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 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, 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;
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