Matthew Arnold was born on December 24, 1822, in Laleham, England, a small town on the Thames near London. His father, Thomas Arnold, conducted a school there; his mother, Mary Penrose Arnold, was an Anglican clergyman’s daughter. The Arnolds were a closely knit family; Matthew, the second of nine children, was especially devoted to his older sister Jane. He had a close relationship with his mother until her death in 1873, and his father’s influence on him was crucial. In 1828, the Arnold family moved to Rugby, and in the years that followed, Thomas Arnold became famous as an educational and religious leader. As Headmaster of Rugby School, Thomas Arnold instituted reforms designed to regenerate his students’ moral, spiritual, and intellectual lives and to prepare them to become responsible leaders in a rapidly changing society. A notable writer on the religious and political issues of the day, Thomas Arnold was a proponent of a broadly Christian and unified national Church. Throughout his career, Thomas Arnold also devoted himself to the study and teaching of history. This devotion, along with his ethical seriousness, his activity as an educational reformer, and his engagement in religious controversies, helped to shape his son Matthew’s interests and thinking throughout his adult life.
In his boyhood and youth, however, Matthew Arnold did not prove to be a particularly devoted or distinguished student. Because he failed to progress under private tutorship at home, he was sent away for two years (1831-1832) to his uncle’s strict school at Laleham. There, he felt exiled from his family. When he returned home to study with a private tutor, he became a somewhat more conscientious—though certainly not brilliant—student, and he began to develop a love of poetry. His family and his environment helped this love to grow. In 1831, the Arnolds had begun to make summer trips to the Lake District, where the poets Robert Southey and William Wordsworth lived, and in 1833-1834, they built a summer residence at Fox How, near Wordsworth’s home. Thus the Wordsworths and the Arnolds became friends. Wordsworth’s poetry eventually was to influence Arnold’s at least as much as any other English poet’s; many of Arnold’s poems directly echo or respond to Wordsworth. A significant part of the drama of Arnold’s career as a poet and critic, in fact, arises from his sad realization that, whether for personal or cultural reasons, he was unable to speak to the Victorian age as Wordsworth had to the Romantic: “But where will Europe’s latter hour/ Again find Wordsworth’s healing power?”
After spending a year at Winchester, the public school his father had attended, Arnold came back to Rugby School, where he studied from 1837 to 1841. There, in 1840, he met Arthur Hugh Clough (1819-1861), a brilliant scholar and accomplished poet who was to become his close friend at Oxford. This important friendship continued until Clough’s death. In his conversations and correspondence with Clough, Arnold began to develop and articulate many of his ideas, feelings, and values relating to poetry and modern life. In his letters, Arnold criticized Clough’s poetry as overly topical and intellectual, but he also found fault with his own poems. His chief target, however, was his age: “Reflect too, as I cannot but do here more and more, in spite of all the nonsense some people talk, how deeply unpoetical the age and all one’s surroundings are. Not unprofound, not ungrand, not unmoving:—but unpoetical.” Arnold wrote these words in 1849, and in much of his later work as a critic, he would proceed from that point of view.
A decade earlier, however, when he was still a student at Rugby, no one would have predicted such concern on his part, least of all his father, who worried constantly about Arnold’s apparent carelessness about his studies. A normal adolescent, Arnold chose to react against his father’s high seriousness by devoting much time to fishing, hunting, enjoying himself with casual acquaintances, and dressing in elegant clothes. He adopted the insouciant air of a dandy at Rugby, but his mask of sophistication slipped occasionally. Beneath the mask one could find, on the one hand, a prankster: During his final year at Rugby, having been asked to stand behind his father’s chair, he decided to take advantage of the occasion by making faces at the other students. On the other hand, he managed to write a fair amount of poetry at Rugby, to win a prize for his long poem “Alaric at Rome” in 1840, and, ultimately, to win a scholarship to Balliol College at Oxford, where he began his studies on October 15, 1841.
During his university years, Arnold continued much in the same pattern he had set at Rugby. Elegant and lively, he enjoyed himself immensely and took a casual attitude toward his studies: “The life of Oxford,” he wrote in 1851, was “the freest and most delightful part, perhaps, of my life, when . . . I shook off all the bonds and formality of the place.” At this time, however, several people and events helped move him toward a steadier, more purposeful course in life. He was influenced by the thinking of John Henry Newman and by his father’s opposition to the Oxford Movement, through which Newman and his intellectual party seemed to be leading the Church of England toward Roman Catholicism. Thomas Arnold, appointed to a professorship of history at Oxford in 1841, died suddenly in June, 1842, and Matthew Arnold felt the loss deeply. His friendship with Clough strengthened after his father’s death, and together they read and were impressed by the social thought of Thomas Carlyle. In 1843, Arnold won the prestigious Newdigate Prize for his poem “Cromwell,” which reflected his feelings about his father’s death. This award led him to decide that he wanted seriously to be a poet. He began writing the poems that would eventually appear in 1849 in his first volume of verse, The Strayed Reveller and Other Poems.
Arnold’s intensified focus on writing poetry did not lead him to amend his careless study habits. He left Oxford in 1844 with a second-class degree after a mediocre performance on his final examinations. His second-class degree embarrassed him and disappointed his family; he redeemed himself after a year of teaching and study at Rugby by winning, as his father had done years before, a fellowship at Oriel College, Oxford. There, he read widely in philosophy and literature and developed broad intellectual interests: He read extensively in German literature and philosophy, admired the novels of George Sand, whom he called upon during a trip to France and Switzerland in the summer of 1846, and read the Bhagavadgita and other Oriental writings.
In April, 1847, Arnold moved to London to become the private secretary to Lord Landsdowne, then president of council in the Liberal government. In 1848 and 1849, he was devoted to the beautiful and gifted Mary Claude, whom he fictionalized as “Marguerite” in “Switzerland,” a sequence of lyrics tracing the course of a failed love affair.
The twenty-seven poems in Arnold’s first published collection, The Strayed Reveller and Other Poems, strike a note that is predominantly melancholy, lonely, and introspective. Arnold’s family and friends were very surprised, because they had heretofore known him as a debonair, lighthearted, worldly young man. Revealing through these poems a radical split between his outward behavior and inner feelings, Arnold himself exemplified one of the major themes of his poetry: the divided self.
In most of his major works, whether in poetry or prose, in fact, Arnold addresses questions of separation and division. His poems tend to define breaches; his critical prose defines, analyzes, and attempts to heal them. His poems articulate the loneliness, the confusion, the sense of disintegration that occurs when individuals feel alienated from nature, from their personal or cultural pasts, from God, or from other people—whether through conflicting aims and values, failed...
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