Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

"Unhackneyed Thoughts and Winged Words": Arnold, Locke, and the Similes of Sohrab and Rustum

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

"Unhackneyed Thoughts and Winged Words": Arnold, Locke, and the Similes of Sohrab and Rustum

Article excerpt

But hardly have we, for one little hour,

Been on our own line, have we been ourselves--

Hardly had skill to utter one of all

The nameless feelings that course through our breast,

But they course on for ever unexpressed.

--Arnold, "The Buried Life"

How needful it is for those who are to discuss any matter together, to have a common understanding to the sense of the terms they employ,--how needful and how difficult.

--Arnold, "Literature and Science"

SOHRAB AND RUSTUM IS NO ORDINARY POEM. SUCH IS THE JUDGMENT OF George Henry Lewes in his review of Matthew Arnold's 1853 volume, Poems, for the Leader on December 3, 1853. Lewes goes on, however, to add that

we should have an easy task to show that its excellencies are not derived from the Greek, although most of its defects are. More than this, its defects are often the mere defects of rude art, which are copied from Homer; such, for example, as the practice of conducting the narrative through lengthy similes, elaborately circumstantial, positively retarding and encumbering what they are meant to accelerate and lighten. (1)

Virtually all critics agree that Sohrab and Rustum marks an important shift in Matthew Arnold's poetic career as he haltingly abandons the melancholic post-Romantic explorations of the self that characterize his first two published volumes of poetry. At the same time, the increasingly etiolated classicism that comes to occupy a prominent place in much of the poetry written after 1853 and that is, in part, inaugurated by Sohrab and Rustum has won over very few modern readers just as it failed to impress many of Arnold's mid-Victorian contemporaries. While the poem does have notable apologists, including Arnold's Oxford friend J. A. Froude, the preponderance of Victorian critical opinion is aligned with Lewes's mixed estimation. It is against this ambivalent heritage that mixes critical acknowledgment of the poem's import for an adequate understanding of the development of Arnold's poetic oeuvre accompanied with critical disapprobation of the poem's apparent aesthetic inadequacies that I wish to put forward som e additional claims for the importance of Sohrab and Rustum, specifically its importance for a fuller understanding of Arnold's language. Lewes's comments are also prescient in that they focus on the similes in the poem and thus anticipate a persistent question related to Arnold's poetic style that 1 will take up here, namely why he has such frequent and strategic recourse to the simile in his poetry. Indeed, some of Arnold's most memorable poetic touchstones are similes, including the comparison of the metaphorical Sea of Faith to a furled, bright girdle in "Dover Beach" (11. 2 1-23) and the unfair likening of Clough's debilitating indecisiveness to the inconstancy of the early June cuckoo in "Thvrsis" (II. 51-60). (2) Critics have long acknowledged the importance of the simile and its often critical role in the interpretation of particular poems, most notably the Tyrian trader simile that concludes "The Scholar-Gipsy. (3) And, of course, the most commented upon rhetorical feature of Sohrab and Rustum is its collection of sixteen epic similes. Although these similes have largely attracted critical derision, I think they are crucial in assessing the important role that Sohrab and Rustum plays in Arnold's lifelong struggle with language. (4) More particularly, I argue that the similes are the most evident manifestation of Arnold's previously unacknowledged indebtedness to the linguistic philosophy of John Locke--specifically the ideas from his lesser known Of the Conduct of the Understanding--and represent Arnold's concerted yet ultimately unsuccessful effort to solve the problem, raised in the two epigraphs above, of how the communicative efficacy of his writing might be obviated by the referential inadequacy of words. This problem, which had been occupying Arnold throughout much of his early career, was brought into focus through his repeated and various excursions in Lockean philosophy (which I outline below), but it is also the specific occasion of Arnold's virulent reaction to the Spasmodic poets that leads h im to a sustained attempt at using the similes of Sohrab and Rustum as a site to apply the insights derived from Of the Conduct of the Understanding. …

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