Matthew Arnold 1822–-1888
English poet, critic, and essayist. See also, criticism on Culture and Anarchy: An Essay in Political and Social Criticism.
Arnold is considered one of the most significant writers of the late Victorian period in England. He initially established his reputation as a poet of elegiac verse, and such poems as “The Scholar-Gipsy” and “Dover Beach” are considered classics for their subtle, restrained style and compelling expression of spiritual malaise. However, it was through his prose writing that Arnold asserted his greatest influence on literature. His writings on the role of literary criticism in society advance classical ideals and advocate the adoption of universal aesthetic standards.
Arnold was the eldest son of Thomas Arnold, an influential educator who served as headmaster of Rugby School for a number of years. Arnold himself attended Rugby from 1837 to 1841, and it was while he was a student there that he composed the prize-winning poem Alaric at Rome, which was published in 1840. After graduating from Balliol College at Oxford in 1844, Arnold accepted a teaching post at the university and continued to write verse, publishing The Strayed Reveller, and Other Poems in 1849. Two years later he was appointed inspector of schools, a position he held until shortly before his death.
Arnold focused his energies on poetry until 1853, when he became critical of Romantic expressions of emotion in poetry. For the remaining thirty-five years of his literary career, Arnold wrote numerous essays and reviews on literary, educational, and cultural issues; his controversial perspective on Christianity provoked the outrage of conservative politicians and religious thinkers. He died of heart failure on April 15, 1888.
In 1852, Arnold released a collection entitled Empedocles on Etna, and Other Poems. The following year, he reissued the collection without its title poem. Explaining his actions in his preface to the reissued collection, an essay that has become one of his most significant critical statements, Arnold denounced the emotional and stylistic excesses of late Romantic poetry and outlined a poetic theory derived from Aristotelian principles of unity and decorum. He also stated that some of his own works, most notably the dramatic poem “Empedocles on Etna,” were flawed by Romantic self-absorption, and that he had therefore decided to suppress those most affected. Critics suggest that Arnold's recognition of the pervasive Romantic tendencies of his poetry, which conflicted dramatically with his classicist critical temperament, ultimately led him to abandon poetry as a form of self-expression.
Arnold's first major prose works, On Translating Homer and The Popular Education of France, with Notices of That of Holland and Switzerland, both published in 1861, inaugurated his career as a highly visible and sometimes controversial literary and social critic. With the appearance of St. Paul and Protestantism, with an Essay on Puritanism and the Church of England in 1870, Arnold's focus shifted to theological issues, particularly what he viewed as a crisis of religious faith in Victorian society. Arnold attributed this crisis to the conflict between the prevailing influence of scientific rationalism and the intransigence of conservative theology. His solution was a liberal, symbolic interpretation of biblical scripture, presented in Literature and Dogma: An Essay towards a Better Apprehension of the Bible (1873), the publication of which caused an immediate uproar among conservative Church leaders and religious theorists. Two years later Arnold answered his critics in God and the Bible: A Review of Objections to “Literature and Dogma” (1875), affirming his rejection of religious orthodoxy. During his final years, Arnold made two tours of the United States and recorded his overwhelmingly negative assessment of American culture in Civilization in the United States: First and Last Impressions of America (1888).
Arnold's prose writings articulate his desire to establish universal standards of taste and judgment. In his highly regarded Essays in Criticism (1865), he elaborates on this key principle, defining the role of critical inquiry as “a disinterested endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world, and thus to establish a current of fresh and true ideals.” For Arnold this endeavor should not be limited to literature, but should embrace theology, history, art history, science, sociology, and political theory, with pertinent standards drawn from all periods of world history. Arnold's approach was markedly eclectic, and in “The Literary Influence of the Academies,” the second of the Essays in Criticism, he pointedly contrasts the isolation of English intellectuals with European urbanity, hoping to foster in his own country the sophisticated cosmopolitanism enjoyed by writers and critics on the European continent. Similarly, Culture and Anarchy: An Essay in Political and Social Criticism (1869), widely viewed as one of Arnold's most important works, was motivated by his desire to redress what he saw as the smug provincialism and arrogance of English society. The essay is a sociopolitical analysis of England's class structure in which Arnold identifies three major classes: Barbarians (the aristocracy), Philistines (the middle class), and the Populace (the lower class). While Arnold praised the aristocracy for their refined manners and social assurance, he also condemned them for their conservatism. “Philistines” Arnold considered hopelessly uncouth though innovative and energetic. The lower class he dismissed as an ineffectual, inchoate mass. Arnold argued that as the middle class gradually assumed control of English politics, they must be transformed from their unpolished state into a sensitive, sophisticated, intellectual community. The alternative, he contended, would be a dissolution of England's moral and cultural standards. Arnold also endorsed the eventual creation of a classless society in which every individual would subscribe to highly refined ideals based on the culture of ancient Greece.
