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An essay by James Anthony Froude

Arnold's Poems

Title:     Arnold's Poems
Author: James Anthony Froude [More Titles by Froude]

Five years ago there appeared a small volume entitled "The Strayed Reveller, and other Poems, by A." (The Strayed Reveller, and other Poems. By A. London: 1849) It was received we believe with general indifference. The public are seldom sanguine with new poets; the exceptions to the rule having been for the most part signal mistakes; while in the case of "A." the inequality of merit in his poems was so striking that even persons who were satisfied that qualities were displayed in them of the very highest kind, were yet unable to feel confidence in the future of an author so unusually incapable, as it appeared, of knowing when he was doing well and when he was failing.

Young men of talent experience often certain musical sensations, which are related to poetry as the fancy of a boy for a pretty face is related to love; and the counterfeit while it lasts is so like the reality as to deceive not only themselves but even experienced lookers-on who are not on their guard against the phenomenon. Time in either case is requisite to test the quality both of the substance and of the feeling, and we desired some further evidence of A.'s powers before we could grant him his rank as a poet; or even feel assured that he could ultimately obtain it. There was passion, as in a little poem called "Stagyrus," deep and searching; there was unaffected natural feeling, expressed sweetly and musically; in "The Sick King of Bokhara," in several of the Sonnets and other fragmentary pieces, there was genuine insight into life and whatever is best and noblest in it;--but along with this, there was often an elaborate obscurity, one of the worst faults which poetry can have; and indications that the intellectual struggles which, like all young men in our times, he was passing through, were likely to issue in an indifferentism neither pleasing nor promising.

The inequality in substance was not more remarkable than the inequality in the mechanical expression of it. "The Forsaken Merman" is perhaps as beautifully finished as anything of the kind in the English language. The story is exquisitely told, and word and metre so carefully chosen that the harmony of sound and meaning is perfect. The legend itself we believe is Norwegan. It is of a King of the Sea who had married an earthly maiden; and was at last deserted by her from some scruples of conscience. The original features of it are strictly preserved, and it is told indirectly by the old Sea King to his children in a wild, irregular melody, of which the following extract will convey but an imperfect idea. It is Easter time, and the mother has left her sea palace for the church on the hill side, with a promise to return--

"She smiled, she went up through the surf in the bay.
'Children, dear, was it yesterday?
Children, dear, were we long alone?'
'The sea grows stormy, the little ones moan.
Long prayers,' I said, 'in the world they say.
Come' I said, 'and we rose through the surf in the bay.
We went up the beach, by the sandy down,
Where the sea-stocks bloom to the white-walled town,
Through the narrow paved streets where all was still,
To the little gray church on the windy hill.
From the church came a murmur of folk at their prayers;
But we stood without in the cold blowing airs.

We climbed on the graves, on the stones worn with rains,
And we gazed up the aisle, through the small leaded panes.
She sate by the pillar, we saw her clear.
'Margaret! hist! come, quick, we are here!'
'Dear heart,' I said, 'we are long alone.'
'The sea grows stormy, the little ones moan.'
'But, ah, she gave me never a look,
For her eyes were sealed to the holy book.
Loud prays the priest, shut stands the door.
Come away, children, call no more.
Come away, come down, call no more.'
Down, down, down,
Down to the depths of the sea.
She sits at her wheel in the humming town,
Singing most joyfully.
Hark what she sings: 'Oh, joy! oh, joy!
For the humming street, and the child with its toy;
For the priest, and the bell, and the holy well;
For the wheel where I spun,
And the blessed light of the sun.'
And so she sings her fill,
Singing most joyfully,
Till the shuttle falls from her hand,
And the whizzing wheel stands still.
She steals to the window, and looks at the sand,
And over the sand at the sea,
And her eyes are set in a stare,
And anon there breaks a sigh,
And anon there drops a tear,
From a sorrow-clouded eye,
And a heart sorrow-laden,
A long, long sigh,
For the cold strange eyes of a little Mermaiden,
And the gleam of her golden hair."

