In Matthew Arnold's 'Thyrsis: A Monody, to Commemorate the Author's Friend, Arthur Hugh Clough' we read:

What though the music of thy rustic flute
Kept not for long its happy, country tone;
Lost it too soon, and learnt a stormy note
Of men contention-tost, of men who groan,
Which task'd thy pipe too sore, and tired thy throat--
It fail'd, and thou wage mute!
Yet hadst thou always visions of our light,
And long with men of care thou couldst not stay,
And soon thy foot resumed its wandering way,
Left human haunt, and on alone till night.

"Tost" (line 4) seems to be the past participle form of "toss". So can I assume that the phrase "contention-tost" in the same line means "throwing away disagreements" and "reconciling with each other"?

The whole poem is here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43608/thyrsis-a-monody-to-commemorate-the-authors-friend-arthur-hugh-clough

1 Answer 1


You made a good find that "tost" is the past participle of "toss", but I don't think "contention-tost" means that contentions are tossed away. More the opposite, in fact: the men are tossed by contention.

Firstly, consider the context. The flute learns "a stormy note / Of men contention-tost, of men who groan": in conjunction with storminess and groaning, it doesn't sound like "contention-tost" is something peaceful and conciliatory.

Think of it by analogy with the word "storm-tossed". A storm-tossed sea is one tossed by the storm - wild and dangerous. Similarly, a contention-tossed man would be one tossed by contention - argumentative or bellicose, perhaps.

Finally, this isn't the only appearance of the word "contention-tost" in English literature. Let's check a few more examples of the word being used in context:

  • Thus Corinth had its partisans of old,
    With zeal as flaming as their love was cold:
    Some cry'd up Paul, and some Apollos prais'd,
    And some for Cephas clam'rous voices rais'd;
    Till on the waves of fierce contention tost,
    Their ark was founder'd, Christ and Truth were lost!

    -- Timothy Touch'em, "The Age of Frivolity" (emphasis mine)

  • When waters cover'd all the Earth,
    When Ocean's deepest Bed was driven
    With all his tow'ring waves to Heaven,
    And in the fierce Contention tost,
    The bounds of Sea and Land were lost

    -- William Morgan, "Long Ashton" (emphasis mine)

So there we are. After all this evidence, it seems quite clear now that "men contention-tost" means men made unruly by contention.

  • Thanks for your comprehensive reply.
    – developer
    Feb 10, 2018 at 16:38

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