A Matter of Ellipsis: Love, Strife, and the Pressure for Specialty in Matthew Arnold's "Empedocles on Etna"

By Sibley, Gay | Nineteenth-Century Prose, Winter 1988 | Go to article overview

A Matter of Ellipsis: Love, Strife, and the Pressure for Specialty in Matthew Arnold's "Empedocles on Etna"


Sibley, Gay, Nineteenth-Century Prose


I

In what has amounted to a definitive article on Matthew Arnold's "Empedocles on Etna," Walter Houghton claims that "No one can read [Empedocles'] existing Fragments, or what is known of his life and times, and imagine that Arnold was trying to recreate the man or his though or his environment" (312). And although Louis Bonnerot, Paull F. Baum and, more recently, R. Peter Burnham have made quiet claims that the actual writings of Empedocles provided Arnold with minor inspirational points, most defer to Houghton's 1958 judgement and generally maintain that "Empedocles on Etna ... has no need for the ancient philosopher's ideas-any Stoic's might have served as well" (Feshbach 271). (1) In short, most critics have been reluctant to apply the life and works of Empedocles--the man, poet and scientist--to the lengthy dramatic poem bearing his name. That the reluctance is attributable to nobody's knowing enough about Empedocles, as one critic has suggested (Hill 15), is not likely, since at least two others (Feshback, Neff) have been brave enough to claim the presence of Empedoclean cosmology in "Dover Beach." Far more likely it is that in the longer poem the real Empedocles, though present in a number of significant ways, is hard to locate for good reasons, one or two of which might also be at least partly responsible for Arnold's pulling the poem from the 1853 edition of his poetry and for his writing his anxiously defensive and enigmatic 1853 Preface. (2)

First of all, it is easy to understand why a critic might be unwilling to apply Empedoclean science to Arnold's poem, since Arnold in many places admits the limitations of his scientific knowledge. "[My] visits to the field of natural sciences have been very slight and inadequate," he said in his later years, "although those sciences have always strongly moved my curiosity" (Works IX, 55). And some even doubt he avowed curiosity. "As mere information," says one, "natural knowledge interested Arnold very little; now and then he revealed even a sort of contempt for the details of scientific fact" (Dudley 278). Nevertheless, as I intend to show, the "details of scientific fact" implicit Empedoclean cosmology and coming to be explicit in nineteenth-century England are essential to the richest interpretation of Arnold's poem. Further, Arnold's use of that particular philosopher/scientist Empedocles, a man who presumed to offer cosmic solutions for problems requiring a narrowing rather than an enlarging of focus, speaks to a major philosophical dilemma beginning in Arnold's time and carrying on into our own.

Fortunately, that Matthew Arnold apparently had no more than an educated layman's understanding of Empedoclean cosmology provides the reader with hope for understand as much of it as Arnold may have decided to use. According to those who have translated and studied the works of Empedocles, the ancient philosopher's view of the cosmos includes six major components: the four basic elements or "roots"--earth, air, fire, and water; and the agent-forces of Love and Strife, acting always in opposition to one another, fighting over control of the "roots" and resulting in evolutionary cycles covering vast spans of time. In the beginning, the four elements are united in a "Sphere of Love," described by Empedocles as follows: "No twin branches spring from its back, there are no feet nor nimble knees, no parts of generation, but it was a Sphere and in all directions equal to itself" (Gutherie 168). With the advance of Strife, as "Love loosens her hold, the tendency of each element to seek its like asserts itself, and they begin to draw apart" (172). In Empedocles' view, our world (which seems to include his, Matthew Arnold's, and today's) is in a period of Strife's dominance, when the elements have become separated and each element seeks it own kind. Love is always nibbling at the edges trying to get things back together into the "Love Sphere," but the best that Love can do is cause one kind of element (say, earth) optimistically to seek union with another (say, water). …

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