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Gregory Wood

Dr. Wickens

English 351

November 13, 2004

The Function of the Journey in Matthew Arnold’s Poetry

We can see that much of Matthew Arnold’s poetry contains the imagery of a

journey. Stefan Collini suggests that this is a three-stage journey “represented by a river,

which rises in a cool, dark glade, flows out on to the fierce, hot plain, and then finds its

way to the wide calm sea” (54). The first stage is that of childhood and is represented by

romantic descriptions of nature and an overall feeling of happiness. This stage can be

referred to as ‘The Forest Glade’. The second stage describes a period of suffering,

brought on by the loss of religion, and the trials that are placed upon the individual by a

progress-minded Victorian society. This stage can be referred to as ‘The Burning Plain’.

The third stage, referred to as ‘The Wide Glimmering Sea’, is that of final transcendence.

We have surpassed the innocence of childhood and the turmoil of the social life to reach

that final happiness of general fulfillment; it is obvious that this is Arnold’s ultimate goal,

though it may never be achieved.

. Arnold’s ‘Forest Glade’ region clearly refers to his youth, and the Romantic era.

This was a time of extreme happiness for Arnold; a time when he could truly feel and

understand the beauty of nature as represented by Wordsworth and the other Romantics.

This was also a time when Arnold and the majority of society still believed in God and

religion, and it is this belief which allowed that profound joy of nature which was still
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seen as a spiritual realm. This is because scientists had not yet shown nature to be ‘red in

tooth and claw’, simply fighting for resources and struggling for its own existence, as

does mankind. This makes the ‘Forest Glade’ a very special place for Arnold, one that he

longs for, yet knows that he can never revisit:

For rigorous teachers seized my youth,

And purged its faith, and trimmed its fire,

Show’d me the high, white star of Truth,

There bade me gaze, and there aspire (Stanzas, 67-70).

This truth to which Arnold was exposed served to remove him from his youth and

his ‘Forest Glade’, forcing him to recognize that his youthful view of the ‘Forest Glade’

was innocent and naïve. This naïve innocence is portrayed most clearly by the character

of Callicles in “Empedocles on Etna”. In this poem Callicles is a young harp player and a

former student of the hero, Empedocles. Throughout the poem, Callicles’ thoughts are

represented in a Romantic fashion, using Romantic imagery and language. He is

introduced to us while thinking about the beauty of his natural surroundings which, to

him, still represent Wordsworth’s healing power, as we perceive when he asks, “What

mortal could be sick or sorry here?” (1.1. 20). We receive further suggestion of Callicles’

innocence through his description of “the sun / [which] is shining on the brilliant

mountain crests, / And on the highest pines; but farther down, / Here in the valley, is in

shade” (1.1. 9-12). Arnold has taken this imagery from Plato’s Allegory of the Den,
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where sunlight is symbolic of experience and comprehension, and Callicles is protected

from this sunlight by his surroundings within the ‘Forest Glade’.

Scene II begins with Pausanias requesting to know the secret that Empedocles

used in raising Pantheia from the dead so that he may better ward off the “swelling evil of

this time” (1.1. 113), which is brought “when the Gods / Visit us as they do with sign and

plague” (1.2. 23-4). Hearing this request, Empedocles realizes that Pausanias has been

infected by the Sophists, and he must teach him how to live correctly. This

teacher/student relationship is emphasized by Callicles’ song about the Centaur who

taught Achilles to explore the upper regions of the mountains, or the ‘Burning Plain’:

He told him of the Gods, the stars,

The tides; - and then of mortal wars,

And of the life which heroes lead

Before they reach the Elysian place

And rest in the immortal mead;

And all the wisdom of his race. (1.2. 71-6)

Like the Centaur, Empedocles tells Pausanias about the ‘mortal wars’ of their time by

lecturing upon the problems of their society and suggesting means of overcoming those

problems in order to find contentment. Empedocles complains that men too easily follow

the throng because they fear to know the truth. They develop easy religions and false

gods, which they can blame for their unhappiness. Empedocles claims that men believe

the world was designed for their pleasure, and with their happiness in mind. They do not
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realize that “the world does not exist that welfare to bestow” (1.2. 176), and this taints all

their thinking. Believing that the scientific study of nature will allow happiness, men

become so busy in “observ[ing] a world so vast” and “sort[ing] what’s here amassed”

(1.2. 213-15), that they don’t even care to think upon how best to live. And when they

finally realize that they cannot possibly comprehend all of nature, they feel their

weakness and return to their gods:

You only can take in

The world’s immense design.

Our desperate search was sin,

Which henceforth we resign,

Sure only that your mind sees all things which befall. (1.2. 342-6)

We can clearly see that this lecture is Arnold’s attempt at numbering the problems of

Victorian society. He berates society for creating facile religions and sterile religious

atmospheres. Like the sophist who “sneers: Fool, take / Thy pleasure, right or wrong”

(1.2. 132-3), the religious Victorian allows no dissent, as that would create some doubt

for himself, which would destroy his fragile belief. Arnold also displays the Victorian

desire for scientific progress, and shows us how these questions have replaced the really

important one: how best to live?

