Arnold’s poem expresses a fear that has a particular resonance with us today – the fear that the great age of poetry has finished and we are left in its wake. It elegizes three figures of Romantic poetry, Byron, Goethe and Wordsworth, three poets whose influence is felt strongly by Arnold. The poem serves as a manifesto for poetry, elucidating the qualities of Romantic poetry that appeal for Arnold. As well as a panegyric for Wordsworth, there is a sense in which the poem struggles against him, trying to lay to rest finally the ‘benumbing’ pressure of trying to live up to these mighty predecessors.
It is fitting that in this, what I think is the most powerful of Arnold’s poems, he takes the position we find in his renowned essays – examining the value of poetry, and what makes a poem good. An ambivalence towards Byron balances on the one hand his undeniable power, ‘Had felt him like the thunder’s roll’, and on the other what Arnold feels to be his immoral influence, ‘the strife we saw / Of passion with eternal law’. There is a conflicted, almost guilty respect for Byron’s enigmatic and fearless character, ‘the fount of fiery life’, reference to the Titans gives a sense of Byron’s struggle against ‘eternal law’ as both futile and noble. If this fire and passion is one thing recognised by Arnold as a mark of great poetry, it is contrasted powerfully with his image of Goethe as the medically precise philosopher, ‘struck his finger on the place / And said: Thou ailest here, and here!’ The astute and profound thought of Goethe is honoured but at the same time strikes us as cold and inhumane in comparison with Byron’s ability to move the emotions. The apocalyptic tone of Goethe’s prophecy imagines a great flood engulfing the world, ‘take refuge there!’ This cataclysmic imagery is perhaps begun by characterizing Byron as a volcano, ‘the fount of fiery life’ – Byron is in some sense connected with this destructive force in the world which Goethe is denouncing. The two poet’s sensibilities seem to be doing battle over the fate of the earth, as the ‘lurid flows / of terror’, the lava of Byron’s volcano, passes beneath Goethe’s feet. Arnold makes it clear that Goethe has the moral high ground, but enters us into his own conflicted admiration for them both.
In Wordsworth these two warring sensibilities find perfect unity – the calm and moral integrity of Goethe with the intimacy and expressiveness of Byron. Wordsworth’s uniqueness is beautifully described in some of the most moving lines of the poem, ‘Others will strengthen us to bear – / But who, ah! who, will make us feel?’ His voice described as a wind that returns youth to those who hear it, using Wordsworth’s own beloved metaphor of wind as poetic inspiration along with the common theme of the profundity of childhood. In the final lines is the implicit fear that the balance and order of Wordsworth’s poetry imposed on the world is now disintegrating now that the great poet is gone.
Running through the poem is a deep anxiety about the state of Europe – a state that these dead poets were working to mend. Goethe is the physician for Europe’s ‘dying hour / Of fitful dream and feverish power’, Arnold expresses the chaotic and unpredictable politics of 19th Century Europe, with states amassing military power ‘feverishly’. There is an unmistakable sense that some cataclysmic change is coming, in the graphic imagery of ‘expiring life’ and ‘dark days’. The ‘iron time’ has its effect on both Goethe and Wordsworth, but it is clear that Arnold felt them free from the bondage that afflicts him, ‘the age had bound / Our souls in its benumbing round’. Here we can see that the apocalyptic note is tolling poetry for poetry itself – Arnold is expressing a deep fear that the age of mechanisation has made poetic greatness impossible.
In elegizing these great influences and especially Wordsworth, Arnold is in one sense also trying to overcome them and put them behind him. In acknowledging Wordsworth’s loss of idealist liberalism, ‘doubts, disputes, distractions, fears’, there is perhaps an attempt to suggest that in some respect these predecessor poets failed (an interesting comparison could be made between this poem and Browning’s The Lost Leader). The way he enters into and then enacts a release from Wordsworth’s style in lines 47-57 also reflects this. The rebirth in the lap of Nature might remind us of Intimations of Immortality of Three Years she Grew that I wrote on the other day. The ‘breeze’ and ‘sunlit fields’ are two images found over again in Wordsworth’s poetry. The following line is then distinctly different in feel, ‘Our foreheads felt the wind and rain’. The idealised rural landscape has been entered and then altered, made more realistic and less inviting. So it is that the ‘shedding’ that occurs in line 54 is paradoxically both brought about by and a shedding of Wordsworth’s influence. This cleansing ritual is presented to us as the poet’s own experience, but we are left to decide how succesful it is – does not the final line‘The freshness of the early world’ sound the most like Wordsworth of all of them?
This poem is a celebration and a demonstration of all the value in Romanticism – its fiery individuality, prophetic confidence and intimacy. At the same time it is a statement that the age has passed, an attempt to overcome the legacy of the great poets who exert an inhibiting influence on the poet by suggesting they fell short in some respects. Finally it is a profound expression of anxiety about what the future holds both for poetry and for the world – and an attempt to induce self-confidence in the poet, who now feels that he is facing these challenges alone, without the guidance of his forbearers.