A Life of Matthew Arnold
Although Matthew Arnold specifically requested that no biography be written after his death, his wishes have not stopped scholars from producing more than a dozen life studies. The daily activities of the man who was, for his Victorian contemporaries, a poet of merit and a critic of principle have interested students of literature, religion, education, and politics for more than a century. In fact, one has to wonder how sincerely Arnold meant for his stricture to be followed, or how seriously his friends and family took his admonishments. Not a decade passed between his death and the issuance of a two-volume set of his letters, ostensibly selected and edited by his protégé George Russell but actually assembled in large part by Arnold’s widow and daughter. Not content with issuing the letters, Russell later published a book-length critique aimed at assessing Arnold’s literary merits but relying heavily on unpublished biographical information to provide judgments about the writer’s character. Similar monographs, such as the ones by Herbert Paul for the prestigious English Men of Letters series and by George Saintsbury for the Modern English Writers series, appeared during the 1890’s and the early decades of the twentieth century.
Arnold did not escape the backlash against the Victorians, and a number of studies published during the 1920’s and 1930’s paint a rather unflattering portrait of his domestic and professional life. The absence of a well-edited, comprehensive collection of his letters did not keep the vitriolic Hugh Kingsmill or the fanciful Iris Sells from speculating about what went on when Arnold was not composing the poems and essays that have admittedly personal overtones. The presence of a series of poems written when Arnold was a young man to a woman he refers to as “Marguerite” have given more than one critic much to wonder about—and a ready source for providing intriguing (and sometimes far-fetched) psychological explanations for Arnold’s melancholy, his pomposity, his rectitude, and even his much-ballyhooed attitude of detachment.
The taboo on Arnoldian biography was not officially broken until 1981, nearly a century after Arnold’s death, when Park Honan, an American scholar working in England, brought out the long- awaited Matthew Arnold: A Life. Because much had already been written about Arnold’s life and many of his letters had been published in whole or part in various places, few scholars found the work startling. For general readers, however, the portrait of Arnold revealed in Honan’s book was quite different from that gleaned from his essays and poems or from many of the scholarly studies of his prose and verse. The critic of culture and society emerged as a struggling son of a famous father, a dedicated family man who worked hard to provide for his family, an avid sportsman, and a jovial dinner companion whose mixture of levity and sanctimoniousness vexed his contemporaries as much as the conservative pronouncements in his prose have infuriated modern literary theorists.
The notion that the real-life Matthew Arnold was quite different from the Olympian figure first venerated and then vilified by succeeding generations also lies at the heart of Nicholas Murray’s A Life of Matthew Arnold, a study that has much in common with Honan’s earlier work. Written principally from primary sources, Murray’s biography details Arnold’s daily life and reinforces the portrait of the writer as a complex man filled with zest for life but concerned about the fragmentation and materialism that characterized Victorian society. Although he is familiar with the body of secondary source material available, Murray tries to bring a fresh perspective to his analysis of both the life and the work. His judgment about one of Arnold’s most influential and enduring prose studies serves as an appropriate example of the tenor of his entire study: Culture and Anarchy (1869), he says, is, “paradoxically, at once the best read and the most misrepresented of Arnold’s prose writings, for the notion of culture it expounds is wholly at odds with the popular view of Arnold entertained, and regularly disseminated, by present-day cultural commentators.” His sensitive, well-researched biography suggests that it is time to set the record straight about Arnold the man and Arnold the writer.
Murray sides with those critics who have seen Arnold as a poet who lost...
(The entire section is 1820 words.)