Not less excellent, in a style wholly different, was A.'s treatment (and there was this high element of promise in A. that, with a given story to work upon, he was always successful) of the AEgyptian legend of Mycerinus, a legend not known unfortunately to general English readers, who are therefore unable to appreciate the skill displayed in dealing with it. We must make room for one extract, however, in explanation of which it is only necessary to say that Mycerinus, having learnt from the oracle that being too just a king for the purposes of the gods, who desired to afflict the AEgyptians, he was to die after six more years, made the six years into twelve by lighting his gardens all night with torches, and revelled out what remained to him of life. We can give no idea of the general conception of the poem, but as a mere piece of description this is very beautiful.

"There by the river bank he wandered on,
From palm grove on to palm grove, happy trees,
Their smooth tops shining sunwards, and beneath
Burying their unsunned stems in grass and flowers;
Where in one dream the feverish time of youth
Might fade in slumber, and the feet of joy
Might wander all day long, and never tire:
Here came the king, holding high feast at morn,
Rose-crowned: and even when the sun went down,
A hundred lamps beamed in the tranquil gloom,
From tree to tree, all through the twinkling grove,
Revealing all the tumult of the feast,
Flushed guests, and golden goblets foamed with wine,
While the deep burnished foliage overhead
Splintered the silver arrows of the moon."

Containing as it did poems of merit so high as these, it may seem strange that this volume should not have received a more ready recognition; for there is no excellence which the writer of the passages which we have quoted could hereafter attain, the promise of which would not be at once perceived in them. But the public are apt to judge of books of poetry by the rule of mechanism, and try them not by their strongest parts but by their weakest; and in the present instance (to mention nothing else) the stress of weight in the title which was given to the collection was laid upon what was by no means adequate to bearing it. Whatever be the merits of the "Strayed Reveller" as poetry, it is certainly not a poem in the sense which English people generally attach to the word, looking as they do not only for imaginative composition but for verse;--and as certainly if the following passage had been printed merely as prose, in a book which professed to be nothing else, no one would have suspected that it was composed of an agglutination of lines.

"The gods are happy; they turn on all sides their shining eyes, and see below them earth and men. They see Tiresias sitting staff in hand on the warm grassy Asopus bank, his robe drawn over his old, sightless head, revolving inly the doom of Thebes. They see the Centaurs in the upper glens of Pelion, on the streams where the red-berried ashes fringe the clear brown shallow pools; with streaming flanks and heads reared proudly, snuffing the mountain wind. They see the Scythian on the wide steppe, unharnessing his wheeled house at noon; he tethers his beast down and makes his meal, mare's milk and bread baked on the embers; all around the boundless waving grass plains stretch, thick starred with saffron and the yellow hollyhock and flag-leaved isis flowers."

No one will deny that this is fine imaginative painting, and as such poetical,--but it is the poetry of well written, elegant prose. Instead of the recurring sounds, whether of rhyme or similarly weighted syllables, which constitute the outward form of what we call verse, we have the careless grace of uneven, undulating sentences, flowing on with a rhythmic cadence indeed, but free from all constraint of metre or exactitude of form. It may be difficult, perhaps it is impossible, to fix the measure of license which a poet may allow himself in such matters, but it is at least certain that the greatest poets are those who have allowed themselves the fewest of such liberties: in art as in morals, and as in everything which man undertakes, true greatness is the most ready to recognize and most willing to obey those simple outward laws which have been sanctioned by the experience of mankind, and we suspect the originality which cannot move except on novel paths.

This is but one of several reasons which explain the apathy of the public on A.'s first appearance. There was large promise, but the public require performance; and in poetry a single failure overweighs a hundred successes. It was possible that his mistakes were the mistakes of a man whose face was in the right direction --who was feeling his way, and who would ultimately find it; but only time could decide if this were so; and in the interval, the coldness of his reception would serve to test the nature of his faculty.

