The Times, the Crimean War, and "Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse." (Influences of the London Times on Poet Matthew Arnold)

Article excerpt

Some thirty years ago, A. Dwight Culler suggested that the "Thunderer" seen as "fulminat[ing]" at Arnold's persona "to join the modern world" near the conclusion of "Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse" (lines 163-68) be identified as the voice of The Times (27). Since "Stanzas" was composed between September 1851 and March 1855, and since The Times, whose "circulation in 1853 and 1854 was far greater than that of all its rivals put together" (History 167), did its most resounding and-memorable thundering during that period about the Crimean War (1854-1856), an analysis of the possible role played by The Times pronouncements on the Crimean seems to be a way in which to augment Culler's very suggestive observation. Indeed, it appears that the famous newspaper whose coverage of and commentaries on the Crimean War brought down a government not only offers deeper insights into what might have made the persona of "Stanzas" seek refuge in the world of the Carthusians, but also provides a tantalizing clue as to the identity of "Achilles" in "Achilles ponders in his tent" (115), Arnold's famous allusion to a central tragic figure and motif in the Iliad that has puzzle dreaders of "Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse" ever since that poem was published.(1) A specific candidate for Arnold's "Achilles" who has managed to escape critical notice is a person who was the focus of intense criticism by The Times when Arnold may have been putting the finishing touches on "Stanzas": Lord Fitzroy James Henry Somerset Raglan, Commander-in-Chief of the British forces during the Crimean War.

The Crimean War resulted from a series of irresolute, wrongheaded, and duplicitous maneuvers by Britain, France, Russia, and Austria as those great powers attempted to employ balance-of-power diplomacy to cope with the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire.(2) In Friendship's Garland (1866-70; 1871) Arnold, looking back on the causes of the Crimean War, has Arminius von Thunder-ten-Tronckh, his satirical spokesperson, single out the informal talks on the ultimate fate of Turkey held between Tsar Nicholas I and British Ambassador Sir Hamilton Seymour in January of 1853:

I always suspect that your sly old Sir Hamilton Seymour, in his conversations with the Emperor Nicholas before the Crimean war, had at last your Philistines and your press, and their unmistakable bent, in his eye, and did not lead the poor Czar quite straight. If ever there was a man who respected England, and would have gone cordially and easily with a capable British minister, that man was Nicholas.... Nicholas wished nothing better. Even if you would not thus settle the question, he would have forborne to any extent sooner than go to war with you, if he could only have known what you were really at. To be sure, as you did not know this yourselves, you could not possibly tell him, poor man! Louis Napoleon, meanwhile, had his prestige to make. France pulled the wires right and left. (CPW 5.336)

According to Arminius, Nicholas I could not have gained a realistic assessment of British reactions to provocative Russian moves in the Crimea because the British government was little more than "the mouthpiece of... Philistines." Even though the "best" foreign governments would have liked to "deal with England seriously and respectfully," they had instead been compelled to deal with those "dozen men sitting in devout expectation to see how the cat will jump,--and that cat the British Philistine!" Arminius, goes on to assert that such a dependence upon shifting Philistine opinion "demoralises your Ministers themselves in the end, even your able and honest ones, and makes them impossible to deal with" (5.335-36).

Turkey, having been influenced at least partially by British Ambassador Stratford de Redcliffe's irresponsible and ill-considered assurances of European support, declared war on Russia on 23 October 1853. On 30 November 1853, the Russian fleet from Sebastopol destroyed a Turkish naval squadron lying off the town of Sinope (located on the southern shore of the Black Sea in Asia Minor), and then bombarded Sinope itself. …