The best poems of Matthew Arnold selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Matthew Arnold (1822-88) is largely remembered for one great Victorian poem: ‘Dover Beach’. But he wrote a number of other classic poems beside this. What are the best half-dozen of Matthew Arnold’s poems? We offer our recommendations below. ‘Dover Beach’ is there, as are a few other more famous titles, but we also include a couple which, although not as celebrated as the others, are, we believe, among Arnold’s best poetry.
‘Below the surface-stream, shallow and light’. This poem is almost like a fragment of blank verse, its five unrhymed iambic pentameter lines appearing to offer a brief insight into the speaker’s mind, though this thought isn’t taken anywhere or developed into some grand psychodrama or narrative. In a curious way, the poem reads like a Victorian precursor to the Imagist poetry of the early twentieth century. If you want a nice short introduction to Arnold’s poetry, this is the perfect place to start.
‘Dover Beach’. Although this poem was only first published in 1867, it was actually written considerably earlier, probably in 1851. ‘Dover Beach’ is Arnold’s most famous poem. The event described in the poem is Arnold’s honeymoon – which was indeed taken at Dover in Kent. Arnold’s central metaphor of the ‘Sea of Faith’ neatly summed up many Victorians’ attitudes to a decline of religious belief in mid-nineteenth-century Britain, and the poem is now seen as an important reflection of the Victorian zeitgeist.
‘Shakespeare’. In this celebrated sonnet about England’s national poet, Matthew Arnold praises William Shakespeare as a colossal figure who is mightier even than mountains or hills. He also states that Shakespeare became the great poet he did because he was as much ‘Self-school’d’ as he was formally educated (at grammar school). What is most surprising about this sonnet, though, is that it isn’t a Shakespearean sonnet, but rather a Petrarchan one. ‘Shakespeare’ is another of Matthew Arnold’s best and most famous poems.
‘The Scholar-Gypsy’. The story for this long narrative poem, which Arnold wrote in 1852-3, was taken from Joseph Glanvill’s 1661 book The Vanity of Dogmatising; the verse form echoes Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’. In summary, ‘The Scholar-Gypsy’ tells the story of an Oxford student who, several centuries before, abandoned his studies to join a group of gipsies. The Scottish scholar John William Mackail said of the poem that it ‘is inseparable from Oxford; it is the poetry of Oxford made, in some sense, complete.’ Ralph Vaughan Williams set part of this poem to music in An Oxford Elegy.
‘To Marguerite – Continued’. This is not up there with ‘Dover Beach’ as one of Matthew Arnold’s most famous or best poems, but it should be – and it is still included in some anthologies which feature Arnold’s work. The last word of the title refers to the poem’s status as a sort of sequel to the poem ‘Isolation: To Marguerite’. Like ‘Dover Beach’ it’s a bleak poem calling for companionship and solidarity with our fellow humans, even though Arnold realises that forging such connections is becoming increasingly difficult in the fast-changing Victorian world.
‘Thyrsis’. This 1866 poem is an elegy commemorating Arnold’s friend, the poet Arthur Hugh Clough, who died young in 1861. Thyrsis was the name of a shepherd in Virgil’s Eclogues, though Thyrsis also appears in a poem by Theocritus. The pastoral theme chimes with Clough’s own work, such as The Bothie, a pastoral poem (although one which departed from many of the clichés of pastoral poetry). ‘Thyrsis’ also gave us the famous epithet for Oxford, ‘city of dreaming spires’. Like ‘The Scholar-Gipsy’ above, parts of ‘Thyrsis’ were set to music in An Oxford Elegy.
Continue to explore Arnold’s life and work with this short biography.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Matthew Arnold cartoon by Frederick Waddy, 1872; Wikimedia Commons.