Fight or Flight? Two Ways to Read Matthew Arnold’s Poem, “Requiescat” (1849)

If you’re a temperamentally anxious and emotionally tumultuous person, as I have been all of my life, the Matthew Arnold poem below might give you a bit of life perspective. But it also depends on how you read it. One of Arnold’s earliest poems, it was probably written by him when he was 27 years old, in 1849. The poem is titled “Requiescat”—may she rest. It’s addressed to a woman who has died, and is something that we might presume the poet to have read over her grave:

Strew on her roses, roses,

     And never a spray of yew!

In quiet she reposes;

     Ah, would that I did too!

                                                                                                                                                                               .

Her mirth the world required;

     She bathed it in smiles of glee.

But her heart was tired, tired,

     And now they let her be.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                               .

Her life was turning, turning,

     In mazes of heat and sound.

But for peace her soul was yearning,

     And now peace laps her round.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         .

Her cabined, ample spirit,

     It fluttered and failed for breath.

To-night it doth inherit

     The vasty hall of death.

______________________

I especially like that third stanza, don’t you? Here it is again:

Her life was turning, turning,

     In mazes of heat and sound.

But for peace her soul was yearning,

     And now peace laps her round.

If we accept the conceit of the poem, that this was a real person, then Arnold seems to be describing an agitated woman (when she was alive). She was characterized by “turning, turning” as one might move through a maze, going now one way, now another. And in the frenzy of her activity, what does she seem to be yearning for? Peace, harmony, wholeness, understanding, life.

You know, the usual.

Oh, and she may have been passionate and a talker, and maybe loved to dance and sing: “Her life was turning, turning, / In mazes of heat and sound.” Was this intellectual heat? Did she aspire to be a writer like Matthew Arnold himself? Maybe the 20th century novelist, Jack Kerouac, would have found in this woman someone with whom he could be sympatico

The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue center light pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’

But wait. Maybe reading this poem as an elegy to a lively and energetic intellectual “Kerouac woman” is wrong. This poem, afterall, could be read in feminist terms, as hinting at domestic or urban work oppression: she wished to somehow avoid—turn away from—the heat and sound around her—seeking peace and solitude, but never found it. Her death might harbor a complaint and rebuke to the dreary and difficult lives of 19th century women generally: she was one of those large souled, intelligent, and creative women who never had, in Virginia Woolf’s phrase, a room of her own.

In short, maybe she was more like the Buddhist in search of a quiet place of resignation, than the “Kerouac woman” in search of Bohemian times. There’s no McDonald’s in the 19th century, but look at the second stanza again. It sounds like the world demanded of her the constant soul-destroying behavior of “service with a smile”:

Her mirth the world required;

     She bathed it in smiles of glee.

But her heart was tired, tired,

     And now they let her be.

And her spirit seemed to Arnold larger than her body and life circumstances could hold—it was restless as a bird in too restricted a space: “Her cabined, ample spirit, / It fluttered and failed for breath.”

Now this is starting to seem tragic—a ninteenth century woman who did not manage to find a way to live a large life, but found herself born into a very narrow world resistant to her “ample spirit.” Exhausted by the work and noise around her (and within her?), she no longer even fantasized about living adventurously, but just to find some rest—someplace to crater and know some calm. 

I’m raising daughters, and I thank Zeus (or, rather, the goddess Hera) for the women’s movement. May my 21st century girls never have to labor under a monstrous oppression, or do much insincere service with a smile work. And may the men they bring into their lives give them lots of space to be themselves. But as Henry David Thoreau so wryly observed in “Civil Disobedience,” you don’t need formal slavery to be enslaved. There are many “keen and subtle masters” in the world, both within and without us, seeking our ensnarement.

Let this poem be a warning to fight and  take flight. Live, exercise your freedom and imagination, and make your peace with things now—while you can.

————————

By the way, what might that yew reference, in the second line of the poem, mean? (“Strew on her roses, roses, /And never a spray of yew!”). I looked it up in the excellent Penguin reference, Dictionary of Symbols. It turns out that the yew tree, in Celtic mythology, is a funerary symbol, and might suggest the death of a hard person, a warrior (for the yew is a hardwood tree that weapons used to be made of). Also, the berries are rather toxic. And so it seems that Arnold is suggesting that the woman who died was a sweet, soft, and vulnerable person, and someone who longed for peace. A rebuke, I think, to this harsh and cruel world.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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2 Responses to Fight or Flight? Two Ways to Read Matthew Arnold’s Poem, “Requiescat” (1849)

  1. k8 says:

    Beautiful perception of one of my most favorite works. Thank you.

  2. Alan Blunt-Massey says:

    This poem should not be read in isolation from other works by MA. He despised the industrialisation of the England he loved and cherished. The advent of the steam engine and the automobile were anathema to Arnold’s soul. His “Lines written in Kensington Gardens” bears this out. “Requiescat” is a lament for a kindred spirit who yearned for the quieter life of her earlier years.”….. Mazes of heat and sound….” Refers to the hustle and bustle and noise of the busy city which is finally extinguished by death. “Ah would that I did too”.

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