Aesthetic Realism Class About Poetry

Poetry Is about One Living Thing...  Part 2

Matthew Arnold

Mr. Siegel then read and discussed two poems of the Victorian poet and critic, Matthew Arnold, whom he respected and cared for and whose important poetry he talked about extensively. He first read "Geist's Grave" in its entirety, and I was moved by the poet's deep feeling, which was conveyed by the way he read this poem of 80 lines, in four-line stanzas, published in the Fortnightly Review in 1881. Yet before taking it up, Mr. Siegel did something revolutionary in literary criticism: he compared it with one of the most frequently anthologized of Arnold's poems, "Requiescat"--about the death of a young lady--and explained why "Geist's Grave" is true poetry, while "Requiescat" is not. He said: "If an eminent English writer does better with a living being called an animal than he does with another human being, it is well to ask, why?"  "Requiescat" begins:
Strew on her roses, roses,
And never a spray of yew!
In quiet she reposes;
Ah, would that I did too!

"Having roses continually strewn on her is excessive," Mr. Siegel commented. "Two roses are enough." The next lines are:

Her mirth the world required;
She bathed it in smiles of glee.

Mr. Siegel objected to this second line very much and showed technically why it is not poetic. "There are three words," he said "that make for collision: bathed, smiles, glee. Smiles are more reposeful than glee. The three words have their fists at each other." He pointed out that it was inappropriate as a description of an aristocratic young lady--it would take a great humorist like Mark Twain to bathe the world in smiles of glee.

Geist, a Dog

The lines of "Requiescat" and the emotion behind them, he showed, are not accurate or true, and that is why the poem lacks life and poetic music. "Geist's Grave," we were learning, is much greater poetry. It begins:
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?

Stated Mr. Siegel: 

I think this is sincere. One thing that took Matthew Arnold: the 
seeming interest of a living being in you, the nature of which you 
don't understand--that was astounding to Arnold. I think Arnold 
[here] is trying to see his feeling.
In the following stanza Arnold, speaking of the qualities in Geist, refers to the mighty line of Virgil, "Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt"--"these are the tears of mortal things:" 
That liquid, melancholy, eye, 
From whose pathetic, soul-fed springs
Seem'd surging the Virgilian cry,
The sense of tears in mortal things--

Commented Mr. Siegel, "Some dogs, not all of them, have that liquid eye, which can be called 'the Correggio look.' The attention [of Matthew Arnold] here is good." In the tenth stanza Arnold writes:

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.

Here, Arnold is saying that man invents heaven and immortality because he finds his lot hard to bear. This, the class learned, shows Matthew Arnold saw religion very differently from Christopher Smart, who saw such wide religious significance in his cat Jeoffrey. There is a little mocking of immortality in these lines. Arnold was left dubious and uncertain by the question of immortality we learned--he would give up immortality for neatness. 

Some of the most moving lines of this poem recall the everyday moments of Geist in the Arnold household:

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.

Pointing to the loving details Mr. Siegel explained technically why this is poetry:

The question is whether life given definition or oneness and shown to have multiplicity, diversity corresponds to art itself....This poem has feeling and feeling that is seen. It doesn't have the mistakes of many poems about dogs--the brimming over. 
In the discussion following this lecture I was very much affected by what Class Chairman Ellen Reiss said: 
Mr. Siegel did see the meaning of the world in an animal and then there is an immediate warmth. There's a feeling about an actual living creature with enormous tenderness. Mr Siegel did what art does, he brought out life. 
And I close my report with these sentences, which ended the lecture: 
Jeoffrey and Geist said something of poetry....what they have to say about poetry should be given worthy attention and the purpose of this talk is to grant their request.

© 2000-2002 by Amy Dienes

More about Matthew Arnold