Culture and Anarchy Additional Summary

Matthew Arnold


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Culture and Anarchy, Arnold’s masterpiece of social criticism, was the direct result of the turbulence leading up to the second reform bill of 1867. The book comprises six essays, which were published serially in the Cornhill Magazine between 1867 and 1868 under the title “Anarchy and Authority.” At the time that Arnold was preparing these essays, anarchy in English society was very much in ascendancy. From 1866 through 1868, there were a variety of social disturbances: riots in Trafalgar Square, Fenian and trade union demonstrations, anti-Catholic rallies, and suffrage protests in the industrial cities of Birmingham and Wolverhampton.

There was a rising tide of anarchy in England, and for Arnold it seemed that the entire country was in a general state of decline. Chief among the faults leading to this condition was an appalling smugness and insularity in the English character. As Arnold saw it, the typical English citizen was narrow and circumspect in the appreciation of the higher qualities and virtues of life. The cities in which he or she lived and worked expressed no beauty in their architecture; they were sprawling, industrial conglomerations. People were smug and cantankerous, loud in their assertions of individualism and personal liberty and adamant in their dislike of centralized authority, church or state. They were, however, obsequious in their respect for size and numbers in the burgeoning British empire and in their acquiescence to the “machinery” of its ever-expanding bureaucracies. Arnold’s “typical” English citizen worshiped the materialism that generally determined societal values, but in religious matters he or she emphasized the “protest” in Protestantism and generally abhorred centralized spiritual authority. The English citizen was puritanical and inflexible.

The character of the Victorian middle class, in Arnold’s view, was woefully inadequate to meet the problems it was currently facing, problems such as a rapidly increasing population, the unchecked rise of industrialism, and the continued spread of democracy. In addition to the middle class, which Arnold identified as “Philistines,” there were two other classes to be considered: the aristocracy, identifed as the “Barbarians,” and the lower classes, termed the “Populace.” All in varying degrees were in need of culture, which Arnold defines as the pursuit “of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all matters that most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world.” Culture is the means by which to achieve the general...

(The entire section is 1065 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Further Reading

Anderson, Warren D. Matthew Arnold and the Classical Tradition. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1965. Examines Arnold’s lifelong interest in classical literature and civilization. In writing Culture and Anarchy, Arnold drew heavily on Greek thought, and he was especially influenced by Plato.

Cockshut, A. O. J. “Matthew Arnold: Conservative Revolutionary.” In Matthew Arnold: A Collection of Critical Views, edited by David J. DeLaura. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1973. Looks at Culture and Anarchy and four of Arnold’s overtly religious works to trace the basic assumptions of his religious position. Arnold’s combination of conservatism and skepticism made him seek established religion, but he also sought to change it.

Hamilton, Ian. A Gift Imprisoned: The Poetic Life of Matthew Arnold. London: Bloomsbury, 1998. A critical biography that explores the frustrations in Arnold’s life, the tension between passion and repression in his poetry, and his decision to abandon poetry for prose writing.

Jump, J. D. Matthew Arnold. London: Longmans, 1965. Reassesses the achievement of Arnold the man, the poet, and the critic. Provides an excellent and accessible introduction to Culture and Anarchy, tracing the history of composition, political and social contexts, major arguments, and the author’s intentions.

McCarthy, Patrick J. Matthew Arnold and the Three Classes. New York: Columbia University Press, 1964. A full-length study of Culture and Anarchy. Examines Arnold’s own relationships with the three classes delineated in his work. Extensive notes, index, and bibliography.

Neiman, Fraser. “Anarchy and Authority.” In Matthew Arnold. New York: Twayne, 1968. A brief but clear presentation of the major points in Culture and Anarchy, with an emphasis on explaining Arnold’s terminology. Also includes a chronology, bibliography, and thorough index.

Pratt, Linda Ray. Matthew Arnold Revisited. New York: Twayne, 2000. An updated version of Neiman’s book (above). Pratt analyzes Arnold’s works and concludes with a postmodern interpretation of his writings.

Sterner, Douglas W. Priests of Culture: A Study of Matthew Arnold and Henry James. New York: Peter Lang, 1999. Sterner focuses on Arnold’s cultural and religious criticism and also examines James’s travel literature, demonstrating how the two writers sought an ideal of “culture” as a response to the pressures of change and the crisis of faith in the nineteenth century.