Matthew Arnold was the eldest son of the renowned Thomas Arnold, who was appointed headmaster of Rugby School in 1828. Matthew entered Rugby (1837) and then attended Oxford as a scholar of Balliol College; there he won the Newdigate Prize with his poem Cromwell (1843) and was graduated with second-class honours in 1844. For Oxford Arnold retained an impassioned affection. His Oxford was the Oxford of John Henry Newman—of Newman just about to be received into the Roman Catholic Church; and although Arnold’s own religious thought, like his father’s, was strongly liberal, Oxford and Newman always remained for him joint symbols of spiritual beauty and culture.
In 1847 Matthew Arnold became private secretary to Lord Lansdowne, who occupied a high cabinet post during Lord John Russell’s Liberal ministries. And in 1851, in order to secure the income needed for his marriage (June 1851) with Frances Lucy Wightman, he accepted from Lansdowne an appointment as inspector of schools. This was to be his routine occupation until within two years of his death. Matthew Arnold engaged in incessant travelling throughout the British provinces and also several times was sent by the government to inquire into the state of education in France, Germany, Holland, and Switzerland. Two of his reports on schools abroad were reprinted as books, and his annual reports on schools at home attracted wide attention, written, as they were, in Arnold’s own urbane and civilized prose.
The work that gives Matthew Arnold his high place in the history of literature and the history of ideas was all accomplished in the time he could spare from his official duties. His first volume of verse was The Strayed Reveller, and Other Poems. By A. (1849); this was followed (in 1852) by another under the same initial: Empedocles on Etna, and Other Poems. In 1853 appeared the first volume of poems published under his own name; it consisted partly of poems selected from the earlier volumes and also contained the well-known preface explaining (among other things) whyEmpedocles was excluded from the selection: it was a dramatic poem “in which the suffering finds no vent in action,” in which there is “everything to be endured, nothing to be done.” This preface foreshadows his later criticism in its insistence upon the classic virtues of unity, impersonality, universality, and architectonic power and upon the value of the classical masterpieces as models for “an age of spiritual discomfort”—an age “wanting in moral grandeur.” Other editions followed, and Merope, Arnold’s classical tragedy, appeared in 1858, and New Poems in 1867. After that date, though there were further editions, Arnold wrote little additional verse.
Not much of Matthew Arnold ’s verse will stand the test of his own criteria; far from being classically poised, impersonal, serene, and grand, it is often intimate, personal, full of romantic regret, sentimental pessimism, and nostalgia. As a public and social character and as a prose writer, Arnold was sunny, debonair, and sanguine; but beneath ran the current of his buried life, and of this much of his poetry is the echo:
From the soul’s subterranean depth upborne
As from an infinitely distant land,
Come airs, and floating echoes, and convey
A melancholy into all our day.
“I am past thirty,” he wrote a friend in 1853, “and three parts iced over.” The impulse to write poetry came typically when
A bolt is shot back somewhere in the breast,
And a lost pulse of feeling stirs again.
Though Matthew Arnold was “never quite benumb’d by the world’s sway,” these hours of insight became more and more rare, and the stirrings of buried feeling were associated with moods of regret for lost youth, regret for the freshness of the early world, moods of self-pity, moods of longing for
The hills where his life rose
And the sea where it goes.
Yet, though much of Matthew Arnold ’s most characteristic verse is in this vein of soliloquy or intimate confession, he can sometimes rise, as in “Sohrab and Rustum,” to epic severity and impersonality; to lofty meditation, as in “Dover Beach”; and to sustained magnificence and richness, as in “The Scholar Gipsy” and “Thyrsis”—where he wields an intricate stanza form without a stumble.
In 1857, assisted by the vote of his godfather (and predecessor) John Keble, Arnold was elected to the Oxford chair of poetry, which he held for 10 years. It was characteristic of him that he revolutionized this professorship. The keynote was struck in his inaugural lecture: “On the Modern Element in Literature,” “modern” being taken to mean not merely “contemporary” (for Greece was “modern”), but the spirit that, contemplating the vast and complex spectacle of life, craves for moral and intellectual “deliverance.” Several of the lectures were afterward published as critical essays, but the most substantial fruits of his professorship were the three lectures On Translating Homer (1861)—in which he recommended Homer’s plainness and nobility as medicine for the modern world, with its “sick hurry and divided aims” and condemned Francis Newman’s recent translation as ignoble and eccentric—and the lectures On the Study of Celtic Literature (1867), in which, without much knowledge of his subject or of anthropology, he used the Celtic strain as a symbol of that which rejects the despotism of the commonplace and the utilitarian.
