"Dover Beach"

  1. What are the poem's stanza forms and rhythms? What forms of sound patterning does it use? (effect of evenness and order, controlled pain)
  2. What seems to be the poem's subject? What are some features of its language and style? How does it compare or differ from some of the Arnold poems you have read earlier?
  3. What is the poem's sequence of ideas? What is Arnold's view of the prospects for human happiness?
  4. What are some implications of the opening metaphor of the sea by the French coast and cliffs of Dover? Why the reference to Sophocles?
  5. What metaphor does Arnold use to describe Victorian "Faith"? To what kinds of faith may he refer?
  6. What images are used in the poem? Range of color images? (circle, bright girdle, withdrawing roar of sea)
  7. What range of classical references are used, and for what purposes?
  8. To whom is the poem addressed? What does the speaker ask of himself and of (presumably) her? Do we need to know more?
  9. What does the speaker advocate as a refuge in a chaotic world? What effect is created by introducing the word "love" in stanza 3?
  10. What is the speaker's assessment of the world? How do the sounds of the last stanza reinforce its meaning?
  11. What effect is created by the classical metaphor "Where ignorant armies clash by night"? What is the poem's final tone?
  12. Do you find the conclusion satisfactory? What remains the only hope in the world?
  13. How does this poem resemble other early Arnold poems? (sense of a primal unity withdrawn, cmp. 5. "Isolation-- To Marguerite, Continued": once we were all joined but are no longer)
  14. Would Arnold's fellow Victorian poets have agreed with this poem's essential judgments?

"The Buried Life"

  1. What metaphors are used to convey Arnold 's central idea?
  2. Are images of rivers or seas important in other Victorian poems? The image of the glare or painful gaiety of the outer world?
  3. What is the poem's sequence of thought?
  4. How are stanza length, rhythm and other sound effects used to reinforce the poet's intention?
  5. What is the effect of the frequent use of questions and exclamations?
  6. What are some striking tonal features of this poem? How does it differ from or resemble other Victorian poems we have read?
  7. How are the concerns of this poem related to those of "Dover Beach"? What does the young poet hope may be means to authenticity of feeling, if any?
  8. Do you think his poem may be read as in part a commentary on aspects of Victorian society?

"Isolation: To Marguerite, Continued"

  1. What are aspects of the poem's form? Are these appropriate for its subject? (the four six-line stanzas provide a closure, undercut by the element of shock)
  2. What are some of the poem's images? (moon, classical legend, islands at night, only music is heard) How are images of cold and heat used throughout the poem?
  3. What are some of its patternings of color and sound?
  4. What are features of the poem's language and tone? (simple, direct emotion; quiet sense of fatedness, in vain our emotions beat against life's constraints)
  5. How much human love and fellowship are possible, according to the poem?
  6. Is the last stanza consistent? What is the speaker's attitude toward other men who dream of love? (they are equally alone; he both envies and contemns their simple faith)
  7. How are the poem's themes reflected in the arrangement of stanzas?
  8. What is the effect of the use of questions and answers?
  9. What meanings are conveyed by the poem's startling last line?
  10. Do you feel the final statement is one of orthodoxy, acceptance or defiance? (sense that God is a god, fate, inexorable but not benign).

"A Summer Night"

  1. How are the poem's imagery and setting similar to or different from Arnold's earlier poems on isolation? How is this poem similar in theme and style to "Dover Beach"? What are some contrasts?
  2. What basic problem does the poet present in "A Summer Night"? In the poem's initial scene, what seems to trouble the poet? What does the speaker see as the lot of most men?
  3. Why do you think the poet sets his meditations at night under the moonlight? What, according to the "moonlight," seems to be the human psychological condition?
  4. What are features of the poem's descriptions and language? What familiar images are associated with the poet's distress?
  5. How do you interpret the speaker's concerns? Among other things, do they offer a critique of his society?
  6. What does the speaker see as his options?
  7. What are the qualities he associates with passion? What seems represented in the image of the "pale master on his star-strewn deck," and what seems to be the speaker's attitude towards his fate?
  8. Is there any resolution to this dichotomy? What are the alternative solutions which the poem rejects?
  9. What metaphorical closure seems provided by the final stanza? What does the sky represent for him?
  10. Has this resolution been adequately prepared for? Does it provide a satisfactory sense of closure?
  11. What is your evaluation of this poem? What are some ways in which Arnold's poetry differs from that of Browning, Tennyson, E. B. Browning, Webster, D. Rossetti, C. Rossetti and other poets we've read?

"Tristram and Iseult," 1852

What parts of the story are emphasized by the title?

Part I: Tristram

How is the poem structured? What effect is produced by the division into parts, and the ending? (sense of balance)

What is the effect of the opening scene? Of its setting? What do we learn about Tristram's past and present?

