1 October 2011
Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse: Verses Versus
In a letter to his mother in 1739, Thomas Gray recounted the details of his arduous journey to the Grande Chartreuse: “From thence [Eschelles] we proceeded on horses, who are used to the way, to the mountain of the Chartreuse. It is six miles to the top; the road runs winding up it, commonly not six feet broad; on one hand is the rock, with woods of pine-trees hanging overhead; on the other, a monstrous precipice” (Gray 2). Although he made this pilgrimage over a century before Matthew Arnold, his words hauntingly convey the timelessness of this journey; traveling beneath the shade of the same trees, with the same stones crackling beneath their feet, Gray, Ruskin, and Arnold among others were drawn to this desolate spot. Arnold’s words in the opening lines of “Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse” recall the words of Gray: “Past the dark forges long disused, / The mule-track from Saint Laurent goes / The bridge is crossed, and slow we ride, / Through forest, up the mountain-side” (Arnold 3-6). These vivid descriptions mislead the reader; who anticipates the long, vacillating journey of Empedocles, but in five short stanzas is thrust six miles and 4268 feet into the world of the Carthusian monastery.
For Arnold, the Grande Chartreuse serves merely as a dialectical battleground; one in which the speaker allies himself with these cloistered members of an archaic order; comparing the faith of the Carthusian monks, to his quest for Truth through poetry, the poem’s seemingly disillusioned speaker—much like Arnold himself—remains undeterred. However, before examining why the Grand Chartreuse becomes an appropriate setting for Arnold’s poem, it is necessary to understand the context in which it is written. Arnold’s career in poetry was initially marked by very limited commercial success; in fact, his poetry, though artistically sound, was a commercial disaster: “His literary career—leaving out the two prize poems—had begun in 1849 with the publication of The Strayed Reveller and Other Poems by A., which attracted little notice—although it contained perhaps Arnold's most purely poetical poem "The Forsaken Merman"—and was soon withdrawn. Empedocles on Etna and Other Poems (among them "Tristram and Iseult"), published in 1852, had a similar fate” (Kunitz par 5). By 1857, Arnold’s attention would officially shift from the world of poetry to the world of Criticism. Arnold’s fierce analysis of his own poetry, in particular his surgical deconstruction of “Empedocles” in the “Preface to Poems” (1853), and his creative shift from poetry to Criticism, are the historical “facts” of his life, but the implications of such a dramatic shift of artistic intent beg answers to an unanswerable question—why? The impetus for this change finds its voice in the speaker of “Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse”—a poem published in 1855—tenuously situated between Arnold’s period of poetic prolificacy and the spawning of his Critical career.
A more readily answered question, however, is the motivation behind Arnold’s choice of the Grande Chartreuse as the setting for this poem. He appears to have chosen it because its inhabitants embody a nearly supernatural dedication to their faith; a faith that is similar to the speaker’s own devotion to his pursuit of truth. The devoted ascetics who reside in this hermitage serve as an unchanging canvas by which the speaker can measure the relative success or failure of his own quest. The speaker of the poem begins his interior monologue with the question “—And what am I, that I am here?” (66). The speaker looks to the monks for a renewal of his faith, not in a religious sense, but in a validation of the legitimacy of his own pursuit: “Oh, hide me in your gloom profound / Ye solemn seats of holy pain! / Take me, cowled forms, and fence me round, / Till I posses my soul again;”…