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Arnold's Classicism "Who prop, thou ask'st, in these bad days, my friend?" [To a Friend: Matthew Arnold] With this question that concerns the whole life of Arnold, extremely sensitive to his age - an age of hurry, change, alarm, surprise, he starts, in a dramatic way, the sonnet To a Friend. And the rest of the sonnet provides us with the answer that his mental props in the 'bad age' in which he found his lot was cast, were the great figures of ancient Greece - Homer, 'the clearest soul'd of men', Sophocles, 'the even-balanced' and Epictetus, 'the halting slave', the first two being the poets and the last a moralist. Indeed, the Greek poets and moralists exercised a deep influence on Arnold's mind and colored his thoughts and style. He chose Greek subjects for poetic composition and rendered them with that sincerity, lucidity, clarity and simplicity, which the Greeks adored in their art. "It is time for us to Hellenize for we have Hebraized too much" observed Arnold whose bent of mind was in favor of the Greeks rather than the Romantics of his century. His classicism comes out more in the execution of his poems than in their conception.
But one cannot say, he has achieved the height of perfection in separating personal elements from the themes of poetry; personal elements unconsciously creep into the poems. Thus, the theme of "The Scholar Gipsy", ostensibly about an Oxford student, is really Arnold himself, his doubts and problems, and introspective melancholy. Elegiac poetry is most congenial to Arnold's mind. His elegies like "The Scholar Gipsy" and "Thyrsis" are modeled after classical manner. Both the poems are written in the Theocritan pastoral convention but the tone and emotional colouring are very Arnoldian. Moreover, the name "Thyrsis" is borrowed from Virgil's "Eclogues" and Theocritus "Idylls". The long-simile, the simile of the Tyrian trader, with ehich a Arnold ends "The Scholar Gipsy" is organic and devised after the classical manner. In "Dover Beach" the image of the ignorant armies clashing by night is, significantly an echo of Thucydides' description, in Book-VII of his "History of the Peloponnesian War", of the last disastrous battle between Athenians and Spartans in Sicily, fought at night in darkness and confusion and marking virtually the end of Athenian chances. Arnold's poetry deals with human actions, not passions, in an impersonal and objective manner. In the preface to the poems of 1853 Arnold insists poet must seek their inspiration in the past, for action is the only theme of poetry, and it is in the past alone that action is found.
Arnold is visibly restraint in his use of language. He is always careful in his diction; he does not bewilder with the false gaudiness of perpetual metaphor, or dazzle with the unnatural sparkle of constant antithesis. Every epithet has its meaning, and many are so felicitously chosen that they are in their application condensed pictures. Arnold is not rapid, exuberant or profuse, but stately, measured, self-restrained. His aim is unity of impression, sustained power, simplicity of effect. Arnold's classical poetry has given us such embodiments of the Hellenic style as English literature had never before possessed. Behind the pagan lore and Hebrew elevation of "Lycidas" or "Samson Agonistes" speaks the voice of Milton and it is the immanence of his strong soul that gives to both their depth of harmony. So, too, through the classic paintings of "Hyperion" or "Ulysses", glows the youthful exuberance of Keats or the warm richness of Tennyson's picturesque mind. But Arnold without Milton's strength, Keats's gorgeous imagmation, or Tennyson's pictorial fire, has succeeded, where they have relatively failed- in embodying the pure classic spirit in a statuesque form, almost entirely uncoloured by modern feeling. But he achieved this imitative success by the felicity of his artistic taste, and not by the ardour of his poetic soul. Arnold's Classicism - 1 -
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