‘Lines Written in Kensington Gardens’ by Matthew Arnold is an eleven stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines, or quatrains. Arnold has chosen to conform the lines to a consistent rhyme scheme. It follows the pattern of abab cdcd, alternating as he saw fit from stanza to stanza. A reader should also take note of the instances of repetition in this piece. There are a number of stanzas where two or more of the lines begin with the same word, such as in stanza two (lines three and four) and stanza nine (lines two, three, and four).
One distinct theme of this piece is the elevation of nature over city life. The speaker places a great emphasis on his appreciation for the natural world, even that within the confines of a garden. He frequently praises the simple lives of the birds and marvels over the history of the ground.
Summary of Lines Written in Kensington Gardens
The poem begins with the speaker describing how he is lying in the only open glade, or path of the treeless forest. This place is “deep” in the boughs of the forest. He is surrounded by trees on all sides, isolated from the larger world. In the next stanzas, a reader is reminded that he is not in the wilderness but in the gardens of Kensington in London. There is a city on all sides and children who run through the forest. He is not alone.
The human-made elements of his environment do not bother him though. He is able to take as much from this curated landscape as he would from one that is less altered by human hands. The speaker continues to return to the birds throughout this piece. He is interested in their comings and goings and the general history of the landscape. The speaker takes the time to analyze the ground at his feet and think about all the creatures, human and non-human who have moved through there.
As ‘Lines Written in Kensington Gardens’ continues the speaker begins to fantasize about taking the calm of the gardens back into his real life. There is nothing but raving men in the city and he does not want to hear or become one of them. Due to the nature of the city, he states that he has often thought that there was no true peace to be found in life. It was only death that could bring one any measure of calm.
Now that he has spent time in the garden he knows this isn’t the case. By the end of the poem, he is pleading with the higher power which created the garden to allow him to bring the “Calm soul” of living things back to his city life.
Analysis of Lines Written in Kensington Gardens
In this lone, open glade I lie,
Screen’d by deep boughs on either hand;
And at its end, to stay the eye,
Those black-crown’d, red-boled pine-trees stand!
In the first stanza of ‘Lines Written in Kensington Gardens’ the speaker begins by describing how he is lying in an “open glade.” This is a reference to a wide-open space in a forest. The space is in a ring of trees. Their “boughs” or large branches are on either side of him.
Then farther away, at the end of the glade, are “black-crown’d, red-boded pine-trees.” They have a special significance for the speaker, or at least they stand out against the other trees that surround him. They are in a position that stays his eye. It wants to stop on these particular trees. The speaker feels protected in this area and at peace.
Birds here make song, each bird has his,
Across the girdling city’s hum.
How green under the boughs it is!
How thick the tremulous sheep-cries come!
In the next lines, it turns out that he is not alone. Nor is he as far from the city as the first stanza made it seem. In his glade, birds of every variety come and sing their individual songs. The birds are personified and all referred to as male. They are given the agency to craft their songs in this glade. Additionally, the speaker states that they’ve come from the “girdling city’s hum.” At this point, a reader should be reminded of the title: ‘Lines written in Kensington Gardens.’
The speaker is not out in the countryside or the wild but within the gardens of Kensington in London. The birds he mentions have flown in from the city that encloses the garden. This change of scene has allowed them to sing.
In the next two lines, the speaker exclaims over how green it is “under the boughs.” He is excited by the pristine nature of the scene and moved by the “sheep-cries” in the distance.
Sometimes a child will cross the glade
To take his nurse his broken toy;
Sometimes a thrush flit overhead
Deep in her unknown day’s employ.
In the next stanza of ‘Lines Written in Kensington Gardens’, the nature of the scene is further illuminated. The speaker is most certainly not alone. He notes that every once in awhile a “child will cross” the glade he is relaxing in and bring his “nurse his broken toy.” This is a place that attracts different types of people. Each takes something different from the gardens.
In the next two lines, he returns to the non-human presence in the scene. There are thrushes that “flit” over his head. One in particular he notes as being “Deep in her…day’s employ.” Her actions are said to be “unknown.” It is unclear whether they are just unclear to the speaker or to the bird as well.
Here at my feet what wonders pass,
What endless, active life is here!
What blowing daisies, fragrant grass!
An air-stirr’d forest, fresh and clear.
In the fourth stanza of ‘Lines Written in Kensington Gardens’, the speaker looks down at his own feet. He is entranced by the thought of every living creature that “pass[es]” and has passed, by him. The activity of the gardens feels “endless.” This refers to both the animal and human life. There is a long history within this place and he is tapping into that.