Yet, through Empedocles, Arnold does tell us how best to live. He praises the

man who, “In his own bosom delves, / And asks what ails him so, and gets what cure he

can” (1.2. 131-2). He will realize that we are part of nature, and must fit in as such. He
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will realize that, “Harsh Gods and hostile Fates / Are dreams! This only is- / Is

everywhere; sustains the wise, the foolish elf” (1.2. 304-6). Yet even accepting the world

as it is cannot be enough, for even still, “The ill deeds of other men make often our life

dark” (1.2. 266). This forces Arnold to promote a certain detachment. We see in

Resignation that to cross over this ‘Burning Plain’, man must “subdue that energy to scan

/ Not his own course, but that of man” (146-7). He would contribute to society, but not

become engaged within it; he would feel the pride of man’s accomplishments, but from a

distance. And though he is alone, he would not feel so because he understands “that

general life, which does not cease, / Whose secret is not joy, but peace” (191-2). And

yet, we must refer to the man that ‘would’, because Arnold has not provided any

examples of this peaceful fulfillment.

Though Empedocles exemplifies Arnold’s ideal of stoic detachment, he has not

found peace. At the beginning of Act II, Empedocles is alone, and he feels it. He has

just heard a beautiful song from Callicles, another myth, about Cadmus and Harmonia,

and it seems to suggest an end to the pain and questions of the ‘Burning Plain’, by a

removal, back to nature and the ‘Forest Glade’. Yet it seems that this song has actually

created more pain than it temporarily assuaged, because Empedocles knows that he

cannot return to the ‘Forest Glade’. He simply knows too much, and cannot ignore the

questions and answers that he has found. Like the children in “Stanzas from the Grand

Chartreuse”, it seems that Empedocles’ “bent was taken long ago” (298). Because

Empedocles places so much emphasis upon recognizing false religions, it seems that he

once believed in a true religion. Since this religion has been dispelled he is left,

“wandering between two worlds, one dead, / The other powerless to be born” (Stanzas,
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85-6). We see that society rots Empedocles’ soul by imparting false religions, but he

cannot gain spiritual strength from isolation in nature because nature is no longer God’s

benevolent gift to man. Instead he must search himself, trying to create a new world with

a new understanding of spirit and soul, which only leads to inward looking


This intellectualism is attacked by another song from Callicles, this time

describing the myth of Typho, who cannot hear the beauty of the lyre because he is too

busy thinking about his defeat by Zeus. This song suggests that Empedocles might again

find joy and strength by abandoning his intellectual questioning and begining to write

outward-looking poetry, similar to Callicles’. Though Empedocles realizes that, “the

brave, impetuous heart yields everywhere / To the subtle, contriving head” (2.1. 90-1), he

redirects this criticism and places it upon society where men deny their need for spiritual

truth and instead focus upon science.

With his criticism and in his letters, Arnold has debased the Romantics for their

inward-looking poetry, and he places a large emphasis on the need for an outward-

looking understanding of the world. This need is revealed by Empedocles’ refusal to do

so. Though he has crossed the ‘Burning Plain’ Empedocles remains alone upon the

mountaintop, rather than having reached the ‘Wide Glimmering Sea’. This is because he

still looks within and is thus blind to the beauty of life. He looks to nature and sees

beauty, but feels the loss of spirituality. He looks to man and sees progress, but feels the

abandonment of ideals. Empedocles’ soul dwells within the sphere of mind, because the

era forces it to reject both man and nature. Realizing that the mind will never allow

peace, he jumps into the volcano before he becomes entirely dominated by thought. This
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way, the mind will be enmeshed with the flesh that will then return to the elements,

which still experience joy.

It is important to note that the last words of this poem are given to Callicles, who

seems to realize Empedocles’ mistake when he sings:

Not Here, O Apollo!

Are haunts meet for thee.

But, where Helicon breaks down

In cliff to the sea (2.1. 421-24)

Empedocles has followed the river out of the ‘Forest Glade’ and across the ‘Burning

Plain’, but he has ended on a mountaintop and not at the ‘Wide Glimmering Sea’. The

barren crag of solitude that is Mt. Etna will never provide joy, or poetic inspiration, but

only introspection and gloom. Callicles’ last lines show the proper path of Arnolds’

river. It begins in youth with religious conviction, then recognizes the loss of God and

turmoil of society, but ends at night in silence and calm.

First hymn they the Father

Of all things; and then,

The rest of immortals,

The action of men.

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The day in his hotness,

The strife with the palm;

The night in her silence,

The stars in their calm. (2.1. 461-8)

Arnold’s journey through life has been clearly presented by Empedocles, and we

have used that poem to explore each region. We have seen how Callicles represents the

‘Forest Glade’, and we understand that Empedocles teaches Pausanias how to cross the

‘Burning Plain’. Yet, we are left with Callicles to explain the ‘Wide Glimmering Sea’,

and we must wonder why. Is it because one can only reach the sea of understanding and

joy as a youth? This seems to be the case in “Resignation”. Yet, we might consider

Callicles’ songs, which are decidedly outward-looking. Enamoured with natural beauty,

and intrigued by classical myths, Callicles is happy. Though his songs display Romantic

tendencies, they are strangely devoid of religious implication, or personal introspection.

Thus, we can argue that Callicles represents a new generation of poet, one who is

affected by the Romantic’s love for nature but not by the Victorian’s longing for the past.

This allows the new generation to take a disinterested view of both nature and society and

see what is there, rather than what is not, and it is only by doing this that one may

actually attain the happiness of general fulfillment that Arnold’s philosophy promises.
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Works Cited

Arnold, Matthew. “Empedocles on Etna”. Victorian Poetry and Poetics. Ed. Walter E.

Houghton and G. Robert Stange.

Arnold, Matthew. “Resignation”. Victorian Poetry and Poetics. Ed. Walter E. Houghton

and G. Robert Stange.

Arnold, Matthew. “Stanzas from the Grand Chartreuse”. Victorian Poetry and Poetics.

Ed. Walter E. Houghton and G. Robert Stange.

Collini, Stefan. Arnold. Poetry Criticism 5. 1992: 53-60.