The most characteristic work of the English poet and critic Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) deals with the difficulty of preserving personal values in a world drastically transformed by industrialism, science, and democracy.
Matthew Arnold was born at Laleham on the Thames on Dec. 24, 1822. His father, Dr. Thomas Arnold, one of the worthies whom Lytton Strachey was to portray somewhat critically in Eminent Victorians, became the celebrated master of Rugby School, and his ideals of Christian education were influential. As a young man, Matthew Arnold saw something of William Wordsworth, Robert Southey, and other veterans of English romanticism. Educated at Rugby and then at Balliol College, Oxford, he early began to write poetry. The closest friend of his youth was Arthur Hugh Clough, a poet and sometime disciple of Dr. Arnold, whose death Matthew Arnold would later mourn in his elegy "Thyrsis."
In 1844 Arnold took a second-class honors degree at Oxford, and the following year he was elected to a fellowship at Oriel College. After some teaching he became private secretary to Lord Lansdowne, who eventually had him appointed to an inspectorship of schools, a difficult, demanding job which required Arnold to do a good deal of traveling and which he held for most of his life.
Several of Arnold's early poems express his hopeless love for a girl he calls Marguerite. Scholars have been unable to identify an original for this girl, and whether she existed at all is a question. In 1851 Arnold married Frances Lucy Wightman, the daughter of a judge. The marriage was a happy one, and some of Arnold's most attractive poems are addressed to his children.
Career as a Poet
In 1849 Arnold, under the pseudonym "A," published a collection of short lyric poems called The Strayed Reveller; the sale was poor and the book was withdrawn. In 1852 he published another collection, Empedocles on Etna and Other Poems, but this too, after a sale of 50 copies, was withdrawn. Two poems in this collection, however, require special notice. The first, "Empedocles on Etna," is in dramatic form, though it consists mostly of a series of monologues in which the hero, a Sicilian philosopher, meditates on the transient glories and satisfactions of human life and then throws himself into the volcano. The second is Arnold's long poem on Tristram and Iseult, which again uses the monologue form. Tristram, watched over by Iseult of Brittany, is dying; he remembers his past happiness with Iseult of lreland, who arrives just before he dies for a brief, passionate reunion.
In 1853 Arnold published a collection called simply Poems; it included poems from the two earlier collections as well as others never before published, notably "Sohrab and Rustum" and "The Scholar Gypsy." The former is a short epic; in style it is frequently reminiscent of John Milton but very beautiful in its own right. The Persian hero Rustum has never seen his son Sohrab, who is raised by the Tatars and becomes one of the bravest of their warriors. The two men meet in single combat, and just as the son recognizes his father, the former falls dead. "The Scholar Gypsy" is based on an old story of an Oxford student who left his university and joined a gypsy band; his spirit is supposed still to haunt the Oxford countryside. The poem contrasts the life of the legendary gypsy with Arnold's own times, which he finds sick, divided, and distracting.
Poems: Second Series (1855) includes another small blank-verse epic, "Balder Dead." Arnold takes his subject from Norse mythology. Balder, god of the sun, has been killed by a trick of the evil Loki, god of mischief. The gods mourn his death, and Hermod goes to the land of the shades to persuade Hela to return Balder to the land of the living. Hela agrees on condition that all living things mourn for Balder; and so they do, with the fatal exception of Loki. Balder is resigned to his death, and at the conclusion of the poem there is a promise of better things when this generation of gods has passed away.
In 1857 Arnold was elected to the professorship of poetry at Oxford, and he held this post for the next decade. He was the first professor of poetry to give his lectures in English rather than in Latin.
