Monday, October 10, 2011

Analysis of "Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse" by Matthew Arnold

By: Dianne Heath




An Analysis of the Conflict between Religion and Science in Matthew Arnold’s Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse

Observing the Growing Pangs of Progress and a Longing to Recapture Tradition & Faith

An analysis of the Matthew Arnold’s "Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse" demonstrates that the Victorian age was a paradox of rising optimism and widespread nationalism-- due to political, scientific and social progress-- and the suffering -- with a sense of concern about the loss of identity, religious values, peace, honored traditions and morals. Booming industrialization, groundbreaking scientific discoveries and technology played a major role in the rise of the middle class and England's prosperity. However the result was cultural ideals and liberal ideologies that clashed with religious philosophy. An analysis of Matthew Arnold's inner conflict within the "Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse" provides a narrative about schisms within society over the importance of religion and science. The Victorian Age was also marked by contradictions and the difficulty navigating the contradictions. In "Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse", Arnold explores the painful transformations the Victorian Age endured due to the expansive development of science. Arnold also provides an analysis of the conflict between science and faith and whether people should live by the rules of science or find meaning in life through religion.

The beginning of "Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse" is a poetic yet scientific journey. Arnold witnesses the processes of nature such as the water cycle, the erosion that creates a path for them to travel, the change from light to darkness and the circulation of the wind. This is a symbolic parallel to the changes that Arnold and English society are experiencing as they transition to an Age of Reason and the search for truth. Society is laden with empowering progress while trying to cope with spiritual darkness and depressing realities such as loneliness. Soon nature is given human characteristics which enable the audience to connect the human experience to his observations. Just as nature is reacting violently to the impending darkness as emphasized with the negative imagery with powerful wind driving the rain, "strangled sound", "boiling broods" and streams complaining, the church is also reacting robustly against the theories of evolution and challenges of atheism. However the turbulence is primarily focused around Matthew Arnold’s concern of the moral religious lifestyle being invaded by cold machinery, lifeless technology and the pursuit of wealth. In "Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse", Arnold also questions how this generation should react to such transitions. The past generations set the precedent for knowledge and morality "Our fathers water'd with their tears this sea of time whereon we sail" The question remain, should we allow science to be society's new faith? This question on how to respond this turbulent yet exhilarating Age vexes him.

Society is moving fast, jagged and past unsightly scenes, just as Matthew Arnold describes, “swift rush” and “past limestone scars with ragged pines.” Even with the speed Matthew is able to emotionally “Halt” and notice that “through the cloud-drift something shines!” Many people can identify with nostalgia that causes you to pause in awe even during a stressful or busy period. There is a longing for a simpler time instead of it rapidly disappearing in the past. The guide has his focus on the destination, his powerful and consistent influence directs “society” back to the warm enclave of religion. “Strike leftward! cries our guide;” After viewing the unforgiving reactions due to the industrial revolution symbolized by nature, he is in awe of the chapel that rises above his continual conflicting thoughts. “Look! Through the showery twilight grey,” Matthew Arnold and other critics of negative effects of progress exclaim. Society has been so disconnected from faith -- due to the Georgian period -- that he no longer recognizes the religious institution yet he feel inexplicable solace. The grandiose monastery resembles a castle fit for royalty compared to the industrial factories that are populating Europe. “What pointed roofs are these advance? – A palace of the King of France?

Exploring Faith and Finding Peace in Religion
Once again through analysis we see Matthew Arnold, as a representation of society struggling with an inner conflict of having admiration for religion while having acceptance of the abrupt introductions to the philosophies of reason and enjoying the abundance from technology. " For rigorous teachers seized my youth, and purged its faith and trimm'd its fire." His intellect is slowly undermining a seemingly dying faith. Inside the monastery he finds silence which is a sharp contrast from the bustle of the city. Just like when a distressed person burdened by the demands of technology, information overload and constant activity is renewed and inspired by the quiet sounds of nature while camping. Instead of the arrogance of progress, the bold declarations of science and a proud populace enjoying their new wealth, Arnold witnesses humbleness and softness in character, “With penitential cries they kneel.” Instead of demanding luxurious goods, competing for status symbols and fighting for the best resources they sleep on “that wooden bed, which shall be their coffin be, when dead!” They have the luxury of faith which the quickens mind even as they sleep in coffins. On the outside their faith resembles death however on the inside there is a quiet yet profound liveliness of the heart and immortality. In Arnold's opinion it is the people on the outside that is experiencing the deafening of the mind as machinery drains their spirit and humanity.