It is said that when the poet in Matthew Arnold died, the critic was born; and it is true that from this time onward he turned almost entirely to prose. Some of the leading ideas and phrases were early put into currency in Essays in Criticism (First Series, 1865; Second Series, 1888) and Culture and Anarchy. The first essay in the 1865 volume, “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time,” is an overture announcing briefly most of the themes he developed more fully in later work. It is at once evident that he ascribes to “criticism” a scope and importance hitherto undreamed of. The function of criticism, in his sense, is “a disinterested endeavour to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world, and thus to establish a current of fresh and true ideas.” It is in fact a spirit that he is trying to foster, the spirit of an awakened and informed intelligence playing upon not “literature” merely but theology, history, art, science, sociology, and politics, and in every sphere seeking “to see the object as in itself it really is.”
In this critical effort, thought Matthew Arnold , England lagged behind France and Germany, and the English accordingly remained in a backwater of provinciality and complacency. Even the great Romantic poets, with all their creative energy, suffered from the want of it. The English literary critic must know literatures other than his own and be in touch with European standards. This last line of thought Arnold develops in the second essay, “The Literary Influence of Academies,” in which he dwells upon “the note of provinciality” in English literature, caused by remoteness from a “centre” of correct knowledge and correct taste. To realize how much Arnold widened the horizons of criticism requires only a glance at the titles of some of the other essays in Essays in Criticism (1865): “Maurice de Guérin,” “Eugénie de Guérin,” “Heinrich Heine,” “Joubert,” “Spinoza,” “Marcus Aurelius”; in all these, as increasingly in his later books, he is “applying modern ideas to life” as well as to letters and “bringing all things under the point of view of the 19th century.”
The first essay in the 1888 volume, “The Study of Poetry,” was originally published as the general introduction to T.H. Ward’s anthology, The English Poets (1880). It contains many of the ideas for which Arnold is best remembered. In an age of crumbling creeds, poetry will have to replace religion. More and more, we will “turn to poetry to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us.” Therefore we must know how to distinguish the best poetry from the inferior, the genuine from the counterfeit; and to do this we must steep ourselves in the work of the acknowledged masters, using as “touchstones” passages exemplifying their “high seriousness,” and their superiority of diction and movement.
The remaining essays, with the exception of the last two (on Tolstoy and Amiel), all deal with English poets: Milton, Gray, Keats, Wordsworth, Byron, and Shelley. All contain memorable things, and all attempt a serious and responsible assessment of each poet’s “criticism of life” and his value as food for the modern spirit. Arnold has been taken to task for some of his judgments and omissions: for his judgment that Dryden and Pope were not “genuine” poets because they composed in their wits instead of “in the soul”; for calling Gray a “minor classic” in an age of prose and spiritual bleakness; for paying too much attention to the man behind the poetry (Gray, Keats, Shelley); for making no mention of Donne; and above all for saying that poetry is “at bottom a criticism of life.” On this last point it should be remembered that he added “under the conditions fixed…by the laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty,” and that if by “criticism” is understood (as Arnold meant) “evaluation,” Arnold’s dictum is seen to have wider significance than has been sometimes supposed.
Culture and Anarchy is in some ways Matthew Arnold ’s most central work. It is an expansion of his earlier attacks, in “The Function of Criticism” and “Heinrich Heine,” upon the smugness, philistinism, and mammon worship of Victorian England. Culture, as “the study of perfection,” is opposed to the prevalent “anarchy” of a new democracy without standards and without a sense of direction. By “turning a stream of fresh thought upon our stock notions and habits,” culture seeks to make “reason and the will of God prevail.”
Arnold’s classification of English society into Barbarians (with their high spirit, serenity, and distinguished manners and their inaccessibility to ideas), Philistines (the stronghold of religious nonconformity, with plenty of energy and morality but insufficient “sweetness and light”), and Populace (still raw and blind) is well known. Arnold saw in the Philistines the key to the whole position; they were now the most influential section of society; their strength was the nation’s strength, their crudeness its crudeness: Educate and humanize the Philistines, therefore. Matthew Arnold saw in the idea of “the State,” and not in any one class of society, the true organ and repository of the nation’s collective “best self.” No summary can do justice to this extraordinary book; it can still be read with pure enjoyment, for it is written with an inward poise, a serene detachment, and an infusion of mental laughter, which make it a masterpiece of ridicule as well as a searching analysis of Victorian society. The same is true of its unduly neglected sequel, Friendship’s Garland (1871).