Verse > Matthew Arnold > Poems
Matthew Arnold (1822–88).  The Poems of Matthew Arnold, 1840–1867.  1909.
New Poems, 1867
Epilogue to Lessing’s Laocoön
[First published 1867.]

ONE morn as through Hyde Park we walk’d.
My friend and I, by chance we talk’d
Of Lessing’s famed Laocoön;
And after we awhile had gone
In Lessing’s track, and tried to see        5
What painting is, what poetry—
Diverging to another thought,
‘Ah,’ cries my friend, ‘but who hath taught
Why music and the other arts
Oftener perform aright their parts        10
Than poetry? why she, than they,
Fewer real successes can display?
‘For ’tis so, surely! Even in Greece
Where best the poet framed his piece,
Even in that Phoebus-guarded ground        15
Pausanias on his travels found
Good poems, if he look’d, more rare
(Though many) than good statues were—
For these, in truth, were everywhere!
Of bards full many a stroke divine        20
In Dante’s, Petrarch’s, Tasso’s line,
The land of Ariosto show’d;
And yet, e’en there, the canvas glow’d
With triumphs, a yet ampler brood,
Of Raphael and his brotherhood.        25
And nobly perfect, in our day
Of haste, half-work, and disarray,
Profound yet touching, sweet yet strong,
Hath risen Goethe’s, Wordsworth’s song;
Yet even I (and none will bow        30
Deeper to these!) must needs allow,
They yield us not, to soothe our pains,
Such multitude of heavenly strains
As from the kings of sound are blown,
Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn.’        35
  While thus my friend discoursed, we pass
Out of the path, and take the grass.
The grass had still the green of May,
And still the unblacken’d elms were gay;
The kine were resting in the shade,        40
The flies a summer murmur made;
Bright was the morn and south the air,
The soft-couch’d cattle were as fair
As those that pastured by the sea,
That old-world morn, in Sicily,        45
When on the beach the Cyclops lay,
And Galatea from the bay
Mock’d her poor lovelorn giant’s lay.
‘Behold,’ I said, ‘the painter’s sphere!
The limits of his art appear!        50
The passing group, the summer morn,
The grass, the elms, that blossom’d thorn;
Those cattle couch’d, or, as they rise,
Their shining flanks, their liquid eyes;
These, or much greater things, but caught        55
Like these, and in one aspect brought.
In outward semblance he must give
A moment’s life of things that live;
Then let him choose his moment well,
With power divine its story tell!’        60
Still we walk’d on, in thoughtful mood,
And now upon the Bridge we stood.
Full of sweet breathings was the air,
Of sudden stirs and pauses fair;
Down o’er the stately Bridge the breeze        65
Came rustling from the garden trees
And on the sparkling waters play’d.
Light-plashing waves an answer made,
And mimic boats their haven near’d.
Beyond, the Abbey towers appear’d,        70
By mist and chimneys unconfined,
Free to the sweep of light and wind;
While, through the earth-moor’d nave below,
Another breath of wind doth blow,
Sound as of wandering breeze—but sound        75
In laws by human artists bound.
‘The world of music!’ I exclaim’d,
‘This breeze that rustles by, that famed
Abbey recall it! what a sphere,
Large and profound, hath genius here!        80
Th’ inspired musician what a range,
What power of passion, wealth of change!
Some pulse of feeling he must choose
And its lock’d fount of beauty use,
And through the stream of music tell        85
Its else unutterable spell;
To choose it rightly is his part,
And press into its inmost heart.
‘Miserere, Domine!
The words are utter’d, and they flee.        90
Deep is their penitential moan,
Mighty their pathos, but ’tis gone!
They have declared the spirit’s sore
Sore load, and words can do no more.
Beethoven takes them then—those two        95
Poor, bounded words—and makes them new;
Infinite makes them, makes them young,
Transplants them to another tongue
Where they can now, without constraint,
Pour all the soul of their complaint,        100
And roll adown a channel large
The wealth divine they have in charge.
Page after page of music turn,
And still they live and still they burn,
Eternal, passion-fraught and free—        105
Miserere, Domine!’
Onward we moved, and reach’d the Ride
Where gaily flows the human tide.
Afar, in rest the cattle lay,
We heard, afar, faint music play;        110
But agitated, brisk, and near,
Men, with their stream of life, were here.
Some hang upon the rails, and some,
On foot, behind them, go and come.
This through the Ride upon his steed        115
Goes slowly by, and this at speed;
The young, the happy, and the fair,
The old, the sad, the worn were there;
Some vacant, and some musing went,
And some in talk and merriment.        120
Nods, smiles, and greetings, and farewells!
And now and then, perhaps, there swells
A sigh, a tear—but in the throng
All changes fast, and hies along;
Hies, ah, from whence, what native ground?        125
And to what goal, what ending, bound?
‘Behold at last the poet’s sphere!
But who,’ I said, ‘suffices here?
‘For, ah! so much he has to do!
Be painter and musician too!        130
The aspect of the moment show,
The feeling of the moment know!
The aspect not, I grant, express
Clear as the painter’s art can dress,
The feeling not, I grant, explore        135
So deep as the musician’s lore—
But clear as words can make revealing,
And deep as words can follow feeling.
But, ah, then comes his sorest spell
Of toil! he must life’s movement tell!        140
The thread which binds it all in one,
And not its separate parts alone!
The movement he must tell of life,
Its pain and pleasure, rest and strife;
His eye must travel down, at full,        145
The long, unpausing spectacle;
With faithful unrelaxing force
Attend it from its primal source,
From change to change and year to year
Attend it of its mid career,        150
Attend it to the last repose
And solemn silence of its close
  ‘The cattle rising from the grass
His thought must follow where they pass;
The penitent with anguish bow’d        155
His thought must follow through the crowd.
Yes, all this eddying, motley throng
That sparkles in the sun along,
Girl, statesman, merchant, soldier bold,
Master and servant, young and old,        160
Grave, gay, child, parent, husband, wife,
He follows home, and lives their life!
‘And many, many are the souls
Life’s movement facinates, controls.
It draws them on, they cannot save        165
Their feet from its alluring wave;
They cannot leave it, they must go
With its unconquerable flow.
But, ah, how few of all that try
This mighty march, do aught but die!        170
For ill prepared for such a way,
Ill found in strength, in wits, are they!
They faint, they stagger to and fro,
And wandering from the stream they go;
In pain, in terror, in distress,        175
They see, all round, a wilderness.
Sometimes a momentary gleam
They catch of the mysterious stream;
Sometimes, a second’s space, their ear
The murmur of its waves doth hear.        180
That transient glimpse in song they say,
But not as painter can pourtray!
That transient sound in song they tell,
But not, as the musician, well!
And when at last these snatches cease,        185
And they are silent and at peace,
The stream of life’s majestic whole
Hath ne’er been mirror’d on their soul.
‘Only a few the life-stream’s shore
With safe unwandering feet explore,        190
Untired its movement bright attend,
Follow its windings to the end.
Then from its brimming waves their eye
Drinks up delighted ecstasy,
And its deep-toned, melodious voice,        195
For ever makes their ear rejoice.
They speak! the happiness divine
They feel, runs o’er in every line.
Its spell is round them like a shower;
It gives them pathos, gives them power.        200
No painter yet hath such a way
Nor no musician made, as they;
And gather’d on immortal knolls
Such lovely flowers for cheering souls!
Beethoven, Raphael, cannot reach        205
The charm which Homer, Shakespeare, teach.
To these, to these, their thankful race
Gives, then, the first, the fairest place!
And brightest is their glory’s sheen
For greatest has their labour been.’        210

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