Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics, and Politics

By Isobel Armstrong | Go to book overview

8

THE LIBERAL IN CRISIS: ARNOLD

It is tempting, when reading Arnold’s side of the correspondence with Clough in the late 1840s, with its elegant brio, wit and hurtfulness, to align him against radical poetry and with an oppositional Coleridgean position similar to that of the Apostles in the 1830s. But this would be to misunderstand the many important differences between Arnold and the earlier Apostles and his attempt to recentre poetry in a moral tradition in the new circumstances of the mid-century. In fact, he rejected both traditions and actually conflated them, reading them both as the continuance of a deeply damaging aesthetic theory and practice deriving from the Romantics. There was warrant for this in the Apostles’ theory of sensation and in the Fox group’s preoccupation with emotion, but neither group, with the exception of Mill, advocated the unmediated transmission of a subjectivity or the overflow of feeling in poetry. Both found ways of turning the exploration of subjectivity into the material of critique and investigation, either through drama or through the ‘sentimental’ poet’s mediation of naive material. To turn to Arnold’s correspondence with Clough is to see him evolving the ethical aesthetic of the great human action of the past which was to emerge in the 1853 Preface, excluding those many importunate ‘voices’ of the nineteenth century from the homogeneity of the Grand Style. That this was no simple matter can be seen from the conflictual anxieties of ‘The Forsaken Merman’ (1849), which can form a context for Arnold’s correspondence with Clough.

In this poem importunate voices call to Margaret, who has already made the choice of living in the sea envisaged in Tennyson’s ‘The Mermaid’ - and reneged on it. The ‘babel’ of voices, indeed, call over one another with different messages in the anapaestic forms which are made to represent a confused toss and surge of feeling like the tossing waves of the sea. The forsaken merman urges his children to ‘Come away’ from the shore, and as he calls them the children make a last effort to call Margaret from the town in which she now is. They look to the land rather than to the sea, torn between the father’s conflicting instructions. Margaret, too, has been at the mercy of conflict. The ‘far-off bell’ from ‘the little grey church on

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