Friday, November 20, 2015

Youth and Calm - Matthew Arnold

'Tis death! and peace, indeed, is here,
And ease from shame, and rest from fear.
There's nothing can dismarble now
The smoothness of that limpid brow.
But is a calm like this, in truth,
The crowning end of life and youth,
And when this boon rewards the dead,
Are all debts paid, has all been said?
And is the heart of youth so light,
Its step so firm, its eye so bright,
Because on its hot brow there blows
A wind of promise and repose
From the far grave, to which it goes;
Because it hath the hope to come,
One day, to harbour in the tomb?
Ah no, the bliss youth dreams is one
For daylight, for the cheerful sun,
For feeling nerves and living breath -
Youth dreams a bliss on this side death.
It dreams a rest, if not more deep,
More grateful than this marble sleep;
It hears a voice within it tell:
Calm's not life's crown, though calm is well.
'Tis all perhaps which man acquires,
But 'tis not what our youth desires.

How do death and youth intersect?  At the start of the poem, Arnold sets up the image of death as peace.  That's a pretty conventional image.  Ease from shame, rest from fear, no more worries to crease a face.  Is that it, though?  As he asks, "Is a calm like this...the crowning end of life and youth?"  In essence, is the height of youth, in all its grandeur, to be reduced to the calm of death?

Youth itself promises repose from the grave with its "hot brow" and firm step and light heart.  Arnold asks if for all of that, its only destination and final repose can be the grave.  Youth makes us feel as though we can fly high forever, even if this is not true.  The poem, too, brings us down from our flight to reality.  "Ah no, " Arnold writes, wistfully, "the bliss youth dreams is one for daylight, for the cheerful sun, for feeling nerves and living breath."  Youth is the dream for the living, from which we wake only to find death, and a final repose.

Still though, the dream of youth is noble and beautiful, and "dreams a rest, if not more deep, more grateful" than the "marble sleep" of death.  I like how Arnold brings the word "marble" back into the poem after he so beautifully used the word "dismarble" to describe how nothing can disturb the calm face of the dead.  As the last two lines perfectly note, calm is the only thing we end up with at our end, though it isn't what our youth desires.

What I like most about this poem is how knowingly Arnold accepts that death is our final destination, and he describes its calm as beautiful, clear, and deep.  And despite that knowledge, despite the certainty of it, the hot blooded dream of youth is more gratifying and satisfying to us, even though, maybe because, we know it is fleeting.