So far we have spoken with reserve, for we have simply stated the feelings with which we regarded this little volume on first reading it; but the reserve is no longer necessary, and the misgivings which we experienced have not been justified. At the close of last year another volume was published, again of miscellaneous poems, which went beyond the most sanguine hopes of A.'s warmest admirers. As before with "The Strayed Revellers," so again with "Empedocles on AEtna," (Empedocles on AEtna, and other Poems. By A. London: 1852) the piece de resistance was not the happiest selection. But of the remaining pieces, and of all those which he has more recently added, it is difficult to speak in too warm praise. In the unknown A., we are now to recognize a son of the late Master of Rugby, Dr. Arnold. Like a good knight, we suppose he thought it better to win his spurs before appearing in public with so honoured a name; but the associations which belong to it will suffer no alloy from him who now wears it. Not only is the advance in art remarkable, in greater clearness of effect, and in the mechanical handling of words, but far more in simplicity and healthfulness of moral feeling. There is no more obscurity, and no mysticism; and we see everywhere the working of a mind bent earnestly on cultivating whatever is highest and worthiest in itself; of a person who is endeavouring, without affectation, to follow the best things, to see clearly what is good, and right, and true, and to fasten his heart upon these. There is usually a period in the growth of poets in which, like coarser people, they mistake the voluptuous for the beautiful; but in Mr. Arnold there is no trace of any such tendency; pure, without effort, he feels no enjoyment and sees no beauty in the atmosphere of the common passions; and in nobleness of purpose, in a certain loftiness of mind singularly tempered with modesty, he continually reminds us of his father. There is an absence, perhaps, of colour; it is natural that it should be so in the earlier poems of a writer who proposes aims such as these to himself; his poetry is addressed to the intellectual, and not to the animal emotions; and to persons. of animal taste, the flavour will no doubt be oversimple; but it is true poetry--a true representation of true human feeling. It may not be immediately popular, but it will win its way in the long run, and has elements of endurance in it which enable it to wait without anxiety for recognition.

Among the best of the new poems is "Tristram and Iseult." It is unlucky that so many of the subjects should be so unfamiliar to English readers, but it is their own fault if they do not know the "Mort d'Arthur." We must not calculate, however, on too much knowledge in such unpractical matters; and as the story is too long to tell in this place, we take an extract which will not require any. It is a picture of sleeping children as beautiful as Sir Francis Chantrey's.

But they sleep in sheltered rest,
Like helpless birds in the warm nest
On the castle's southern side,
Where feebly comes the mournful roar
Of buffeting wind and surging tide,
Through many a room and corridor.
Full on the window the moon's ray
Makes their chamber as bright as day.
It shines upon the blank white walis,
And on the snowy pillow falls.
And on two angel heads doth play,
Turn'd to each other: the eyes closed,
The lashes on the cheek reposed.
Round each sweet brow the cap close set
Hardly lets peep the golden hair;
Through the soft opened lips the air
Scarcely moves the coverlet.
One little wandering arm is thrown
At random on the counterpane,
And often the fingers close in haste,
As if their baby owner chased
The butterflies again.
This stir they have and this alone,
But else they are so still--
Ah, you tired madcaps, you lie still;
But were you at the window now,
To look forth on the fairy sight
Of your illumined haunts by night,
To see the park glades where you play
Far lovelier than they are by day,
To see the sparkle on the eaves,
And upon every giant bough
Of those old oaks whose wan red leaves
Are jewelled with bright drops of rain--
How would your voices run again!
And far beyond the sparkling trees,
Of the castle park, one sees
The bare heath spreading clear as day,
Moor behind moor, far far away,
Into the heart of Brittany.
And here and there locked by the land
Long inlets of smooth glittering sea,
And many a stretch of watery sand,
All shining in the white moonbeams;
But you see fairer in your dreams."