Critics generally view Arnold's poetry as a reflection of a spiritual dilemma that was innately Victorian, experienced by people who, in the words of Arnold's “Scholar-Gipsy,” “were caught” between “two worlds, one dead / the other powerless to be born.” The “dead” world is widely interpreted as a metaphoric evocation of the early Romantic movement, during which Western culture was reinvigorated by newly developed humanist and democratic ideals, while the “unborn” world is considered to be a not-yet-realized society in which the scientific materialism of industrialized nations would be tempered by a highly developed state of cultural enlightenment. Although Arnold strove to imitate classical Greek and Roman models in his poetry, critics agree that his work manifests Romantic subjectivism. Many of his poems assume the form of a soliloquy or confession in which the narrator communicates feelings of melancholy or regret. However, Arnold's essentially Romantic sentiments are praised for the precisely wrought and measured manner in which they are expressed.
Critical scholarship attests to Arnold's prescience in his prose writings, in forecasting the problems and possibilities that would arise with the transition from an aristocratic society to a democratic one. Arnold's conception of culture, frequently read as strongly conservative, has recently been reevaluated as suggesting a model of critical and “imaginative reason” that continues to guide literary theory. In discussing Arnold's place in modern literature studies, Timothy Peltason notes that although Arnold's name has long been considered “shorthand … for … cultural conservatism,” there is a misunderstanding among many scholars and critics regarding what Arnold actually wrote and said. According to Peltason, Arnold did not endorse “received cultural values,” nor did he passively accept the value of accredited masterpieces. Instead, contends Peltason, Arnold focused his writing and scholarship on an examination of how things “work for us here and now.” This interest in maintaining the value of culture and using criticism to stress that value to society was a central theme in Arnold's prose works. In an essay comparing Arnold's “The Function of Criticism” to T. S. Eliot's essay of the same name, critic Terence Hawkes notes that both writers consider criticism a seminal tool in helping society objectively examine its failures and successes. Hawkes relates that the role of criticism as described by Arnold and his contemporaries is often haunted by the notion that it is secondary to the actual happening. Instead, says Hawkes, Arnold himself viewed criticism as a necessary and complementary act to the primary text or idea it was examining, often serving to illustrate uncanny and noteworthy aspects not inherent in the original text or incident. Recent scholarship on Arnold has acknowledged that Arnold's writing reflects the tensions of modern literature, particularly his remarks on aesthetic judgment, and his attempts to formulate a theory of the role of criticism in culture. His integration of social criticism and literary analysis, says Stefan Collini, is acknowledged as his most significant and lasting achievement. In Collini's words, Arnold “characterized in unforgettable ways the role that criticism—that kind of literary criticism that is also cultural criticism, and thus … a sort of informal political theory—can and must play in modern societies.”
Alaric at Rome (poetry) 1840
The Strayed Reveller, and Other Poems (poetry) 1849
Empedocles on Etna, and Other Poems (poetry) 1852
Poems (poetry) 1853
Poems: Second Series (poetry) 1855
Merope (verse drama) 1858
On Translating Homer (lectures) 1861
The Popular Education of France, with Notices of That of Holland and Switzerland (essay) 1861
Essays in Criticism (criticism) 1865
New Poems (poetry) 1867
On the Study of Celtic Literature (criticism) 1867
Culture and Anarchy: An Essay in Political and Social Criticism (essay) 1869
St. Paul and Protestantism, with an Essay on Puritanism and the Church of England (essay) 1869
Literature and Dogma: An Essay towards a Better Apprehension of the Bible (essay) 1873
God and the Bible: A Review of Objections to “Literature and Dogma” (essay) 1875
Mixed Essays (essays) 1879
Discourses in America (lectures) 1885
Civilization in the United States: First and Last Impressions of America (essay) 1888
Essays in Criticism: Second Series (criticism) 1888
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SOURCE: “Iseult of Brittany: A New Interpretation of Matthew Arnold's Tristram and Iseult,” in Arthurian Women: A Casebook, edited by Thelma S. Fisher, Garland Publishing, 1996, pp. 205-28.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1980, Leavy argues that Arnold's sympathetic portrayal of Iseult, especially the fantasy world she has created for herself to help cope with the monotony of her existence, is an astute example of “female fantasy in nineteenth-century literature.”]
