A Short Analysis of Matthew Arnold’s ‘Geist’s Grave’
And as well as penning ‘Thyrsis’, his celebrated elegy for the death of his old friend Arthur Hugh Clough, and ‘Dover Beach’, his lament for Victorian faith, the poet and educator Matthew Arnold (1822-88) also wrote elegies for his pet dog Geist and his canary Matthias. In ‘Geist’s Grave’, Arnold celebrates the four brief years he had his dog Geist, the dachshund who was his ‘little friend’, by his side.
Four years!—and didst thou stay above
The ground, which hides thee now, but four?
And all that life, and all that love,
Were crowded, Geist! into no more?
Only four years those winning ways,
Which make me for thy presence yearn,
Call’d us to pet thee or to praise,
Dear little friend! at every turn?
That loving heart, that patient soul,
Had they indeed no longer span,
To run their course, and reach their goal,
And read their homily to man?
That liquid, melancholy eye,
From whose pathetic, soul-fed springs
Seem’d urging the Virgilian cry,
The sense of tears in mortal things—
That steadfast, mournful strain, consol’d
By spirits gloriously gay,
And temper of heroic mould—
What, was four years their whole short day?
Yes, only four!—and not the course
Of all the centuries yet to come,
And not the infinite resource
Of Nature, with her countless sum
Of figures, with her fulness vast
Of new creation evermore,
Can ever quite repeat the past,
Or just thy little self restore.
Stern law of every mortal lot!
Which man, proud man, finds hard to bear,
And builds himself I know not what
Of second life I know not where.
But thou, when struck thine hour to go,
On us, who stood despondent by,
A meek last glance of love didst throw,
And humbly lay thee down to die.
Yet would we keep thee in our heart—
Would fix our favourite on the scene,
Nor let thee utterly depart
And be as if thou ne’er hadst been.
And so there rise these lines of verse
On lips that rarely form them now;
While to each other we rehearse:
Such ways, such arts, such looks hadst thou!
We stroke thy broad brown paws again,
We bid thee to thy vacant chair,
We greet thee by the window-pane,
We hear thy scuffle on the stair.
We see the flaps of thy large ears
Quick rais’d to ask which way we go;
Crossing the frozen lake, appears
Thy small black figure on the snow!
Nor to us only art thou dear
Who mourn thee in thine English home;
Thou hast thine absent master’s tear,
Dropp’d by the far Australian foam.
Thy memory lasts both here and there,
And thou shalt live as long as we.
And after that—thou dost not care!
In us was all the world to thee.
Yet, fondly zealous for thy fame,
Even to a date beyond our own
We strive to carry down thy name,
By mounded turf, and graven stone.
We lay thee, close within our reach,
Here, where the grass is smooth and warm,
Between the holly and the beech,
Where oft we watch’d thy couchant form,
Asleep, yet lending half an ear
To travellers on the Portsmouth road;—
There build we thee, O guardian dear,
Mark’d with a stone, thy last abode!
Then some, who through this garden pass,
When we too, like thyself, are clay,
Shall see thy grave upon the grass,
And stop before the stone, and say:
People who lived here long ago
Did by this stone, it seems, intend
To name for future times to know
The dachs-hound, Geist, their little friend.
‘Geist’s Grave’ is a touching elegy but also eulogy for Arnold’s dog which was part of his life for just four years. It might be compared productively with a poem by Arnold’s near-contemporary, the poet Thomas Hardy, who also wrote a poem about his dog, Wessex. But in fact Hardy’s dog poem is not perhaps the best poem to analyse alongside Arnold’s: instead, the touching poem Hardy wrote about his cat, ‘Last Words to a Dumb Friend’, provides what is arguably a more fruitful comparative analysis of the ways Victorian poets eulogised their beloved pets.
In both ‘Geist’s Grave’ and ‘Last Words to a Dumb Friend’, the poets emphasise the fact that their pets were both loving and loved, recalling the spot where the animal was known to play. And both poems point up the fact that the beloved pet was also a devoted friend: the poems view animals as more than just possessions or companions of the family, and treat them almost as equals. It’s a decidedly modern idea, and Matthew Arnold, in ‘Geist’s Grave’, led the way. Hardy, and others, would follow.