After posting Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" a couple of weeks ago, I found myself remembering other bits and pieces of his poetry, so I got out a couple of old textbooks and went looking for them. Principal among these fragments was this, which used to be widely quoted:
Wandering between two worlds, one dead,
The other powerless to be born.
I couldn't remember which poem it was, so after browsing a bit I resorted to the internet, and quickly found that it's from "Stanzas From the Grand Chartreuse." You can read the poem at that link, though to my taste it's a bit long for reading on the web (250 lines or so). I can't say I think it's a great poem, but it's an interesting one. It's an account of Arnold's visit to the founding house of the Carthusian order, and is a more extensive lament for the passing of the old Christian world than "Dover Beach," which was written fifteen years later. More extensive, and more explicit--and more confused, really, it seems to me. Poor Arnold: intellectually he finds the faith of the monks almost contemptible, and is quite certain that the skeptical modern age is right about that question. Yet he deeply laments its loss.
Let's have the whole stanza ("these" are the monks):
Wandering between two worlds, one dead,
The other powerless to be born,
With nowhere yet to rest my head,
Like these, on earth I wait forlorn.
Their faith, my tears, the world deride—
I come to shed them at their side.
Later in the poem he hopes that the coming age will be wiser and happier, but asks that for the time being he be left alone with his melancholy.
It's not "Dover Beach," but it's really a pretty good poem, though it would be greatly improved by the removal of nearly all the exclamation marks, a habit of the 19th century which perhaps did not sound quite the same to them as to us.
I wonder about that world which was in Arnold's time "powerless to be born." I think I can say without too much oversimplification that he found the skepticism of his age sterile, and he seems not to have had a clear idea of how it could become fruitful, really fruitful in the way that Christian civilization had been, though he thought that in time it must. Has that new world been born yet, or are we still waiting for it?
I feel fairly sure Arnold would have been surprised, maybe astonished, by what would happen to Europe in the 20th century. I know he would have been appalled: unprecedented material progress, unprecedented slaughter. Was that what was waiting to be born? The "rough beast" that Yeats so famously saw stirring? (You know that poem, probably; unfortunately politicians have been quoting it in recent years--unfortunately but also somewhat appropriately, though they usual don't get to that last bit.)
Or are we still in transit to some new and more Godless world? If we are, it promises to be, as far as I can tell, some sort of combination of 1984 and Brave New World. No one wants 1984, but I think there are a good many people who could read Brave New World and not understand that it is meant to depict a dystopia. After all, almost everyone is happy there, and isn't happiness what it's all about? Some of the mechanisms of 1984 would still have to be in place there, some means of insuring that people not only behave correctly, but that they think correctly. Those means needn't be violent; in fact violence, as the history of fascism and communism shows, is in the long run counter-productive because of the resistance it provokes. More likely it simply won't happen. Those who wish to get rid of God are finding the task rather more difficult than the skeptics of Arnold's time might have anticipated.
Speaking of getting rid of God: a movie based on Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle In Time has just been released. I ran across this commentary on the movie, in which the screenwriter is quoted as saying “I think there are a lot of elements of what [L’Engle] wrote that we have progressed on as a society.” I don't resent the removal of Christian themes in the movie (which, after all, is what you'd expect of Hollywood) nearly as much as I do the suggestion that its removal from everything that counts as real life is a fait accompli, and that the only "we" that counts is composed of those who have removed it from their own lives.
I doubt that I'll see the movie. I'm really not a great admirer of the book. I know it means a lot to a lot of people. But I didn't read it until I was in my thirties, and as I recall it didn't send the meter any higher than "pretty good."
Last week I discussed the culture wars, and in particular the gun control debate, as being in part a conflict between two political visions, the "free citizen" model and the "sheep and shepherd" model. As I said in a comment in the discussion following that, I knew this would seem to be loading the question toward the former, because in our culture the latter sounds demeaning. But I actually do write this journal in a few hours on Sunday evenings, and nothing better presented itself. Still doesn't, actually. There is a great deal to be said for the sheep and shepherd model. It is, after all, the essential structure of the vision contained in Judeo-Christian religion, and in fact is the same image. And it may very well be the most natural and in the long run most effective and durable mode of government. It may very well be that all this self-government stuff is coming to an end, dependent as it was on certain cultural foundations which are not only decaying but the object of active efforts at demolition.
In any case, it is almost self-evident that the vision I attributed to the Founding Fathers, of "a nation of free citizens: farmers, tradesmen, craftsmen, and mechanics," no longer has very much to do with our social reality. The typical or characteristic way of life in contemporary Western societies is that of a wage earner, a condition which is inherently more dependent and less free than that of one who lives by his own direct effort and property. Moreover, the characteristic employer, the paradigm that sets the tone and pattern for all, is a gigantic organization, whether "private" (corporate) or "public" (government), of the type which in textbook terminology is classified as a "machine bureaucracy." It's not meant to produce free citizens. And it doesn't want them.
While browsing the Arnold section of Poetry of the Victorian Period, I came across a line which I had completely forgotten, but which made me laugh. Someone, either Dr. Eugene Williamson, who taught me that subject, or a critic whom he perhaps quoted, held this up as being astonishingly bad:
Who prop, thou ask'st, in these bad days, my mind?
Well, he was only twenty-seven when he wrote that, and he was no Keats; his best work came when he was much older. Still...that's awful. The rest of the poem (here) is not bad, though. In fact, it contains a phrase which became a sort of byword for Arnold's thinking. I'm not sure, but I believe he himself may have used it in his writings about the necessity of culture: the writers who "prop" his mind "saw life steadily, and saw it whole." That is a rare and important gift in any age.
Well, I've finished The Lord of the Rings, and I repeat what I said last week: if this is not a great work, I am no judge. I mentioned several weeks ago an essay that I'd published years ago in Caelum et Terra that I might dig out and publish here. Turns out I had done that a while back. I read it over the other day and it's still pretty accurate with regard to my opinion of the book. You can read it here.
Here, at Touchstone, is another appreciation of the late Billy Graham, one I thought worth passing on.
Here's what I have to put up with at St. Gregory, my Ordinariate (not-technically-a-)parish. In the Divine Worship liturgy, which incorporates various Anglican elements, we are instructed to "rehearse the Decalogue" (quaint phrase) on Sundays in Lent. Fr. Matt explains why. This is really just audio, and the one photo moves around a bit, so I recommend you look at something else and just listen. It's thirteen minutes long.
It's azalea time here. About 85% of them are this color, which is not my favorite, but I included this picture as an example of the way they're supposed to be grown. This doesn't show the entire bush, which is at least fifteen feet wide, and over six feet tall. They're supposed to be big and luxuriant like this.
There's a pale orange-pink color which I like better, also a dark red one which I like even better, but I didn't see any of those on the walk where I took this picture. I did see this nice white one, though. I like the white ones a lot but they very quickly take on a dingy and dilapidated look.