Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Arnold's "Rugby Chapel"

Giving my two cents in this PFFA thread on Shelley, I was reminded of Matthew Arnold, and how much I enjoyed "Sohrab and Rustum," "Empedocles at Atena," "The Buried Life," "The Scholar-Gipsy" and that anthology piece "Dover Beach," when I read them as an undergraduate. This evening, while traveling back home on the train, I started reading "Rugby Chapel" from his Poetical Works, and finished it in the Thai restaurant near my train station. The poem, a paean to his dead father, who was a Rugby headmaster, has the moral seriousness and dramatic vividness of Arnold's best poems. From the middle of the poem:

Friends, who set forth at our side,
Falter, are lost in the storm.
We, we only are left!
With frowning foreheads, with lips
Sternly compress'd, we strain on,
On--and at nightfall at last
Come to the end of our way,
To the lonely inn 'mid the rocks;
Where the gaunt and taciturn host
Stands on the threshold, the wind
Shaking his thin white hairs--
Holds his lantern to scan
Our storm-beat figures, and asks:
Whom in our party we bring?
Whom we have left in the snow?

Arnold is a master of the linebreak. That repetition of "on" over the next line is superb, and its grim persistence is transformed into triumph in the last lines of the poem, where Arnold reaffirms his faith, through his noble father's example, in the aid of "the noble and great who are gone":

Ye fill up the gaps in our files,
Strengthen the wavering line,
Stablish, continue our march,
On, to the bound of the waste,
On, to the City of God.

"Rugby Chapel" is both a touching elegy for a father, and a rallying cry for the exhausted children of god.

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