What role is served by the narrator? Do we know anything about him/her?

What are the rhythms of part I? Do these shift?

What is added by the presence of auditors? By the evocation of past memories?

How does Arnold render the lovers sympathetic?

Tristram dies a natural death, separated from Iseult
Tristram and Iseult are faithful to each other
Tristram is presented at the moment of his death
lovers die faithfully and chastely (contrast Tennyson)
love-potion and legend show that passion is an irresistible fate
each is more worthy because the object of their attachment is worthy
even so, presents unloved wife with deep sympathy

What do we learn about Tristram's courtship of the second Iseult? (ll. 200-214)

What effect does his love for Iseult of Ireland have on Tristram's later life?

What do we learn of Iseult of Brittany's character and life? What purpose is served by portraying the sleeping children and their dreams?

What contrasting values are embodied in Tristram's two loves? Are these values ever harmonized?

Does Arnold seem to approve of the lovers' extramarital union? If not, why are we able to sympathize with the lovers' frustration? Does the poem seem to suggest the possibility of happy unions?

Part II: Iseult of Ireland

What is added by this section? Is the use of rhyme and dialogue effective?

What changes have the years brought to the lovers, and what has caused these? How does Iseult characterize her past life at court?

What new roles does she assume? What does she hope will be her relationship with the other Iseult? Why may this detail included?

Why is the detail about Tristram's name and birth added at this point?

What tableau is formed by the lovers' shared death? What details are provided about Iseult's emotions and past life in Ireland? What is the tone of the descriptions?

What is the purpose of adding the description of the hunting tapestry? Who may be the hunter who expresses surprise at his alien circumstances?

What do you make of the narrator's appeal to the hunter? (an echo of "Ode to a Grecian Urn") Is it comforting in this context that art will outlast life?

Part III: Iseult of Brittany

What is noticeable in the imagery and rhythms of part III? In general, how do the rhythms and structure of the poem reflect its content?

How have Tristram and Iseult been buried? Is this a surprise? Appropriate?

What do you think Arnold includes a section on Iseult of Brittany, an addition to his sources?

How is her physical environment described? Her psychological state? What activities is she associated with, and what is her relationship to her children?

Why is it important that she tell stories to her children? Are there parallels between this scene and the end of "Goblin Market"?

What interpretation is added by the narrator's reflections in lines 112ff? What does he find to be worse than sorrow? What does he believe are the effects of passion?

Are there parallels between this passage and "A Summer Night"?

What is the tale Iseult chooses to tell, and what is its meaning? Why doesn't she just tell her children of their father's behavior?

Is the fable of Merlin's seduction by Vivian an exact parallel to the plot, and if not, why is it included?

In the legend, who is blamed, Merlin or Vivien, and how is this significant? What is the tone of the poem's ending?

Where do you think Arnold's final sympathies lie? Does this poem resemble any of his other early poems in its themes?

How does Arnold's treatment of love and passion compare/contrast with that of other Victorian poets?

For example, what is the relation of this poem to Tennyson's famous treatment of the same legend? (precedes it; Arnold's poem is less contemptuous of adulterous love, tries to present the desires of and ultimate consequences for both sides)

How does Arnold's poem anticipate/differ from Swinburne's 1882 Tristram of Lyonesse? (Swinburne is also sympathetic to the lovers, but his Iseult of Brittany is a vengeful woman.)

"The Scholar-Gipsy," 1853

  1. What is the purpose of choosing the story of the gypsy?
  2. Is the former scholar literally a gypsy, and if not, what is the point of choosing this allusion? What would have been the attitude of middle-class Victorians toward gypsies? (cmp. scene in Mill on the Floss)
  3. What are some aspects of the poem's form and language?
  4. Why hasn't the gypsy felt the lapse of moral hours?
  5. What is the significance of the final image?

"The Forsaken Merman"

  1. How are the word choices, rhymes and rhythms of the poem appropriate for its subject?
  2. Does this poem remind you of any other poems you have read? If so, what importance do you attach to these parallels?
  3. What basic thematic contrasts are emphasized by the poem? With whom does Arnold most sympathize? Is his sympathy divided or shared?
  4. How would the poem's tone have shifted had the merman been more assertive and less despairing? If the couple had not had children whose implied voices enter the poem?
  5. How do the emotions and situations of the poem differ from those found in Wordworth's poems? What has happened to the themes of friendship and of nature?
  6. What are the poem's attitudes toward respectable society and religion?
  7. What conflicts are experienced by the woman to whom the merman family appeals? Is it important that her daughter has "cold strange eyes" and golden hair? Could the mother have resolved these conflicts?
  8. Since domesticity and womanhood were usually associated with piety and childrearing during this period, what do you make of the fact that the mother of these merchildren is presented as choosing a conventionally domestic and pious life of spinning and church-going on shore?
  9. Does this poem anticipate later Arnold poems, and if so, in what ways? (e. g., "Isolation, To Marguerite," "A Summer Night")