One way he senses the past and present is through the smells in the air. He can detect “daisies” and “fragrant grass.” The air of the “forest” is “fresh and clear.” One important message or theme of this piece is that of a clear and unadulterated appreciation for nature. It does not matter to the speaker that he is within the city limits in a curated human-made environment, he finds the experience valuable and beautiful.
Scarce fresher is the mountain-sod
Where the tired angler lies, stretch’d out,
And, eased of basket and of rod,
Counts his day’s spoil, the spotted trout.
In the next stanza, he goes on to describe the land and how another, an “angler,” or fisherman, interacts with it. He is lying on the fresh “mountain-sod.” Next to him, there is a “basket and…rod.” With these, he fishes for trout and then stops to count his “day’s spoil.” It is clear he was successful in his endeavour. This gives the landscape a sense of plenty. The waters are full of fish and the trees full of birds.
In the huge world, which roars hard by,
Be others happy if they can!
But in my helpless cradle I
Was breathed on by the rural Pan.
The sixth stanza brings the narrative back to the speaker’s own experience. He is still bragging on the gardens and the way that he is able escape from the world within them. The “huge world” is described as “roar[ing] hard by” him. He wishes the “others” who are out there in it well. He hopes they are happy, if they can be.
The speaker knows what the rest of the world is like and has come to realization that where he is better than anywhere else in the city. He has found himself a “helpless cradle” that is so beautiful it is as if the god “Pan” breathed on him. This is a reference to the Greek god Pan, know as the god of rural nature and usually depicted playing a seven-piece flute.
I, on men’s impious uproar hurl’d,
Think often, as I hear them rave,
That peace has left the upper world
And now keeps only in the grave.
Often, the speaker states, he despairs of the state of society. He listens to the men “rave” or speak crazily, and knows that “peace has left the upper world.” It is as if everyone has lost their purpose and now there is nowhere one can go to find respite. Nowhere that is, except for “the grave.” Death sometimes seems like the only solution to his problems. It is the drastic last place to search for relief.
Yet here is peace for ever new!
When I who watch them am away,
Still all things in this glade go through
The changes of their quiet day.
Luckily for the speaker though, what he has stated in the last stanza is not the full truth. Now that he has found the “open glade” he knows death is not the only answer to his problems. “Here,” he states, is “peace for ever new!” He will always be able to find this sense of relaxation and separation from the city in Kensington Gardens. It will be there forever, in one form or another.
He is not ignorant of the fact that the land and its inhabitants are going to change. Everyday things shift from morning to night. These changes are quiet though. There is nothing of the uproarious nature of the city he is used to.
Then to their happy rest they pass!
The flowers upclose, the birds are fed,
The night comes down upon the grass,
The child sleeps warmly in his bed.
In the ninth stanza of ‘Lines Written in Kensington Gardens’, the speaker expands on the changes that happen in the gardens. He is speaking on the coming of the night. First, he states that all things, go to their “happy rest” at the end of the day. This includes the flowers which “upclose,” and the bird which are “fed.” Everything and everyone is sated and safe within their different parts of the garden.
He also speaks on the child who was referenced in the third stanza. He is now “sleep[ing] warmly in his bed.” It seems his time in the garden did him good as well. Night is not a negative in this situation. Darkness is not something to fear as it might be in another part of the city.
Calm soul of all things! make it mine
To feel, amid the city’s jar,
That there abides a peace of thine,
Man did not make, and cannot mar.
After speaking on the different elements of the garden and the way they go so calmly through life and into the day, he asks that the same be given to him. He desires the same “Calm soul” that permeates “all things.” It is his hope that he can take the peace found in the garden back into the “city’s jar.” Perhaps it will improve his experience in the huge roaring world.
He believes the peace of the garden to be so powerful because it was not created by man. It is the result of a higher power, thereby man “cannot mar” it, or change/disrupt it.
The will to neither strive nor cry,
The power to feel with others give!
Calm, calm me more! nor let me die
Before I have begun to live.
In the final quatrain of ‘Lines Written in Kensington Gardens’, the speaker concludes his description of the garden with a plea for a better life. He is seeking out a new way of being, separate from the morally corrupt world he comes from. It is based on a willingness to live without striving or crying. His world would be made up of the feelings of others and the desire to give back to them his own emotions.
These lines are an impassioned request to his listener, perhaps the garden itself or the higher power which formed it. He needs the “Calm” of the place to take him over and carry him forward in the world. The last lines ask they he does not die “Before [he has] begun to live.” The garden has imbued him with a new outlook on life. He knows now that the life he was living before was unreal. He is more than willing to embark on a new one.