Matthew Arnold’s Crisis of Faith
The Victorian Period of British Literature involved many changes in British culture; one of the defining qualities of Queen Victoria’s reign was a loss of faith in the Church. A number of social changes caused an increasing number of people to question their faith and leave organized religion, resulting in the “crises of faith” that were becoming more common among the population. English poet Matthew Arnold’s “Stanzas from the Grand Chartreuse” best exemplifies the many crises of faith experienced by Englishmen during the Victorian Age through Arnold’s use of description and metaphors. “Stanzas from the Grand Chartreuse” takes place in a monastery in the French Alps. Arnold’s work describes the crisis of faith he has been experiencing. Arnold does not return to the monastery to recover his lost faith in Christianity; he instead chooses to write about his struggle with any kind of faith. Throughout the poem, he makes it clear that he will not and cannot return to the Christian Church.
Upon entering the monastery, Arnold begins to reminisce about youth and his eventual crisis of faith. He recalls how “rigorous teachers seized [his] youth” (67) and indoctrinated him into the Christian faith. Arnold hears his former teachers speaking to him in the monastery. They ask him, “What dost thou in this living tomb?” (72). The reason for Arnold’s visit to the monastery is called into question. Matthew responds to this question in the lines following the inquery. In his response, Arnold first seeks forgiveness for visiting the monastery; he writes, “Forgive me Masters of the Mind! At whose behest I long ago so much unlearnt, and so much resigned – I come not here to be your foe” (73-76). Arnold seeks forgiveness from the great minds of the Victorian Age. For Arnold, men and women like Charles Lyell, the author of Principles of Geology, have defeated the notion that religion is necessary to explain the world. These writers “persuaded Arnold that faith in Christianity was no longer tenable in the modern world” (Norton 1390). Arnold believes that he is offending these men by being at the monastery. This shows that Arnold holds these intellectuals in higher regard than the Christian God he once believed in. He asserts that he is no longer Christian. Arnold is visitor to the monastery as one would be to “some fallen Runic stones” (83). He is visiting the monastery as a historical place, like an old Nordic monument depicting a now-dead religion (Norton 1390). Speaking of Christianity and Nordic religion, Arnold writes, “For both were faiths, and both are gone” (84). Arnold believes Christianity is reaching its end and will soon be viewed as any other ancient religion, such as the Nordic religion. Arnold later writes that he is with the “last of the people who believe” (112). Arnold makes it clear that this is not a trip to restore his lost faith; he is here to visit a part of history that no longer holds any control over him. In the monastery, Arnold finds himself, “wandering between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born, with nowhere yet to rest his head” (85-87). The old age of Christianity (and similar organized religions) is over, but Arnold is unable to define his faith, or lack thereof, as a particular system of belief. The new age of reason has yet to be defined and named; it is still unborn. Until the new system is born, Arnold finds himself searching to be a part of something. He will not go back to his old Christian ways, so he must “wander” (85) until the new system is born.
Arnold suffers from not being a part of the Christian faith. He describes his suffering as a “holy pain” (92). Many believe the pain “is a passed mode, an outworn theme” (100), but Arnold’s pain is “[restless]” (104). If the pain is not eased, Arnold would rather die with the last of the Christians (109-111). Death is preferable to Arnold’s painful wandering between two worlds. Even after death, this pain continues. Other men have felt such pain and it remains long after their deaths. Arnold writes, “Say, is life lighter now than then? The sufferers died, they left their pain – The pangs which tortured them remain” (130-132). Generations of men have experienced the transition Arnold is going through now, yet they resolved nothing during their lives. Arnold also references the Romantics while he visits the monastery. He specifically refers to Byron (133) and Shelley (139) specifically. Arnold believes that their works, although beautiful, did little to ease this pain felt by many. For Arnold, Byron merely shared his “bleeding heart” (136) and “Europe made his woe her own” (138). Future generations will read Byron’s and Shelley’s work, but Arnold wonders if the “inheritors of [their] distress have restless hearts one throb the less?” (143-144). Romanticism is dead and its writers “slumber in [their] silent grave[s]” (151). Further writing to the Romantics, Arnold claims, “The world, which idle for a day Grace to your mood of sadness gave, Long hath flung her weeds away… But we learnt your lore too well” (149-156). After the death of Romanticism, the world moved on, but many people continued to read the Romantics, trapped in a state of suffering. Byron, Shelley, and the other Romantics share similar feelings with Arnold, but this does not help Arnold escape the pain. The Romantics described suffering, but did little to combat it. Although Arnold finds their works are beautiful and praise worthy, the Romantics did nothing to alleviate the suffering of man. Arnold then describes then describes the waiting process again. He does not know how it will be until the new age begins. He believes that “years hence, perhaps, may dawn an age, More fortunate, alas! Than we, Which without hardness will be sage, And gay without frivolity” (157-160). Arnold knows the process could be long and he asks the younger generations to bring about change quickly; he writes, “Sons of the world, oh, speed those years; But while we wait, allow our tears!” (161-162). Arnold needs to suffer and seeks permission to cry while he waits for change to come.