"Stanzas from the Grand Chartreuse"

  1. What are some of the poem's stylistic features?
  2. What is the significance of the initial landscape?
  3. What is the "Grand Chartreuse"? Why do you think Arnold is attracted to the Carthusian way of life? On what grounds does he seem to respect the monastic ideal?
  4. How do Arnold's attitudes toward the monastery compare with those of Wordsworth in The Prelude?
  5. What seems to be his attitude towards the teachers of his youth? Why does he compare himself to a Greek on a northern shore, and is the comparison successful?
  6. How does Arnold define his own emotional and cultural situation?
  7. At what stage of culture does he believe his own culture, modern Europe, to be? Had similar views been enunciated by others of the time? (Comte, Carlyle)
  8. Why are the "kings of modern thought" now silent? What group of people does he single out as particularly ineffective?
  9. What does he seek from the Carthusians? Why is the life of Carthusians preferable in his view to that of the Romantics? What seems to be his definition of Romantic poetry?
  10. What are some important metaphors in this poem?
  11. Why does silence become an ideal for him? From what kinds of human emotion and action does he feel himself separated?
  12. What is the poem's final conclusion/resolution? Does Arnold identify with the inhabitants of the monastery after all?
  13. What seems to be his final attitude toward his age and self?
  14. Are there similarities between the attitudes of this poem and those expressed in Culture and Anarchy?

"Empedocles on Etna"

  1. What seems the intention of this poem? Do you think casting philosophical reflections as a drama with three speakers adds to their interest?
  2. Are there ways in which this poem resembles a Socratic dialogue? A classical drama?
  3. Does the poem create a feeling of progression or suspense, and if so, what causes this?
  4. Why does Arnold choose a mountain in Sicily for his setting? What are some of the historic associations of Mt. Etna?
  5. What views are attributed to the historical Empedocles? Why do you think he has been cast as the poem’s hero? What are implications of casting a philosopher as protagonist for a poem which considers the possibility of  a meaningful life?
  6. What famous Romantic poem, set on a mountain in the Alps, apparently influenced Arnold’s choice of scene? What are some resemblances and differences between “Manfred” and “Empedocles on Etna”?
  7. What does Callicles’s opening speech reveal about Empedocles and the latter’s attitude towards him?  How is Empedocles’s appearance described?
  8. How is the audience expected to Callicles’s account of his life and values? What function does he serve within the drama? (his lack of purpose contrasts with Empedocles’s seriousness)
  9. Why may the songs of Callicles open the poem? Why is he chosen to sing the poem’s final song?
  10. What role is served by Pausanius? How is he contrasted with Callicles and with Empedocles? (hopes to heal; both men unable to identify with the problems which harass him)
  11. What has been Empedocles’s past occupation, and why has he had to leave it? Why do you think different accounts of his banishment are given?
  12. What progression do we see in Empedocles mental states and life? Why can he not take pleasure in the things which appeal to others, such as art and human relationships? (always torn, constantly in a transitional state) Why does he believe this impasse can never be resolved?
  13. What final ecstatic mood does he experience, and why does this cause him to end his life? What are his final thoughts, exclamations, and prayers as he leaps into the abyss?
  14. To what extent does his plight evoke sympathy? Are there other Victorian poets/authors who expressed similar desires to escape their bodies? (cmp. Emily Bronte, “The Prisoner”)
  15. How is the poem aided by its dramatic form and setting? How do the meter and stanza forms shift according to the identities and moods of different speakers? What poetic forms are employed by Empedocles himself?
  16. Are the poem’s rhythms, stanza form and diction appropriate to its themes? (alternation of iambic pentameter and ecstatic, rhythmic choruses) What characterizes the poem’s closing stanzas?
  17. What is the significance of Empedocles's final state? Is he at peace? What seems Arnold's attitude toward his condition?
  18. How does the poem's final song reflect back on the emotions of the characters? Does it celebrate Empedocles or mourn him, and if not, why do you think it fails to do so? To what extent does this hymn provide closure?
  19. Does this poem suggest any of the themes of “The Buried Life,” “A Summer Night,” and “Isolation: To Marguerite, continued”?
  20. Do you find Empedocles’s final suicide inevitable, given his presuppositions?
  21. What might have helped him take renewed interest in life? Are there alternative views of the human situation which Callicles, Pausanious, and Empedocles do not consider? Which Arnold himself suggests in “Dover Beach,”  “The Buried Life” and other poems?
  22. Is this a poem about depression? Is its ending tragic?
  23. Why do you think Arnold later removed this poem from collections of his work?
  24. Are there parallels between Arnold's poem and some of the much-criticized works by contemporary spasmodic poems such as Alexander Smith and Philip Bailey? How would you compare this poem and Tennyson poems of spiritual quest such as “The Holy Grail” (in Idylls of the King) or prose works such as Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus?
  25. What relationship does this poem bear, if any, to the religious debates of the period? Does the portrayal of Empedocles exhibit any parallels with Christ? (he of course was exiled after a fashion, and also died, allegedly willingly)