This is very beautiful; a beautiful description of one of the most beautiful objects in nature; but it is a description which could never have been composed except by a person whose mind was in tune with all innocent loveliness, and who found in the contemplation of such things not merely a passing emotion of pleasure but the deepest and most exquisite enjoyment.

Besides "Tristram and Iseult," we select for especial mention out of this second volume, "A Farewell," "Self-Dependence," "Morality "; two very highly-finished pieces called "The Youth of Nature," and "The Youth of Man," expressing two opposite states of feeling, which we all of us recognize, and yet which, as far as we know, have never before found their way into language; and "A Summer Night," a small meditative poem, containing one passage, which, although not perfect--for, if the metre had been more exact, the effect would, in our opinion, have been very much enhanced--is, nevertheless, the finest that Mr. Arnold has yet written.

And I. I know not if to pray
Still to be what I am, or yield and be
Like all the other men I see.
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 minds to some unmeaning taskwork give,
Dreaming of nought beyond their prison wall;
And as, year after year,
Fresh products of their barren labour 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.

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 does he know how there prevail,
Despotic on life's sea,
Trade winds that 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."

In these lines, in powerful and highly-sustained metaphor, lies the full tragedy of modern life.

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

We disguise the alternative under more fairly-sounding names, but we cannot escape the reality; and we know not, after all, whether there is deeper sadness in a broken Mirabeau or Byron, or in the contented prosperity of a people who once knew something of noble aspirations, but have submitted to learn from a practical age that the business of life is to make money, and the enjoyments of it what money can buy. A few are ignobly successful; the many fail, and are miserable; and the subtle anarchy of selfishness finds its issue in madness and revolution. But we need not open this painful subject. Mr. Arnold is concerned with the effect of the system on individual persons; with the appearance which it wears to young highly sensitive men on their entry upon the world, with the choice of a life before them; and it is happy for the world that such men are comparatively rare, or the mad sort would be more abundant than they are.

We cannot but think it unfortunate that this poem, with several others of the highest merit, have been omitted in the last edition, while others find a place there, for which comparatively we care little. Uniformity of excellence has been sacrificed to uniformity of character, a subsidiary matter which in itself is of slight importance, and which the public would never quarrel for if they were treated with an ever pleasing variety. As it is, we have still to search three volumes for the best specimens of Mr. Arnold's powers, and opportunities are still left for illmatured critics to make extracts of an apparently inferior kind. There is a remedy for this, however, in the future, and the necessary sifting will no doubt get itself duly accomplished at last. In the meantime, before noticing the late edition, we have a few words to say about Empedocles, the ground of objection to which we cannot think Mr. Arnold adequately understands, although he has omitted it in his present edition, and has given us his reasons for doing so. Empedocles, as we all know, was a Sicilian philosopher, who, out of discontent with life, or from other cause, flung himself into the crater of Mount AEtna. A discontent of this kind, Mr. Arnold tells us, unrelieved by incident, hope, or resistance, is not a fit subject for poetry. The object of poetry is to please, and the spectacle of a man too weak to bear his trials, and breaking under them, cannot be anything but painful. The correctness of the portrait he defends; and the fault, as he thinks, is not in the treatment, but in the subject itself. Now it is true that as a rule poetry is better employed in exhibiting the conquest over temptations than the fall under them, and some escape of this kind for the feelings must be provided in tragedies, by the introduction of some powerful cause, either of temptation acting on the will or of an external force controlling the action, in order to explain and reconcile us to the catastrophe. A mere picture of imbecility is revolting simply; we cannot conceive ourselves acting in the same way under the same circumstances, and we can therefore feel neither sympathy with the actor nor interest in his fate. But we must be careful how we narrow our theories in such matters. In Werther we have an instance of the same trial, with the same issue as Mr. Arnold has described in Empedocles, and to say that Werther was a mistake, is to circumscribe the sphere of art by a definition which the public taste will refuse to recognize. Nor is it true, in spite of Schiller's authority, that "all art is dedicated to enjoyment." Tragedy has other objects, the katharsis or purifying of the emotions for instance, which, if we are to continue to use words in their ordinary sense, is something distinct from enjoyment, and not always reconcilable with it. Whatever will excite interest in a healthy, vigorous mind, that is a fair object of poetry, and there is a painful as well as a pleasant interest; it is an abuse of language to describe the sensations which we experience on reading "Philoctetes" or "Hamlet" as pleasant. They are not unmixedly painful, but surely not pleasant.