In 1858 Arnold published Merope, a classical tragedy, which concerns the revenge of a young man on a tyrant who has killed the young man's father and married his mother. New Poems (1867) includes "Thyrsis: A Monody," the pastoral elegy in which Arnold again celebrates the Oxford countryside and mourns the death of his friend Clough. The poem invites comparison with other great classical elegies in English—for example, Milton's "Lycidas" and Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Adonais." In 1869 Arnold collected his poems in two volumes. An important new poem is "Rugby Chapel," in which he pays tribute to his father. Although Arnold wrote both epic and dramatic poetry, his best poems are probably his lyrics, such poems as "Dover Beach," "To Marguerite—Continued," and "The Buried Life."
Literary and Social Criticism
In 1861 Arnold published his lectures On Translating Homer and in the next year On Translating Homer: Last Words. He first isolates the main characteristics of the Homeric style and then consides a number of translations of Homer and the degree of their success in duplicating these characteristics in English. The books are lively introductions to classical poetry and urge English writers to imitate Homer's "grand style."
Arnold's two-volume Essays in Criticism (1865 and 1888) includes essays on a variety of writers—Marcus Aurelius, Heinrich Heine, Leo Tolstoy, and Wordsworth among them. His critical essays are concerned with the discipline and preservation of taste at a time when literary standards were threatened by commercialism and mass education. With schoolmasterly repetitiousness Arnold attacks English provincialism, or "Philistinism" as he calls it. He particularly values the quality of "high seriousness," an author's power to concentrate on the perpetually important issues in human life. Arnold suggests that his readers keep always in mind certain sublime moments in literature which will serve as "touchstones" in the judgment of contemporary work.
Of the several books which Arnold wrote on politics and sociology the most important is Culture and Anarchy (1869). He criticizes 19th-century English politicians for their lack of purpose and their excessive concern with the machinery of society. The English people—and the narrow-minded middle class in particular—lack "sweetness and light," a phrase which Arnold borrowed from Jonathan Swift. England can only be saved by the development of "culture," which for Arnold means the free play of critical intelligence, a willingness to question all authority and to make judgments in a leisurely and disinterested way.
Of the four books in which Arnold dealt with the threat to religion posed by science and historical scholarship, the most important is Literature and Dogma (1873). He argues that the Bible has the importance of a supremely great literary work, and as such it cannot be discredited by charges of historical inaccuracy. And the Church, like any other time-honored social institution, must be reformed with care and with a sense of its historical importance to English culture.
Arnold was one of the great Victorian controversialists, and his books are contributions to a national discussion of literature, religion, and education. His style is witty, ironic, and varied; he exhorts his readers, chides them, even teases them. His books were widely read, and in the magazines in which he regularly published he defended his views against all comers. In 1883 and 1886 he toured the United States and gave lectures, in which he tried to win Americans to the cause of culture.
On April 15, 1888, Arnold went to Liverpool to meet his beloved daughter, and he died there of a sudden heart attack.
Further Reading on Matthew Arnold
Two important collections of Arnold's letters are Letters of Matthew Arnold, 1848-1888, edited by George W.E. Russell (2 vols., 1895-1896), and The Letters of Matthew Arnold to Arthur Hugh Clough, edited by Howard Foster Lowry (1932). The standard introduction to Arnold is Lionel Trilling, Matthew Arnold (1939; 2d ed. 1949). A more recent critical study, synthesizing earlier views, is William A. Madden, Matthew Arnold: A Study of the Aesthetic Temperament in Victorian England (1967). Two excellent works devoted to Arnold's poetry are Wendell Stacy Johnson, The Voices of Matthew Arnold: An Essay in Criticism (1961), and A. Dwight Culler, Imaginative Reason: The Poetry of Matthew Arnold (1966). A contrasting approach to the poems is G. Robert Stange, Matthew Arnold: The Poet as Humanist (1967).
More specialized works include William Robbins, The Ethical Idealism of Matthew Arnold (1959); Patrick McCarthy, Matthew Arnold and the Three Classes (1964); and Warren D. Anderson, Matthew Arnold and the Classical Tradition (1965). "Matthew Arnold" in T.S. Eliot, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1932; 2d ed. 1964), is an examination of Arnold by an influential 20th-century critic.