The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

IV. Matthew Arnold, Arthur Hugh Clough, James Thomson

§ 4. Sohrab and Rustum

Of the contents of the volume of 1853, the poem which comes nearest to a practical illustration of the theories of the preface is Sohrab and Rustum, the most finished and successful of his narrative poems. The subject appeals, like the themes of classical tragedy, to “the great primary human affections,” and is treated with a clearness and sustained elevation of style as closely approximating the Greek manner, “the grand style,” as anything else to be found in later English poetry. The blank verse is handled throughout with subtle skill, and, in many passages, is reminiscent of Milton—particularly in the artistic use of the long simile and of recurrent parades of sonorous proper names. Arnold’s similes, here, are, like Milton’s, all after the Greek epic type, and the whole poem is thoroughly Homeric in manner and substance. The human interest of the “episode”—for so the author describes his poem—centres in the tragic fate of the brave and gentle Sohrab, slain by the father who does not know him; and in the delineation of no other character in his poetry does Matthew Arnold show a surer and more sympathetic touch. The wellknown description of the Oxus at the close of the poem is no mere pictorial after-thought, due to Arnold’s alleged penchant for “effective endings,” but is as artistically right as it is intrinsically beautiful.

With Sohrab and Rustum much the most notable new contribution to the 1853 volume is The Scholar-Gipsy, perhaps the most charming, as it is one of the happiest in conception and execution, of all Arnold’s poems. Its charm lies partly in the subject, naturally congenial to the poet, and partly in the scene, which stimulates one of Oxford’s poetic children to lavish all his powers of description upon the landscape which he dearly loved. He was to return to the same natural scenery in Thyrsis, but, although, in the later poem, there may be one descriptive passage which surpasses anything to be found in the earlier, Thyrsis fails to give the impression of eager freshness and ease which are felt throughout The Scholar-Gipsy. The two poems are pastoral in form, but there is much less concession to artificial conventions in The Scholar-Gipsy than in its more consciously elegiac successor. What, however, gives their abiding charm to both is the vividness and the beauty of their pictures of nature, and the magic spell cast by their haunting lines over Oxford and its adjacent fields and hills. In The Scholar-Gipsy, the subtle glamour of all that Oxford and its neighbourhood suggest to the eye and to the memory is felt in glimpses of

  • The line of festal light in Christ-Church hall,
  • of the “Oxford riders blithe”
  • Crossing the stripling Thames at Bab-lock-hithe,
  • of “the warm, green-muffled Cumner hills,” “the Fyfield elm in May,” the “distant Wychwood bowers,” Godstow bridge, Bagley wood and “the forest-ground called Thessaly.” In the latter part of the poem, Arnold finds a natural opening for his characteristic pensive moralisings upon
  • this strange disease of modern life,
  • With its sick hurry, its divided aims,
  • when men are but “half-believers” in their “casual creeds”—as contrasted with days when “life ran gaily as the sparkling Thames,” and when it was still possible for an “Oxford scholar poor” to pass through them nursing “the unconquerable hope” and “clutching the inviolable shade.”