It is not therefore the actual fate of Empedocles which fails to interest us, but we are unable to feel that Mr. Arnold's account of him is the true account. In the absence of authentic material, the artist who hopes to interest us in his fate must at least make the story probable as he tells it; consistent in itself, with causes clearly drawn out proportioned to the effects resulting from them. And this it cannot be said that Mr. Arnold has done. Powerful as is much of the language which he places in the mouth of Empedocles, he has failed to represent him as in a condition in which suicide is the natural result. His trials, his disgusts, as far as he exhibits them, are not more than man may naturally be supposed able to bear, while of the impulses of a more definite character there is no trace at all. But a more grave deficiency still is, that among all the motives introduced, there is not one to make the climb of AEtna necessary or intelligible. Empedocles on AEtna might have been Empedocles in his room at Catana, and a dagger or a cup of hemlock would have answered all purposes equally well with a plunge in the burning crater. If the tradition of Empedocles is a real story of a thing which really happened, we may feel sure that some peculiar feeling connected with the mountain itself, some mystical theory or local tradition, led such a man as he was to such a means of self-immolation.

We turn from Empedocles, which perhaps it is scarcely fair to have criticised, to the first poem in the latest edition, "Sohrab and Rustum," (Poems. By Matthew Arnold. A New Edition, London: 1853.) a poem which alone would have settled the position which Mr. Arnold has a right to claim as a poet, and which is remarkable for its success in every point in which Empedocles appears deficient. The story comes down out of remote Persian antiquity; it is as old, perhaps it is older, than the tale of Troy; and, like all old stories which have survived the changes of so long a time, is in itself of singular interest. Rustum, the Hercules of the East, fell in with and loved a beautiful Tartar woman. He left her, and she saw him no more; but in time a child was born, who grew up with the princes of his mother's tribe, and became in early youth distinguished in all manly graces and noblenesses. Learning that he was the son of the great Rustum, his object is to find his father, and induce him, by some gallant action, to acknowledge and receive him. War breaks out between the Tartars and the Persians. The two armies come down upon the Oxus, and Sohrab having heard that Rustum had remained behind in the mountains, and was not present, challenges the Persian chief. Rustum, unknown to Sohrab, had in the meantime joined the army, and against a warrior of Sohrab's reputation, no one could be trusted to maintain the Persian cause except the old hero. So by a sad perversity of fate, and led to it by their very greatness, the father and the son meet in battle, and only recognize each other when Sohrab is lying mortally wounded. It is one of those terrible situations which only the very highest power of poetry can dwell upon successfully. If the right chord be not touched to the exactest nicety, if the shock of the incident in itself be not melted into pathos, and the nobleness of soul in the two sufferers be not made to rise above the cruel accident which crushes them, we cannot listen to the poet. The story overwhelms and absorbs us; we desire to be left alone with it and with our own feelings, and his words about it become officious and intrusive. Homer has furnished Mr. Arnold with his model, and has taught him the great lesson that the language on such occasions cannot be too simple and the style too little ornamented. Perhaps it may be thought that he has followed Homer's manner even too closely. No one who has read "Mycerinus" and the "Forsaken Metman" can doubt that Mr. Arnold can write richly if he pleases. It is a little startling, therefore, to find the opening of this poem simpler than one would make it, even if telling it in prose to a child. As in the "Iliad," the same words are repeated over and over again for the same idea, without variation or attempt at it; and although it may easily be that our taste is spoiled by the high seasoning of the modern style, the result is that it strikes the attention to an extent which would have been better avoided. A perfect style does not strike at all, and it is a matter in which the reader ought to be considered even more than the abstract right. We have soon, however, ceased to think of that; the peculiarity which we have mentioned is confined to the beginning, and the success of the treatment is best proved by our forgetfulness, as we read on, of art and artist language and manner, in the overpowering interest of the story as it is drawn out before us. Extracts will convey a poor idea of a poem in which the parts are so wholly subordinate to the effect of the whole, and yet, in spite of this disadvantage, we can justify at least partially to our readers the opinions which we have generally expressed.