Arnold, while he wanders in suffering, admires those who find tranquility in religious beliefs. He does not seek to end Christianity or any other religions, rather he writes, “Allow them! We admire with awe The exulting thunder of your race; You give the universe your law, You triumph over time and space!” (163-166). Arnold admires the religious because they believe they have control over the universe. Arnold wishes he could live that way, but he cannot go back. Arnold says to them, “Your pride of life, your tireless powers, We laud them, but they are not ours” (167-168). He praises those who are strongly religious, but they live a lifestyle he cannot return to. Even though he may not believe, he does not disrespect those who do. Arnold continues his writing with a metaphor. He uses a simile to compare himself to “children reared in shade Beneath some old-world abbey wall” (169-170). Arnold’s situation is similar to that of the children because they are trapped within a certain lifestyle. Arnold cannot go back to the religious life and the children cannot leave the abbey. They are “forgotten in a forest glade, And secret from the eyes of all. Deep, deep the greenwood round them waves, Their abbey, and its close of graves” (171-174). The children live in the abbey and will likely die in the abbey. Arnold live in his state of wandering and he will likely die in that same state of wandering. Further, the children have little to no adventure in their lives. They hear a call to action (192) but they reply, “Action and pleasure, will ye roam Through these secluded dells to cryand call us? – but too late ye come!” (194-196). The abbey children have already had their lives planned out. They cannot accept the call to action because it comes to them too late. They are destined to live and die in the abbey, rarely doing anything exciting. They further respond to the call, saying, “Too late for us your call ye blow, Whose bent was taken long ago (197-198). Their bent, or “natural inclination” (Norton 1393), was taken long ago by the authorities in the abbey. Naturally, they would accept a call to action, but they have been conditioned to reject such a call. They are trapped within the abbey much like Arnold is trapped in his state of wandering and suffering. Arnold, like the children in the abbey, just wants peace in his life. They children are “fenced early in this cloistral round Of reverie, of shade, of prayer” (205-206). They cannot escape their position, in which they have been stuck for a prolonged period of time. They ask that the “banners, pass, and bugles, cease; and leave [their] desert to its peace!” (209-210). The children are tormented by the outside sounds of lives they will never be able to live because they are stuck in the abbey; similarly, Arnold hears the calls of the abbey to return to a religious life. Like the children, Arnold cannot accept the call of the Christian Church because he is trapped in his state of wandering and suffering. Like the children in the abbey who are conditioned to not accept their calls to action, Arnold will not allow himself to accept the Christian faith.
Through his poetry, Matthew Arnold highlights many of the struggles faced by Victorians who experienced crises of faith. The Victorian Age brought many social changes and one of the areas most greatly affected was religion. Scientific publications, like Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology, revolutionized many people’s ways of thinking. God was no longer the answer to everything. Science often conflicted with religious teachings. Because of this, Many people began leaving the Church and organized religion began dying. In response to this growing religious crisis, many Victorians responded with their experiences with their individual struggles with faith. A large number of Victorian authors wrote about their crises of faith, but none better exemplifies the experience than Matthew Arnold. Matthew Arnold’s “Stanzas from the Grand Chartreuse” best shows an individual’s crisis of faith because of Arnold’s use of description and metaphors in his writing.
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