"Rugby Chapel," 1857

(his father, headmaster of Rugby, had died in 1842)
written age 35

  1. Does this poem differ in tone from previous Arnold poems, and if so, how? (preoccupation with leadership quite unusual for his verse)
  2. For what is Arnold's father praised? Why has a heroic leader been necessary?
  3. Can you recognize the speaker of "Dover Beach" in this poem? Have the poet's goals changed?
  4. What are some of the poem's significant metaphors?
  5. Does the poet's description of life as a difficult quest through mountains and desert suggest other poems of the period? (e. g., "Childe Roland" and "The Holy Grail")
  6. As revealed by this poem, what seems to be Arnold's ideal of character?
  7. Are the poem's rhythms appropriate for its subject?

Final questions:

Do you think Arnold's poems reflect a similar sensibility to that of his essays? Are you surprised that the same man wrote both, and how do you account for their differences?

What are some ways in which Arnold resembles other Victorian poets of his period? What are some ways in which he differs from them? Why do you think he has been identified as in some ways a modern poet?

George Saintsbury, Matthew Arnold

In marked contrast to those of Ruskin and Carlyle, Matthew Arnold's life doesn't seem to have inspired a long series of biographical controversies and efforts at psychosexual interpretation. Both George Saintsbury and Lionel Trilling may have been attracted to Arnold's life as a suitable subject for a history of intellectual development rather than a more personal form of biographical narrative. Arnold might also be seen as a paradigm case of movement from creative to critical preoccupations, and thus have validated the critical interests of his biographers.

Yet Arnold's life would seem to possess the same possibilities for dissection, skepticism, and defense as the lives of other Victorian intellectuals--the overpowering influence of his father; his family's high expectations; his intense and abortive feeling for Marguerite; his fear of multiplicity without an imposed order; his complaint of increasing emotional numbness and inability to feel; his close but often strained friendship with fellow-poet A. H. Clough; his biases concerning races, nations and forms of literary genius; his shift from painful retrospective lyrics to assured and judgmental social criticism--these would seem to provide material for a complex and interpretive biography.

Preface--biography will confine itself to official life (v), few facts can be wanted for someone whose life was in his mind, apart from family affections (vi--events of life of no significance to an explanation of intellectual life?), offers Victorian dichotomy between life and ideas. Saintsbury's lack of interest in Arnold's early emotional and mental development is almost shocking, "we could spare schoolboy letters, which, though often interesting, are pretty identical, save when written by little prigs." (1) Why does he write a biography at all?

Saintsbury regrets the loss of Arnold's Oxford letters, however, implying perhaps that the real development of Arnold's mind would have started at that institution. He comments on the Newdigate prize with offhand elitism (9, Saintsbury's manner perhaps embodies one aspect of Arnold's environment).

Saintsbury shows a total lack of interest in Arnold's affection for Marguerite (16), feels that whether "Marguerite" had a live original is impertinent to speculate (she did, of course). He is critical of Arnold's early romanticism, in his view possibly the "will-worship of Pride." In contrast to the practice of modern biographers, he refers to his subject as Mr. Arnold. He mentions his distaste for speculation (48); guesswork on taste unprofitable. How dissimilar to modern preferences in biography! He manages to find good external or professional reasons for Arnold's basic life choices, a kind of antidote to over-psychologizing approaches.

At times Saintsbury's social assumptions correspond with Arnold's, e. g. he approves of his unofficial legal duties (50) and supports Arnold's statements of contempt for Charlotte Bronte's rebellion and rage. At other times his distance is startling (79); in general he is sympathetic to Arnold's literary criticism and hostile to his social criticism (comparisons to Chesterfield/Socrates). He also seems to condemn Arnold from the vantage point of religious faith. In general, he seems to attack Arnold from the right, not the left. Interestingly Saintsbury feels Culture and Anarchy was by far "his worst, as it was by far his most popular, volume" (126). He seems to have disapproved of the pattern of literary critic who becomes a social commentator--cmp. his conservative disapproval of Ruskin's evolution into a social critic.

Interesting points in letters:

515 individuality, philosophic poetry, Shakespeare
516, 517 brief political references
518, 519 multitudinousness, idea, his own past desire of fullness
520 mystics, moral situation of England
521 no moral feeling while reading papers (cmp. J. S. Mill in Autobiography)
522 past thirty and three parts iced over
524 self in fragments
527 less interested in landscapes
526 art determined by spirit of age, 530