Matthew Arnold was pleased with his version of the Tristram and Iseult legend. He was especially proud of having gotten to the story before Richard Wagner popularized it, and Arnold thought that he himself had done the better job. An audience unfamiliar with Wagner, however, did not find Tristram and Iseult easy to read. Such narrative details as the drinking of the love potion are only alluded to, and the story, told in flashbacks from the deathbed of the hero, was not easy to follow. Modern readers are less likely to face such difficulties. Nevertheless, critics of Arnold's poetry find themselves in much the same situation today that his general readers did in the past: “Tristram and Iseult, though it will stand as the most brilliant of Arnold's poems on love, is not an easy work to approach or to comprehend.”1 The major problem concerns Part III, the conclusion of the poem. In it,...
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SOURCE: “Love Poetry: Sincerity and Subversive Voices,” in Matthew Arnold and the Betrayal of Language, University Press of Virginia, 1988, pp. 163-203.
[In the following essay, Riede discusses Arnold's love poetry and his frustration with the inadequacy of human speech.]
The conventions and consolatory purposes of elegy put enormous pressure on poetic language to say the utmost that can be said about life, death, and the hereafter. Indeed, elegy tempts the poet to say more than can be justly said, excuses the flattering fictions and the consoling lie. Similarly, love poetry involves sets of conventions that may tempt the poet to excess, to flattery, seductive deception of the beloved, and even self-deception. The love poem is, in one tradition, a tissue of transparent fictions, specious logic, and false spirituality designed seriously to woo or playfully to seduce—the beloved is a divinity, love is eternal, union is paradise. An important convention of love poetry, of course, is that both author and reader recognize and accept the hyperboles as pleasant fictions, exercises in troping on the simple idea of being in love. But the hyperbolic descriptions of love can be taken seriously as an attempt to express insatiable desire and aspiration, especially when no higher ideal than human love is to be found. Consequently, for many nineteenth-century writers, love comes to replace religious faith as the...
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SOURCE: “The Great Work of Criticism,” in Poetry in the Age of Democracy: The Literary Criticism of Matthew Arnold, University Press of Kansas, 1989, pp. 103-34.
[In the following essay, Schneider reviews the major themes in Arnold's Essays in Criticism, including the role of literary criticism, modernity, and the distinctive natures of poetry and prose.]
When Arnold collected the best of his articles for Essays in Criticism (1865), he wrote an introductory essay that in its general theory sought to explain his own recent criticism and to work out new answers to the old questions. “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” asserted once more his faith that the intellectual movements of the Enlightenment were returning to full vigor and that free inquiry in all branches of human knowledge was promising once more to sweep away the old and false ideas. In this essay, however, in setting out a theoretic basis for his criticism, Arnold no longer emphasized the power of criticism to destroy the encumbrances on human thought. Now he showed the power of criticism not only to discover or to recognize worthy ideas but also to preserve what was true or good in the past. Emphasizing the work that criticism was to perform, he also began to see criticism as an activity performed, not so much for a further end, social or aesthetic, but as an activity worthwhile in itself. In the “present...
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SOURCE: “Matthew Arnold and the Subject of Modernity,” in Critical Survey, Vol. 4, No. 3, 1992, pp. 226-32.
[In the following essay, Pinkney emphasizes the continuities between Arnold's account of the detached subject of literature's emergence and more recent elaborations on the death of the subject.]
One thing which traditionalist and radical literary critics tend to agree on, however bitterly they fight over everything else, is the idea that a decisive transformation or what the French Marxist Louis Althusser might have termed a coupure épistémologique has taken place in English studies over the last twenty or so years. Both sides, naturally, have a vested interest in the notion of such a ‘break’: it suits the traditionalists to draw a sharp distinction between the wholesome and commonsensical discipline English once used to be and the florid, jargon-ridden elitism it has collapsed into, and it suits the radicals to dismiss everything prior to (say) 1968 as boring and outmoded, and to celebrate everything after it as dynamically state-of-the-art and intellectually adventurous. A few bold and flexible spirits, of whom Frank Kermode is probably the most eminent, have tried over the years to work across both sides of this divide—without, however, ceasing to view it as a divide and thus requiring particularly acrobatic feats of straddling and bridging. ‘Only connect’ might be...
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SOURCE: “Arnold,” in Victorian Thinkers, Oxford University Press, 1993, pp. 27-47.
