The Motive of Return in Matthew Arnold's Writings

By Wheeler, Saundra Segan | Nineteenth-Century Prose, Winter 1988 | Go to article overview

The Motive of Return in Matthew Arnold's Writings


Wheeler, Saundra Segan, Nineteenth-Century Prose


In an essay entitled "A Reading of Longinus," Neil Hertz acknowledges the willingness of admirers of Longinus "to release him from the strictures of theoretical discourse and allow him the license of a poet,"(1) and he also recognizes W. K. Wimsatt's charge that the ancient Greek "slides" between rhetorical topics in his presentation of argument. Hertz, then, finds that both defenders and detractors of Longinus ground their criticism in a distinction between poetry and prose. Seemingly taking up Wimsatt's position, Hertz adds:

   ... it is remarkably easy to lose one's way, to forget which
   rhetorical topic is under consideration at a particular point, to
   find oneself attending to a quotation, a fragment of analysis--some
   interestingly resonant bit of language that draws one
   into quite another system of relationships.(2)

Thus Hertz alerts us to two aspects of his reading of Longinus: one, that he values digression from the proclaimed unity of the ancient's text, and two, that he responds to prose argument in a way that collapses the distinction between poetry and prose. It is remarkable how well Hertz's strategy for reading Longinus applies to a reading of Matthew Arnold, for Hertz notes:

   ... Longinus interweaves language of his own with that of the
   authors he admires--for it is here, out of the play of text with
   quotation and quotations with one another, that the most
   interesting meanings as well as the peculiar power of the
   treatise are generated.(2)

This description of Longinus' strategy fits almost any piece of Arnold's prose, and even some poetry, but to illustrate, let us turn first to Arnold's Preface to "Merope." In this essay, published during his lifetime only when the poem first appeared in 1855(CPW 1:229), Arnold announces his long attraction to the subject of Merope and then proceeds to create a "play of text with quotation and of quotations with one another," which is reminiscent of the strophes, antistrophes, and epodes in the choric poetry he is applauding. Against summaries of the ancient uses of the Merope legend, Arnold plays modern renderings, most of which appeared during the eighteenth century. He examines each version as both a self-contained entity and as an element in a string of such entities. Arnold's dramatic sense of interacting voices directs his effort as he spotlights distortions in the construction of each version of the legend and its relationship to the age in which it was produced. In consequence, Arnold dispels the notion that any rendering of a myth can have absolute value.

Although he addresses a number of ancient and modern uses of the myth, Arnold's primary target is Voltaire. Turning to Voltaire's rationale for using the myth, Arnold observes:

   "Aristotle," says Voltaire, "Aristotle, in his immortal work on
   Poetry, does not hesitate to affirm that the recognition between
   Merope and her son was the most interesting moment of the
   Greek stage." Aristotle affirms no such thing; but he does
   [italics mine] say that the story of Merope, like the stories of
   Iphigenia and Antiope, supplies a recognition of the most
   affecting kind. (1:41)

It is to this recognition scene that Arnold gives much of his attention in this Preface. Here, Arnold, the poetic craftsman, discusses an important element in the structure of classical tragedy, and when he criticizes Voltaire's excessive praise of the recognition scene in the myth, he is both commenting on the reductive nature of such broad-based praise and turning his discussion to recognition scenes and their affective value. Arnold accuses Voltaire of misreading and proceeds to read the myth through Aristotle rather than read Aristotle through the myth. He concludes:

   And Plutarch says: Look at Merope in the tragedy, lifting up
   the axe against her own son as being the murderer of her own
   son and crying--

      A more just stroke than thou gav'st my son--

      Take--

   What an agitation she makes in the theatre! … 

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