We will take the scene of the recognition, when Sohrab, lying wounded, and as yet ignorant of the name of his adversary, has declared himself Rustum's son. The father, at first incredulous and scornful, is led step by step, through the mention of old names and times, towards the anaguorisis, and after the most delicately traced alternations of feeling, all doubt is ended by the mark of the seal on Sohrab's arm which Rustum had given to his mother.

"How say'st thou? [Sohrab says.] Is that sign the proper sign
Of Rustum's son, or of some other man's?
He spoke: but Rustum gazed, and gazed, and stood
Speechless; and then he uttered one sharp cry,
Oh, boy, thy father!"

This is the first hint to Sohrab who has been his foe.

"And his voice choked there,
And then a dark cloud pass'd before his eyes,
And his head swam, and he sank down to earth.
But Sohrab crawled to where he lay, and cast
His arms about his neck, and kiss'd his lips,
And with fond faltering fingers stroked his cheeks,
Trying to call him back to life: and life
Came back to Rustum; and he op'd his eyes;
And they stood wide with horrour: and he seized
In both his hands the dust which lay around,
And threw it on his face, and smirched his hair,
His hair, and face, and beard, and glittering arms:
And strong convulsive groanings shook his breast,
And his sobs choked him, and he clutched his sword
To draw it, and for ever let life out.
But Sohrab saw his thought, and held his hand,
And with a soothing voice he spoke, and said
'Father, forbear, for I but meet to-day
The doom that at my birth was written down
In Heaven, and thou art Heaven's unconscious hand.
Surely my heart cried out that it was thou,
When first I saw thee; and thy heart spoke too,
I know it; but Fate trod those promptings down
Under its iron heel; Fate, Fate engaged
The strife, and hurled me on my father's spear.
But let us speak no more of this: I find
My father: let me feel that I have found.
Come, sit beside me on this sand, and take
My head betwixt thy hands, and kiss my cheeks,
And wash them with thy tears, and say "My son!"
Quick: quick! for numbered are my sands of life,
And swift; for like the lightning to this field
I came, and like the wind I go away.
Sudden and swift, and like a passing wind:
But it was writ in Heaven that this should be.'
So said he: and his voice released the heart
Of Rustum; and his tears broke forth: he cast
His arms round his son's neck, and wept aloud,
And kiss'd him; and awe fell on both the hosts
When they saw Rustum's grief; and Ruksh, the horse,
With his head bowing to the ground and mane
Sweeping the dust, came near, and in mute woe
First to the one, then to the other mov'd
His head, as if enquiring what their grief
Might mean; and from his dark compassionate eyes
The big warm tears roll'd down and caked the

As a picture of human life in Homer's manner, we cannot see why this passage, and indeed the whole poem, should not be thought as good as any one of the episodes in the "AEneid." We are not comparing Mr. Arnold with Virgil: for it is one thing to have written an epic and another to have written a small fragment; but as a working up of a single incident it may rank by the side of Nisus and Euryalus, and deeper chords of feeling are touched in it than Virgil has ever touched.

