Symbols of oblivion and cosmos in the poetry of Matthew Arnold



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Matthew Arnold expresses a tendency toward a conception of a central natural force in a rather consistent vocabulary of symbols of oblivion and cosmos which is present in his poetry and which may be interpreted in light of the poet's employment of an orientation toward experience that is consonant with his developing poetic theory. In the early poems where the persona embodies the orientation of sensibility, he sometimes gains an unsatisfactorily fleeting sense of cosmos and seeks comfort in contemplation of the prospect of death and oblivion. In other poems the persona is compelled at the outset to abandon the human world which obscures feeling. After the publication of Empedocles on Etna, which contains a kind of culminating symbol of oblivion, Arnold produced a group of transitional poems. Within this group some of the personae again ultimately become symbols of oblivion. Others embody the orientation of aesthetic consciousness; and as a result, it is symbolically implied, they gain a sense of cosmos. This latter pattern is sustained in a final group of poems. Although within the development of the symbols there is an implicit shift in the relationship between man and the natural force and therefore an implicit redefinition of the concept of nature itself, throughout the poetry there is a tendency toward a concept of nature which is approachable through the senses, emotions, and imagination.