Sample Essay

Words 1,128

In the late 1840s, Arnold looked to ancient suicides as a source of comfort for his readers and a means of self-definition for himself. In “Courage” (written 1849 or 1850) he turns to Cato to help settle his own unease over the philosophical question of the will. Like Carlyle, Arnold believed that the Victorians “must tame our rebel will” (141), but like Byron, he also prized the force of rebellious souls. For him Cato was an exemplar of utter courage:

Yes, be the second Cato praised!
Not that he took the course to die —
But that, when ‘gainst himself he raised
His arm, he raised it dauntlessly. [13-16]

Characteristically, Arnold compared Victorian lack of willful determination with ancient resoluteness:

Our bane, disguise it as we may,
Is weakness, is a faltering course.
Oh, that past times could give our day,
Joined to its clearness, of their force! [25-28]

After penning these words, Arnold certainly continued in his admiration of ancient virtues.

In his own use of ancient suicide, Tennyson was quite different from Arnold. The poet laureate did need to dissociate himself from his modern poems about potential suicides. “Supposed Confessions” was withdrawn from the volumes after 1830 and republished only in 1884; and in reference to his presumed likeness to the narrator of Maud, Tennyson quipped, “Adulterer I may be, murderer I may be, suicide I am not yet” (quoted by Sir Charles Tennyson 286). But when it came to the ancient Lucretius, Tennyson sought the philosopher’s differences from himself more than his similarities and avoided the problem of identification. Arnold’s Empedocles is a sympathetic character. Like Arnold and so many Victorians, he looks anxiously for religious reintegration with the universe. Tennyson’s Lucretius is an embodiment of materialistic philosophy and served as a warning to the Victorians to turn toward a more spiritual existence.

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