[In the following essay, Collini surveys Arnold's poetic achievements, focusing on such works as “Empedocles on Etna,” the Switzerland poems, and “Dover Beach.”]
The collected prose works of Matthew Arnold occupy eleven fat volumes; the complete poetry, even when fleshed out with notes, variants, and appendices, fits easily into one volume in any of the several modern editions in which it has appeared. Though any rounded account of his achievement must to some extent reflect these proportions, such crude quantities tell us little about the relative value or enduring appeal of his various compositions in the two genres. In fact, the reputation of his poetry has been more stable and more generally favourable over the past hundred years than that of his prose, even though, as I have suggested, I think it is now the latter which has the greater claim on our attention. But certainly there may still be some readers who, vaguely recalling ‘Dover Beach’ or ‘The Scholar-Gypsy’ from school anthologies, are surprised to find he ‘also’ wrote prose.
Arnold's poetry, as we have seen, belongs very largely to the earliest stage of his adult life; most of his best pieces are contained in three slim volumes he published in 1849, 1852, and 1853, all written before his thirtieth birthday. It is...
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SOURCE: “Philhellenism and Antisemitism: Matthew Arnold and his German Models,” in Comparative Literature, Vol. 46, No. 1, Winter, 1994, pp. 1-39.
[In the following essay, Gossman claims that Arnold's criticisms of “Hebraism” obscure a vision of society that is inclusive of both culture and religion and that his work cannot be equated with antisemitism.]
No one says it, but every one knows that pantheism is an open secret in Germany. We have, in fact, outgrown deism. We are free and don’t want any thundering tyrant. We are of age and need no parental care. Nor are we the botches of any great mechanic. Deism is a religion for servants, for children, for the Genevese, for watchmakers … and every deist is, after all, a Jew.
With some notable exceptions, such as George Eliot, virtually everyone who put pen to paper in the nineteenth century, it seems, is vulnerable to the charge of antisemitism. It is not easy to draw any other conclusion from Leon Poliakov's rich compendium of opinions about Jews and Judaism from Voltaire to Wagner. Interest in Jews, it appears, almost invariably had an antisemitic slant.
Antisemitism has many strands, however, and the term may be too broad to be usefully applied. As there are degrees of racism—the residual prejudice that emerges in an...
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SOURCE: “The Heimlich Manoeuvre,” inTextual Practice, Vol. 8, No. 2, Summer, 1994, pp. 302-16.
[In the following essay, Hawkes analyzes Arnold's understanding of the role of criticism in culture, asserting that, like T. S. Eliot, Arnold views the role of English literature criticism as the mirror that reflects the “true nature of English national culture.”]
I IN CUSTODY
I will focus on two eruptions. The first occurs in the middle of Matthew Arnold's essay of 1864, ‘The Function Of Criticism At The Present Time’. Arnold has been addressing the linked questions of the true nature of English literary criticism on the one hand and the true nature of English national culture on the other. If the first is ever to engage fruitfully with the second, literary criticism must become, he says, a de-politicized ‘absolutely and entirely independent’ activity. Only then will it be able to confront and finally defeat what he calls the ‘retarding and vulgarizing’ accounts of current Englishness recently put forward by two home-grown journalist/politicians, Sir Charles Adderley and Mr John Arthur Roebuck.
Then, casting round for an example of something concrete to set against the fatuous self-satisfaction of these apologists, with their cant about ‘our unrivalled happiness’ as members of ‘the old Anglo-Saxon race … the best breed in the whole...
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SOURCE: “The Function of Matthew Arnold at the Present Time,” in College English, Vol. 56, No. 7, November, 1994, pp. 749-65.
[In the following essay, Peltason contests the characterization of Arnold as a cultural conservative and emphasizes his continued significance as a literary theorist.]
In recent debates about cultural politics, Matthew Arnold's name regularly appears as a kind of shorthand for a familiar and long discredited form of cultural conservatism. Sometimes it is not Arnold's name, but just a phrase, “the best that is known and thought” or “sweetness and light,” quoted without attribution and taken to represent an uncritical endorsement of received cultural values and a passive receptivity to accredited masterpieces. My project in this essay is to show how and why Arnold should be recuperated, indeed to show how insistently he is still with us. More broadly, I wish to illustrate the dangers of literary and cultural misunderstanding that arise when a major literary figure is invoked in the culture wars, but not actually read with precision and care.
In addition to the enemies who put him to such uses, Arnold has had a full complement of the friends who makes enemies superfluous. Champions like William Bennett and Lynne Cheney have invoked Arnold as a fellow savior of the humanities and joined his least discriminating detractors in writing as if there were one...