He takes the time to admire the library which is not for uplifting man, “too feed priestly pride”, or to feed one's insatiable hunger for knowledge to use for his own gain. The hymns used are not reminiscent of the church's power, while other churches boldly sang the same hymns used to excite soldiers to war as churches swept through nations to acquire political power and resources. The hymns are not even for mere entertainment but for a greater spiritual purpose. The purpose of the monastery's religion is pure as opposed to how religion is used outside their royal walls. He admires the overgrown, but added mild in their defense garden, giving off a sweet fragrant despite the minor neglect. Instead of tending to the garden, the monks are more focused on spiritual matters such faith, prayer and teaching the public about mortality through example.

Contemplating His Role
He contemplates the history of this chapel, the role of faith and those that came before him in belief, but one question stops all the subtle admiring "—And what am I that, that I am here?" The modern "rigorous teachers seized my youth, And purged its faith" almost against his will he was shown truth about the world science. Logic and reason has violently rebuked mysticism. Arnold reiterates the questions "What dost thou in this living tomb?" referring to death faith and irrelevant religion. He suddenly apologizes to his logic for finding comfort in religion and reassures that himself that is not here to deny progress and scientific advancement. On one hand religion connects him to a world when he still had his innocence. Yet sees faith as passing away like the Greek gods and the scientific evidence and truth as silent stronghold. He's "Wandering between two worlds one dead, the other powerless to be born," Arnold becomes increasing frustrated with his inner conflict; he has "nowhere yet to rest my head". The simple life for many sectors of society seems too outdated for modern times and a hindrance to progress. “Their faith, my tears, the world deride – I come to shed them at their side.” He wants to hide in their gloom and the feel the faith that causes them to sacrifice for religion, “Ye solemn seats of holy pain!” He wants to be free from worries and not by the rings of wage slavery or the demands of time in an increasingly industrialized world, “not chafed by hourly false control!” Certain sects of society which dominate his world "cries your faith is now But a dead time's exploded dream;" but he starts to demand ease from the scientific world and wonders why science can't "take away, At least, the restlessness, the pain;” If advancement, technology, machinery and materialism cannot fill the void of having something to believe in, then why the need to wipe out the beliefs the of monastery, Arnold asks in frustration.


Why Abandon Tradition, Ancient Philosophies and Beliefs?
The ancient god, Achilles is disappointed by the modern man that professes to have wisdom and knowledge that is more sophisticated than the ancients. The Victorian man is less vibrant yet fooled by the belief of their contentment and freedom. Arnold compares the passion of “our father water’d with their tears, this sea of time whereon we sail,” to the men that are passive and void of culture “stand mute, and watch the waves.” Through all the philosophies of the past generation "outcry of the former men" he ponders if there was advancement, less suffering or a better quality of life. Did all the striving and cries out to the gods improve the human experience. Is modern society wise to approach life in a quieter and more logical fashion? "Say, have their sons achieved more joys, say is life lighter now than then?" Unfortunately the generation “pangs which tortured them remain.” He traces key literacy artists such as Byron, Shelley and Obermann and contemplates whether their woeful philosophies and embrace of nature, science, reason and logic has resulted in betterment of society and the human condition. “Have restless hearts one throb the less?”

Conclusion
Arnold hopes that modern society embraces wisdom without becoming too hardened with logic. He hopes that society can be happy without only focusing on shallow values such as machinery, money and the next major discovery. We should embrace emotion and irrationality for the sake of comfort and a belief in something above humanity; a belief that will transcends the laws of the universe, time and space. “But, while we wait, allow our tear! Allow them!” He likens discovering the monastery as a child that finds deep in the forest a majestic city that is full of life. The child has discovered life that awakens the senses with laughter, cries, notes and celebratory banners. Why does society reject the banners? Why do they say “Pass, banners and bugles, cease; and leave our desert to its peace!”? Although Arnold does not support religious dogma, he does rejects the rapid move away for the morality, traditional themes, emotion and faith. “Fenced early in this cloistral round of reverie, of shade, of prayer, How should we grow in other ground? How can we flower in foreign air”? He prefers if modern society stays grounded and humble despite the innovations, scientific breakthroughs, prosperity and advancements. He believes that it is reckless to solely embrace the industrial revolution and rationally without knowing the consequences.

It's interesting to see how resistant the mind can be towards change. Sometimes it is more comforting for some to believe in the unseen than in nothing. Trusting humans to think logically can also be a source of contention for many. This question also remains, Is technology creating a happier society or alienating us from ourselves and each other. What do you think? I believe that Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse is definitely up to your interpretation. For example a couple of years I ago, I believed that Matthew Arnold was declaring that although religion is comforting, it is dead. But after rereading the poem, I was able to find clues to make another interpretation.



2 comments:

Bailey said...

I think history can give us a frame of reference for looking at the present. This book sounds like it provides an interesting reflection on the past and a way of viewing the present.

Dianne Heath said...

@ Bailey!
Exactly! The same issues that people during the Victorian Age are experienced are actually occurring again. It seems like a book, but this is actually just a really really long poem, lol.
Thank you for commenting.