pouring,
These attain the mighty life you see."
O air-born Voice! Long since, severely clear,
A cry like thine in my own heart I hear.
"Resolve to be thyself! And now that he
Who finds himself, loses his misery."
I think it is quite wonderful to spend my long weekend (which is all that I had to count for my "sembreak") letting a wise man such as Matthew Arnold speak to me by reading him. His observations and insights are still meaningful today, if not more than ever. And his life serves as an inspiration to everyone who has ever felt the tiniest bit weary of a full-time job (it happens to the best of us).
Lionel Trilling wrote about Arnold:
"It is impossible not to regret the curtailment of his poetic life that Arnold's educational work brought about; yet it is equally impossible not to find a notable heroism and an antique propriety in a poet thus involving himself with the civic life."
(Which is not something that can be said about Shelley, Byron, Tennyson, etc.)
On a more shallow note: only 3 more days to go until Starbucks releases their Christmas drinks! (Toffee-nut Latte, here we come!) :)