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SOURCE: “Arnold's ‘The Scholar-Gipsy’: The Use and Abuse of History,” in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 34, No. 2, Summer, 1996, pp. 149-74.
[In the following essay, Grob contends that Arnold's later poetry and his prose represent a fundamental break from a “predominantly metaphysical mode … of explanation” of the human condition to a philosophy of cyclical history that was closely aligned with prevailing Victorian intellectual tendencies.]
After the publication in 1849 of The Strayed Reveller, And Other Poems, Arnold's poetry conceptually underwent something of a midcourse correction, a tentatively taken turn from predominantly metaphysical modes of explanation for our unhappy human predicament to what clearly seems a more overtly historicist analysis of our situation, a turn, it should be added, that brought Arnold as poet and later as prose writer more closely in line with the prevailing intellectual tendencies of the Victorian age. In “Resignation,” a kind of philosophic summing up and position paper for those poems of negation and despair that largely fill Arnold's volume of 1849, he had plainly ascribed our sufferings to an apparently atemporal cosmic agency, a “something that infects the world” (l. 278), which in its blind but all-encompassing indifference destructively afflicts nature as well as ourselves. To mitigate the effects of this metaphysically conceived source of...
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SOURCE: “Arnold and the Pragmatists: Culture as Democracy,” in Communications with the Future: Matthew Arnold in Dialogue, University of Michigan Press, 1997, pp. 139-74.
[In the following essay, Stone claims that despite Arnold's largely unfavorable view of American culture, he appealed to American intellectuals and that his philosophy has been an inspiration for many American pragmatists, including John Dewey and William James.]
I am more and more convinced that the world tends to become more comfortable for the mass, and more uncomfortable for those of any natural gift or distinction—and it is as well perhaps that it should be so—for hitherto the gifted have astonished and delighted the world, but not trained or inspired or in any real way changed it—and the world might do worse than to dismiss too high pretentions, and settle down on what it can see and handle and appreciate.
Arnold to Arthur Hugh Clough, January 7, 1852
I am finite once for all, and all the categories of my sympathy are knit up with the finite world as such, and with things that have a history.
William James, A Pluralistic Universe
Our neglect of the traditions of the past, with whatever this negligence implies in the way of spiritual...
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SOURCE: “Matthew Arnold, The Apostle of Culture,” in Priests of Culture: A Study of Matthew Arnold and Henry James, Peter Lang, 1999, pp. 23-67.
[In the following essay, Sterner studies Arnold's conception of culture and the implications of this ideal for his evaluation of modernity.]
Culture is then properly described not as having its origin in curiosity, but as having its origin in the love of perfection; it is a study of perfection. It moves by the force, not merely or primarily of the scientific passion for pure knowledge, but also of the moral and social passion for doing good. … there is no better motto which it can have than these words of Bishop Wilson: “To make reason and the will of God prevail!”
Poor Matt, he’s gone to Heaven, no doubt—but he won’t like God.
—Robert Louis Stevenson
The smile of paradox may be glimpsed in the conjunction of Stevenson's affectionate joke with Matthew Arnold's sober proclamation of culture's destiny: “to make reason and the will of God prevail!”1 If Arnold has indeed “gone to Heaven,” I am sure that he would smile with us, for paradox suited his mind. The balancing in tension of opposing tendencies, the moderation of extremes, the mind turning on...
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Tollers, Vincent L., ed. A Bibliography of Matthew Arnold, 1932-1970. University Park: Pennsylvania State University, 1974, 172 p.
Compiles primary and secondary sources on Arnold's poetry and prose writings. Coverage of secondary sources is limited to 1932-1970.
Honan, Park. Matthew Arnold: A Life. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983, 496 p.
Definitive biography aimed at both Arnold specialists and general readers.
Rowse, A. L. Matthew Arnold: Poet and Prophet. London: Thames and Hudson, 1976, 208 p.
Trilling, Lionel. Matthew Arnold. New York: Norton, 1939, 465 p.
A sympathetic and insightful analysis of Arnold's life and literary career.
Allott, Miriam. “‘Both/And’ or ‘Either/Or’?: Arnold's Mind in Dialogue with Itself.” In The Arnoldian 15, No. 1 (Winter 1987-88): 1-16.
Assesses the formal and aesthetic implications of Arnold's juxtaposition of differing or opposing ideas that shapes his work.
apRoberts, Ruth. Arnold and God. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1983, 299 p.
Study of Arnold's...
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