Week 333: The Last Word, by Matthew Arnold

I don’t know whether Matthew Arnold had any particular debate or personage in mind when he wrote this spirited poem. It is very Victorian in its moral certainty and absolutism. Maybe there were issues and principles in his day that didn’t get lost in a maze of amendments to amendments. But Arnold (1822-1888), son of the Rugby headmaster, poet, critic and inspector of schools, is a bit of a contradiction. His best known poem ‘Dover Beach’ is much more about the loss of moral certitude, yet he had the breezy self-confidence, not to mention cultural arrogance, to suggest that it really was time Welsh people were persuaded or constrained to abandon their language, looking forward to a future in which ‘the difference in language between England and Wales should be effaced, an event which is socially and politically so desirable.’ Yet at the same time he was one the first English writers to take an interest in that marvellous collection of early Welsh prose tales, the ‘Mabinogion’, even if he went a bit far in seeing it as a ‘ruin of antiquity’. As with many Victorians, definitely a bit of cultural dissonance going on.

The Last Word

Creep into thy narrow bed,
Creep, and let no more be said!
Vain thy onset! all stands fast.
Thou thyself must break at last.

Let the long contention cease!
Geese are swans, and swans are geese.
Let them have it how they will!
Thou art tired: best be still.

They out-talked thee, hissed thee, tore thee?
Better men fared thus before thee;
Fired their ringing shot and passed,
Hotly charged – and sank at last.

Charge once more, then, and be dumb!
Let the victors, when they come,
When the forts of folly fall,
Find thy body by the wall! 

Matthew Arnold



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