A reading of a little-known miniature poem
‘Below the surface-stream, shallow and light’: so begins a little gem of a poem which features in the complete poems of Victorian poet Matthew Arnold (1822-88). Arnold famously gave up poetry because he felt he had largely failed in his vocation, but as this five-line poem shows, he sometimes had a succinct way with words which many of his wordier contemporaries could never master.
Below the surface-stream, shallow and light,
Of what we say we feel – below the stream,
As light, of what we think we feel – there flows
With noiseless current strong, obscure and deep,
The central stream of what we feel indeed.
The 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. The repeated assonance of the ‘e’ sounds in ‘stream’, ‘feel’, ‘stream’, ‘feel’, ‘deep’, ‘stream’, ‘feel’, and ‘indeed’ helps to unite the lines into a coherent unit, while the movement from ‘Of what we say we feel’ to ‘of what we think we feel’ effects a sliding from the external to the internal.
We tend to associate Matthew Arnold with poems like ‘Dover Beach’, which itself is quietly revolutionary in its use of irregular line lengths and unpredictable rhyme scheme. A short fragment like ‘Below the surface-stream’ suggests that, although much of his poetry has been out of fashion for a long while, he is worth another look.
Image: Matthew Arnold cartoon by Frederick Waddy, 1872; Wikimedia Commons.