Morris didn’t think much of Matthew Arnold, as I’ve tried to show in my William Morris in Oxford (pp.122-6), but the one work of Arnold’s to which he might have warmed is the narrative poem 'Balder Dead', which deals with the Norse mythological material that meant so much to Morris himself. ‘So on the floor lay Balder dead’, Arnold’s poem begins; for Odin’s favourite son has been pierced through the breast by a stick of mistletoe thrown by the blind God Hoder, who has been tricked into doing so by ‘Lok the Accuser’ – Balder being magically invulnerable to all conventional weapons. Even today, Arnold’s Norse epic makes a compelling read.
But can it be used as a guide to Arnold’s poetry more generally, as a Key to All Mythologies which might produce an overall Norse, or you might even say Morrisian, reading of Arnold. Well, perhaps; I’m encouraged in this interpretive project by the curious appearance of that ‘fallen Runic stone’ in ‘Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse’. Could we come up with Runic readings of other major Arnold poems?
Let’s try ‘Dover Beach’, arguably Arnold’s finest poem, certainly a definitive Victorian lyric, giving eloquent expression through its seascape-meditation to the mid-century crisis of religious faith. But may there not, in fact, be a Norse archetype behind this poem’s dignified classical allusions to Sophocles and Thucydides? ‘Come to the window, sweet is the night air!’ says the poet; but this could just as well be the voice of Hoder speaking to Frea in ‘his mother’s house,/Fensaler, whose lit windows look to sea’, and just a few lines later Hoder will indeed be tramping ‘back along the beach to Asgard’. The Sea of Faith gloomily withdraws, we might suggest, because Hoder has just unwittingly killed Balder, brightest of all the Gods; and the ‘darkling plain … Where ignorant armies clash by night’, with which ‘Dover Beach’ so memorably concludes, may also be an apocalyptic vision of Ragnarok, the Twilight of the Gods, which so eerily haunts ‘Balder Dead’ throughout.
So part of the emotional depth of Arnold’s great lyric may be due to the resonances of Norse mythological material underlying its surface realism of detail. If such a hermeneutic could be plausibly extended to other texts, then we might end up with a Matthew Arnold that even that self-declared ‘Man of the North’, William Morris, could be happy with.