Throughout his life Matthew Arnold wrote critical works on literature, culture, religion, and education that made him the foremost man of letters in Victorian England. This large body of prose is available in a standard edition: The Complete Prose Works of Matthew Arnold (1960-1976, Robert Henry Super, editor), with textual notes and commentary. Essays important to an understanding of Arnold’s contribution to the discipline of literary criticism include Preface to Poems (1853), “Wordsworth,” “The Study of Poetry,” and “Literature and Science.” “Culture and Anarchy” explains the philosophical positions and biases from which Arnold criticized literature and society. Also available are editions containing his letters and notebooks.
In 1840, while he was a student at Rugby, Matthew Arnold won the Poetry Prize for “Alaric at Rome,” and three years later, then at Oxford University, he won the Newdigate Poetry Prize for “Cromwell.” From this official recognition of his poetic gift, Arnold began a career that produced what T. S. Eliot calls in The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933), “academic poetry in the best sense; the best fruit which can issue from the promise shown by the prize-poem.” However, Arnold wrote many poems that rise far above the merely academic, though popular interest in his poetry never approached the following of his more technically and expressively gifted contemporaries, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and Robert Browning. Admittedly, Arnold’s poems lack the polished texture that characterizes the great Victorian poetry; critics often complain about Arnold’s lack of “ear.” The novelist George Eliot, however, early recognized, in the Westminster Review (July, 1855), what has been increasingly the accepted opinion: “But when . . . we linger over a poem which contains some deep and fresh thought, we begin to perceive poetic beauties—felicities of expression and description, which are too quiet and subdued to be seized at the first glance.” Whatever his prosodic deficiencies, Arnold still composed several lyric and narrative poems which take their place with the best that the age produced.
In a century notable for elegies,...
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Thomas Arnold, Matthew Arnold’s father, was considered a fine schoolmaster. What might have caused the son to have so much trouble at Rugby School?
Discuss the appropriateness of the phrase “eternal note of sadness” in “Dover Beach.”
What makes “Dover Beach” relevant today?
Are there “scholar-gipsies” today? If so, who are they?
Was Arnold too negative in his views of Victorian Englishmen in his Culture and Anarchy?
Do Arnold’s works show him to be an elitist? If so, is there any value in his elitism?
Evaluate Arnold’s statement that perfection is a matter of becoming, rather than having, something.
Bush, Douglas. Matthew Arnold: A Survey of His Poetry and Prose. New York: Macmillan, 1971. A very good introduction to Arnold’s life and works.
Collini, Stefan. Matthew Arnold: A Critical Portrait. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 2008. A biography and critical examination of the life and works of Arnold.
D’Agnillo, Renzo. The Poetry of Matthew Arnold. Rome: Aracne, 2005. A study of the poetry of Arnold. Contains a chapter analyzing “Empedocles on Etna.” Looks at the theme of loss and redemption.
Dawson, Carl, ed. Matthew Arnold, the Poetry: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973. Collects more than sixty reviews and essays written between 1849 and 1898. Gives a fascinating view of how Arnold was received and understood by his contemporaries. Presents some of the contexts to which his writing was responding. Contains an extensive bibliography and index.
Hamilton, Ian. A Gift Imprisoned: The Poetic Life of Matthew Arnold. New York: Basic Books, 1999. The simple, fablelike structure of this account relies on the notion that Arnold wrote almost all his best poems before he wrote his best prose—an assumption that is a matter of scholarly dispute. Hamilton’s achievement in this book is to have shifted attention away from Arnold’s...
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