He saves the sheep, the goats he doth not save!
So rang Tertullian’s sentence, on the side
Of that unpitying Phrygian sect which cried:
‘Him can no fount of fresh forgiveness lave,
‘Who sins, once wash’d by the baptismal wave!’
So spake the fierce Tertullian. But she sigh’d,
The infant church; of love she felt the tide
Stream on her from her Lord’s yet recent grave.
And then she smiled, and in the Catacombs,
With eye suffused but heart inspired true,
On those walls subterranean, where she hid
Her head in ignominy, death, and tombs,
She her Good Shepherd’s hasty image drew;
And on his shoulders, not a lamb, a kid.
- Matthew Arnold, The Good Shepherd with the Kid, 1867
Of all Matthew Arnold’s poems, this short sonnet is one of my favourites. The immediate inspiration seems to be the brief quote from the church father Tertullian (c.155-c.240 C.E.), noted for his rigorous moral expectations of the faithful, including his belief that Christians who sinned and then repented should not be accepted back into the Church, and the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, found in Matthew Chapter 25, in which the separation of the two types of animal is a metaphor for the separation of the good and the wicked on the Day of Judgement.
Arnold himself appears to have been a nonconformist; that is, someone who has faith in the Christian God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), but rejects elements of accepted Christian doctrine, often on intellectual grounds, and in this poem we see him taking an altogether gentler approach, more in line with Jesus words to Peter at the Last Supper (“Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean” – John 13:10) . As seen in the illustration, early representations of Jesus as the Good Shepherd do indeed seem to depict him with an animal that could just as easily be a goat as a sheep…