Empedocles On Etna

I’m going to admit that I am liking Matthew Arnold’s poetry better than I would have thought. I still have no desire to go back and re-read Dover Beach again, ever, for any reason, but if you’re willing to adjust yourself to the rhythms of nineteenth century verse (and Arnold, a traditionalist), then you can definitely enjoy him.

Empedocles on Etna, especially, I enjoyed.

While I won’t question Arnold’s knowledge of the classics, you still shouldn’t read him for a detailed and accurate understanding of Empedocles’ philosophy.

But, the worried friend (Pausanias) and the musician-cum-pastoral poet, Callicles following the melancholy Empedocles on part of his journey makes for a nice philosophical narrative.

Even after the suicidal Empedocles asks for quiet, he can still hear snatches of Callicles’ carefree poetry and music as he contemplates his own theories and the lack of job in his life. Arnold makes the philosopher’s decision a little bit political (exile having made him depressed), though he shifts back to the idea of someone maybe too smart for his own happiness (one can imagine Arnold thinking there’s a little Empedocles in himself, too).

If you like poetry, if you have immersed yourself in poetry, so that the style of Matthew Arnold isn’t foreign or anathema to you, you might enjoy it, too.

No, thou art come too late, Empedocles!
And the world hath the day, and must break thee,
Not thou the world. With men thou canst not live,
Their thoughts, their ways, their wishes, are not thine;
And being lonely thou art miserable,
For something has impair’d thy spirit’s strength,
And dried its self-sufficing fount of joy.
Thou canst not live with men nor with thyself—
Oh sage! oh sage!—Take then the one way left;
And turn thee to the elements, thy friends,
Thy well-tried friends, thy willing ministers,
And say:—Ye servants, hear Empedocles,
Who asks this final service at your hands!
Before the sophist brood hath overlaid
The last spark of man’s consciousness with words—
Ere quite the being of man, ere quite the world
Be disarray’d of their divinity—
Before the soul lose all her solemn joys,
And awe be dead, and hope impossible,
And the soul’s deep eternal night come on,
Receive me, hide me, quench me, take me home!

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