Saturday 10 December 2016

Poetry: Arnold leads us through the streets of London

Ulick O'Connor

Published 13/12/2015 | 02:30

Matthew Arnold
Matthew Arnold

Matthew Arnold has written three of the greatest poems of the 19th century, 'The Scholar Gypsey', 'Dover Beach' and 'Sorham and Rustum'.

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What is usually not remembered is that he was a good friend of Ireland and understood the reason why the Fenians had to resort to force to get freedom for their country.

He felt too that the Gael could revitalize English verse with "passionate turbulent reaction against the despotism of fact".

Arnold was the son of the founder of Rugby School, (where the eccentric game was invented), and his brother Thomas became a professor at University College Dublin - who frequently had to field questions from a short sighted student called James Joyce concerning the use of the English language.

There is a strange poem by Arnold called 'West London' which describes the plight of a poor woman with a baby in her arms.

She refuses to beg from the rich but will accept offerings from her own class which Matthew Arnold considers "points us to a better time than ours".

Could our friend have been thinking of a welfare state?

West London

Crouch'd on the pavement close by Belgrave Square

A tramp I saw, ill, moody, and tongue-tied;

A babe was in her arms, and at her side

A girl; their clothes were rags, their feet were bare.

Some labouring men, whose work lay somewhere there,

Pass'd opposite; she touch'd her girl, who hied

Across, and begg'd and came back satisfied.

The rich she had let pass with frozen stare.

Thought I: Above her state this spirit towers;

She will not ask of aliens, but of friends,

Of sharers in a common human fate.

The turns from that cold succour, which attends

The unknown little from the unknowing great,

And points us to a better time than ours.

Matthew Arnold 1822-1888

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