Victorian Literature Was Remarkably Concerned Term Paper

Pages: 10 (3472 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 10  ·  Level: Doctoral  ·  Topic: Literature

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[. . .] " The constant movement of passion is not troped as an imaginative freedom, but rather as its own form of routine -- like the "ebb and flow / of human misery" in Arnold's "Dover Beach," the tidal image here is one of senseless repetitiveness. In "Dover Beach" it is the senselessness that Arnold emphasizes, where Victorian religious doubts render the landscape into a melancholy locus where the only human meaning must be consciously constructed. But here, the "ebb and flow" of the emotional life of youth is understood as meaningless in a different way: the crux is clearly located in the word "expense." Arnold is clearly allowing the word to play with a double-meaning, one of which is concrete and financial, and the other of which is plainly sexual (as in Shakespeare's "expense of spirit"). The "passions of youth" here are not only dull ("tedious") but also empty of meaning ("vain"). But what is most remarkable about the construction of "youth" in this sonnet is the way in which it already anticipates its own extinction: the poem is about "youth" that looks forward to the absence of youth "some ten years hence." The sonnet's concluding couplet manages to elide the distinction between youth and age by finding that they are both defined by the feature that they have in common, "discontent."

But in terms of the representation of actual childhood, Arnold is again seemingly concerned with relating it to questions of responsibility. This is the overwhelming impression given by the incantatory addresses to the children in Arnold's lyrical monologue "The Forsaken Merman":

Children dear, was it yesterday

(Call yet once) that she went away?

Once she sate with you and me,

On a red gold throne in the heart of the sea,

And the youngest sate on her knee.

She comb'd its bright hair, she tended it well

When down swung the sound of the far-off bell.

She sigh'd, she look'd up through the clear green sea.

She said "I must go, for my kinsfolk pray

In the little grey church on the shore to-day 'Twill be Easter-time in the world -- ah me!

And I lose my poor soul, Merman, here with thee."

I said, "Go up, dear heart, through the waves.

Say thy prayer, and come back to the kind sea-caves."

She smiled, she went up through the surf in the bay.

Children dear, was it yesterday?

What is interesting here is the way that the idea of responsibility is being constructed in this poem. Arnold's Merman has been forsaken by his human lover, who leaves him with (seemingly) a brood of children -- the poem is constructed out of repeated addresses to those children, urging them to call to their mother: "Children's voices should be dear / (Call once more) to a mother's ear; / Children's voices, wild with pain. / Surely she will come again." Yet Margaret does not come again: her responsibility is to the sort of Christian piety which the elder Arnold found essential to education, but which Arnold himself (in "Dover Beach") understood as being in decline. What is most curious, here, is the erasure of a sense of time: the Merman's repeated questions to the children all seem to hinge upon the sense of time ("Was it yesterday?," "Were we long alone?"). It is also worth noting that, in many ways, the scenario depicted in the poem seems to reverse our expectations -- this is something that Thais Morgan singles out in discussion of "The Forsaken Merman," arguing that

Matthew Arnold struggles with the relation between poetry and the feminine under domestic ideology throughout his career. His work often represents men and women interacting but always from a male point-of-view. "The Forsaken Merman" raises questions about the Victorian doctrine of separate spheres within a distanced setting of fairy tale….Familiar gender roles are reversed: the mother ventures out into the social world while the father takes refuge with the children in the "kind sea-caves." (Morgan 205)

But the idea of childhood, like the Merman himself, seems to exist curiously out of time here. We do not get the sense reading the poem that these are children that will grow up to become adult Mermen and Mermaids. Instead, the fairy-tale undersea world exists rather like the idea of a free and Wordsworthian childhood, which Arnold rejects as having "no real solidity" -- it is an imaginary realm, devoid of actual responsibilities, and it is, like the siren-songs attributed to Mermaids in myth, seductive but dangerous. The song of Arnold's "Forsaken Merman" is the song of a view of youth that must be resisted, even as it may be indulged for its musical qualities: the poem itself is seemingly written to suggest why Margaret should have fallen for the Merman in the first place, but also to explain why she might want to escape him, and the excessive-seeming number of children.

If Arnold's visions of youth and childhood are distanced from the Romantic valorization of them, it is worth noting that A.E. Housman to a certain degree allows Romanticism to creep back into the picture, but in unexpected ways. Leggett, in a reading of Housman, has noted the way in which his poems frequently turn "structurally on the speaker's sense of his present state in terms of what he remembers of his youth. No poet since Wordsworth, with the possible exception of Thomas, has been so obsessed with the theme of the child as father of the man" (Leggett 160). Certainly Housman signposts his affinities for childhood and youth even in the title of his best-known book, A Shropshire Lad. But the difference here is that Housman derives no sense of optimism from the contemplation of the freedoms of youth -- instead, he derives an almost total pessimism. In some ways, critically, Housman's pessimism has been viewed as fundamentally juvenile -- Harold Bloom quotes Edmund Wilson's sharp critique that "Housman has managed to grow old without in a sense knowing maturity." (Bloom 11). And indeed George Orwell slighted Housman's verse as being specifically tied up with matters of male adolescence:

Such poems might have been written expressly for adolescents. And the unvarying sexual pessimism (the girl always dies or marries somebody else) seemed like wisdom to boys who were herded together in public schools and were half-inclined to think of women as something unattainable. Whether Housman ever had the same appeal for girls I doubt. In his poems the woman's point-of-view is not considered, she is merely the nymph, the siren, the treacherous half-human creature who leads you a little distance and then gives you the slip. (Orwell 224)

These criticisms seem like they may be directed at what is perhaps Housman's best-known poem, "To an Athlete Dying Young." But here, youth is, to a certain extent, aestheticized. By dying before reaching adulthood, Housman's athlete is able to avoid the inevitable decline that attends upon age; death here is figured as a kind of perfection:

Now you will not swell the rout?

Of lads that wore their honours out,

Runners whom renown outran?

And the name died before the man.

In some sense, this is the Wordsworthian Romanticism returned, where the child is seen as being, in some way, the superior being that brings forth the adult. The difference here is that Housman's athlete avoids the fate that befell William Wordsworth himself -- there can be no embarrassment over the way that "the name died before the man." What Matthew Arnold prefers to trope as a fairy-tale realm, where the question of adult responsibility avoided or evaded becomes difficult to resolve, Housman instead tropes as the superiority of death, which manages to evade adult responsibility altogether. Randall Jarrell in particular thinks that the criticisms of this as a fundamentally adolescent view are unjust: he believes that Housman wants to make the honest argument that "…death is better than life, nothing is better than anything. Nor is this a silly adolescent pessimism peculiar to Housman, as so many critics assure you. It is better to be dead than alive, best of all never to have been born -- said a poet approvingly advertised as seeing life steadily and seeing it whole…" (Jarrell 168). But for Housman, it becomes a way of aestheticizing life to fixate on young people who have died. We might consider the well-known shorter lyric:

With rue my heart is laden

For golden friends I had,

For many a rose-lipt maiden

For many a lightfoot lad.

By brooks too broad for leaping,

The lightfoot boys are laid;

The rose-lipt girls are sleeping

In fields where roses fade.

What is noteworthy here is that all of the imagery used to describe youth -- in this remarkably compressed and consistent lyric -- is traditional in terms of describing impermanence as well as beauty. If these childhood friends are "golden," surely a classicist of Housman's eminence has in his ear the idea of the "Golden Age," a mythical time of Edenic perfection in human history… [END OF PREVIEW]

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