And this leads us to Mr Arnold's preface, and to the account which he gives us of the object which he proposes to himself in poetry: and our notice of this must be brief, as our space is running to its conclusion. He tells us, in a manner most feelingly instructive, something of the difficulties which lie round a young poet of the present day who desires to follow his art to some genuine purpose; and what he says will remind readers of Wordsworth of Professor Wilson's beautiful letter to him on a very similar subject. Unhappily the question is not one of poetry merely, but of far wider significance. Not the poet only, but every one of us who cannot be satisfied to tread with the crowd along the broad road which leads--we used to know whither, but desires "to cultivate," as Mr. Arnold says, "what is best and noblest" in ourselves, are as sorely at a loss as he is with his art. To find the best models,--that indeed is the one thing for him and for us. But what are they and where? and the answer to the aesthetic difficulty lies as we believe in the solution of the moral one. To say this, however, is of infinitely little service for the practical direction of a living poet; and we are here advised (and for present purposes no doubt wisely) to fall back on the artists of classic antiquity. From them better than from the best of the moderns, the young poet will learn what art really is. He will learn that before beginning to sing it is necessary to have something to sing of, and that a poem is something else than a collection of sweet musical sentences strung together like beads or even jewels in a necklace. He will learn that the subject is greater than the manner; that the first is the one essential without a worthy choice of which nothing can prosper. Above all, he will learn that the restless craving after novelty, so characteristic of all modern writing, the craving after new plots, new stories, new ideas, is mere disease, and that the true original genius displays itself not in the fabrication of what has no existence, but in the strength and power with which facts of history, or stories existing so fixedly in the popular belief as to have acquired so to say the character of facts, shall be exhibited and delineated.

But while we allow with Mr. Arnold that the theory will best be learnt from the ancients, we cannot allow, as he seems to desire us to allow, that the practice of it was confined to them, or recommend as he does the disproportionate study, still less the disproportionate imitation of them. All great artists at all times have followed the same method, for greatness is impossible without it. The Italian painters are never weary of the Holy Family. The matter of Dante's poem lay before him in the creed of the whole of Europe. Shakespeare has not invented the substance of any one of his plays. And the "weighty experience" and "composure of judgment" with which the study of the ancients no doubt does furnish "those who habitually practise it," may be obtained we believe by the study of the thoughts of all great men of all ages; by the study of life in any age, so that our scope be broad enough.

It is indeed idle nonsense to speak, as some critics speak, of the "present" as alone having claims upon the poet. Whatever is great, or good, or pathetic, or terrible, in any age past or present, belongs to him, and is within his proper province; but most especially, if he is wise, he will select his subjects out of those which time has sealed as permanently significant. It is not easy in our own age to distinguish what has the elements in it of enduring importance; and time is wiser than we. But why dwell with such apparent exclusiveness on classic antiquity, as if there was no antiquity except the classic, and as if time were divided into the eras of Greece and Rome and the nineteenth century? The Hellenic poet sang of the Hellenes, why should not the Teutonic poet sing of the Teutons?

"Vixere fortes post Agamemnona."

And grand as are Achilles and Clytemnestra, they are not grander than their parallels in the German epic Criemhilda and Von Tronje Hagen. We do not dream of prescribing to Mr. Arnold what subject he should choose. Let him choose what interests himself if he will interest his readers; and if he choose what is really human, let it come from what age it will, human hearts will answer to it. And yet it seems as if Teutonic tradition, Teutonic feeling, and Teutonic thought had the first claim on English and German poets. And those among them will deserve best of the modern world, and will receive the warmest welcome from it, who will follow Shakespeare in modelling into forms of beauty the inheritance which has come down to them of the actions of their own race. So most faithfully, if least directly, they will be treading in the steps of those great poets of Greece whom they desire to imitate. Homer and Sophocles did not look beyond their own traditions and their own beliefs; they found in these and these only their exclusive and abundant material. Have the Gothic annals suddenly become poor, and our own quarries become exhausted and worthless?

[The end]
James Froude's essay: Arnold's Poems