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Matthew Arnold (1822–88). The Poems of Matthew Arnold, 1840–1867. 1909.

New Poems, 1867

Epilogue to Lessing’s Laocoön

[First published 1867.]

ONE morn as through Hyde Park we walk’d.

My friend and I, by chance we talk’d

Of Lessing’s famed Laocoön;

And after we awhile had gone

In Lessing’s track, and tried to see

What painting is, what poetry—

Diverging to another thought,

‘Ah,’ cries my friend, ‘but who hath taught

Why music and the other arts

Oftener perform aright their parts

Than poetry? why she, than they,

Fewer real successes can display?

‘For ’tis so, surely! Even in Greece

Where best the poet framed his piece,

Even in that Phoebus-guarded ground

Pausanias on his travels found

Good poems, if he look’d, more rare

(Though many) than good statues were—

For these, in truth, were everywhere!

Of bards full many a stroke divine

In Dante’s, Petrarch’s, Tasso’s line,

The land of Ariosto show’d;

And yet, e’en there, the canvas glow’d

With triumphs, a yet ampler brood,

Of Raphael and his brotherhood.

And nobly perfect, in our day

Of haste, half-work, and disarray,

Profound yet touching, sweet yet strong,

Hath risen Goethe’s, Wordsworth’s song;

Yet even I (and none will bow

Deeper to these!) must needs allow,

They yield us not, to soothe our pains,

Such multitude of heavenly strains

As from the kings of sound are blown,

Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn.’

While thus my friend discoursed, we pass

Out of the path, and take the grass.

The grass had still the green of May,

And still the unblacken’d elms were gay;

The kine were resting in the shade,

The flies a summer murmur made;

Bright was the morn and south the air,

The soft-couch’d cattle were as fair

As those that pastured by the sea,

That old-world morn, in Sicily,

When on the beach the Cyclops lay,

And Galatea from the bay

Mock’d her poor lovelorn giant’s lay.

‘Behold,’ I said, ‘the painter’s sphere!

The limits of his art appear!

The passing group, the summer morn,

The grass, the elms, that blossom’d thorn;

Those cattle couch’d, or, as they rise,

Their shining flanks, their liquid eyes;

These, or much greater things, but caught

Like these, and in one aspect brought.

In outward semblance he must give

A moment’s life of things that live;

Then let him choose his moment well,

With power divine its story tell!’

Still we walk’d on, in thoughtful mood,

And now upon the Bridge we stood.

Full of sweet breathings was the air,

Of sudden stirs and pauses fair;

Down o’er the stately Bridge the breeze

Came rustling from the garden trees

And on the sparkling waters play’d.

Light-plashing waves an answer made,

And mimic boats their haven near’d.

Beyond, the Abbey towers appear’d,

By mist and chimneys unconfined,

Free to the sweep of light and wind;

While, through the earth-moor’d nave below,

Another breath of wind doth blow,

Sound as of wandering breeze—but sound

In laws by human artists bound.

‘The world of music!’ I exclaim’d,

‘This breeze that rustles by, that famed

Abbey recall it! what a sphere,

Large and profound, hath genius here!

Th’ inspired musician what a range,

What power of passion, wealth of change!

Some pulse of feeling he must choose

And its lock’d fount of beauty use,

And through the stream of music tell

Its else unutterable spell;

To choose it rightly is his part,

And press into its inmost heart.

‘Miserere, Domine!

The words are utter’d, and they flee.

Deep is their penitential moan,

Mighty their pathos, but ’tis gone!

They have declared the spirit’s sore

Sore load, and words can do no more.

Beethoven takes them then—those two

Poor, bounded words—and makes them new;

Infinite makes them, makes them young,

Transplants them to another tongue

Where they can now, without constraint,

Pour all the soul of their complaint,

And roll adown a channel large

The wealth divine they have in charge.

Page after page of music turn,

And still they live and still they burn,

Eternal, passion-fraught and free—

Miserere, Domine!’

Onward we moved, and reach’d the Ride

Where gaily flows the human tide.

Afar, in rest the cattle lay,

We heard, afar, faint music play;

But agitated, brisk, and near,

Men, with their stream of life, were here.

Some hang upon the rails, and some,

On foot, behind them, go and come.

This through the Ride upon his steed

Goes slowly by, and this at speed;

The young, the happy, and the fair,

The old, the sad, the worn were there;

Some vacant, and some musing went,

And some in talk and merriment.

Nods, smiles, and greetings, and farewells!

And now and then, perhaps, there swells

A sigh, a tear—but in the throng

All changes fast, and hies along;

Hies, ah, from whence, what native ground?

And to what goal, what ending, bound?

‘Behold at last the poet’s sphere!

But who,’ I said, ‘suffices here?

‘For, ah! so much he has to do!

Be painter and musician too!

The aspect of the moment show,

The feeling of the moment know!

The aspect not, I grant, express

Clear as the painter’s art can dress,

The feeling not, I grant, explore

So deep as the musician’s lore—

But clear as words can make revealing,

And deep as words can follow feeling.

But, ah, then comes his sorest spell

Of toil! he must life’s movement tell!

The thread which binds it all in one,

And not its separate parts alone!

The movement he must tell of life,

Its pain and pleasure, rest and strife;

His eye must travel down, at full,

The long, unpausing spectacle;

With faithful unrelaxing force

Attend it from its primal source,

From change to change and year to year

Attend it of its mid career,

Attend it to the last repose

And solemn silence of its close

‘The cattle rising from the grass

His thought must follow where they pass;

The penitent with anguish bow’d

His thought must follow through the crowd.

Yes, all this eddying, motley throng

That sparkles in the sun along,

Girl, statesman, merchant, soldier bold,

Master and servant, young and old,

Grave, gay, child, parent, husband, wife,

He follows home, and lives their life!

‘And many, many are the souls

Life’s movement facinates, controls.

It draws them on, they cannot save

Their feet from its alluring wave;

They cannot leave it, they must go

With its unconquerable flow.

But, ah, how few of all that try

This mighty march, do aught but die!

For ill prepared for such a way,

Ill found in strength, in wits, are they!

They faint, they stagger to and fro,

And wandering from the stream they go;

In pain, in terror, in distress,

They see, all round, a wilderness.

Sometimes a momentary gleam

They catch of the mysterious stream;

Sometimes, a second’s space, their ear

The murmur of its waves doth hear.

That transient glimpse in song they say,

But not as painter can pourtray!

That transient sound in song they tell,

But not, as the musician, well!

And when at last these snatches cease,

And they are silent and at peace,

The stream of life’s majestic whole

Hath ne’er been mirror’d on their soul.

‘Only a few the life-stream’s shore

With safe unwandering feet explore,

Untired its movement bright attend,

Follow its windings to the end.

Then from its brimming waves their eye

Drinks up delighted ecstasy,

And its deep-toned, melodious voice,

For ever makes their ear rejoice.

They speak! the happiness divine

They feel, runs o’er in every line.

Its spell is round them like a shower;

It gives them pathos, gives them power.

No painter yet hath such a way

Nor no musician made, as they;

And gather’d on immortal knolls

Such lovely flowers for cheering souls!

Beethoven, Raphael, cannot reach

The charm which Homer, Shakespeare, teach.

To these, to these, their thankful race

Gives, then, the first, the fairest place!

And brightest is their glory’s sheen

For greatest has their labour been.’