A Life of Matthew Arnold
While a number of life studies about Matthew Arnold have been published since his death in 1888, Nicholas Murray’s account stands out among them because of the biographer’s ability to relate the public and private domains in which Arnold moved. Believing Arnold was a fine poet who turned to criticism when his talent for versification failed him, Murray explores the events of Arnold’s life to explain how the writer gradually shifted his medium while continuing to deal with issues of importance to his Victorian contemporaries. Although he demonstrates that he is quite familiar with earlier biographies and the significant body of criticism written about Arnold, Murray relies most heavily on primary source documents—letters, diaries, notebooks, and of course Arnold’s poetry and prose—to construct his portrait. Arnold is seen emerging from the shadow of his father Thomas, legendary Headmaster of Rugby; falling in love, first with the mysterious French belle Marguerite, then with the diminutive, proper Lucy Wightman, whom he married and with whom he lived happily for nearly half a century; and dealing with the travails of being a Schools Inspector for Her Majesty’s government. Concurrently, Arnold squeezes out time to write the works which express his concern for a culture where individuals are increasingly alienated from each other and where materialism has become a dominant social and personal value.
Seen from these varying perspectives, Arnold appears more complex and more likable than he does in many previous studies, which often portray him as detached from everyday concerns and imperious in issuing pronouncements on the way his countrymen should live. Murray, a poet himself, writes with great fondness and understanding about Arnold’s verse. He is able to make sense of Arnold’s writings on education and culture, and is even apologetic for the religious works which were considered out of step by Arnold’s contemporaries and dubbed irrelevant by succeeding generations. Unlike many late twentieth century critics, Murray displays genuine affection for his subject; as a consequence, A LIFE OF MATTHEW ARNOLD provides a well-rounded and sympathetic assessment of one of England’s most influential literary figures.
Sources for Further Study
The Economist. CCCXL, July 30, 1996, p. 7.
New Criterion. XV, September, 1996, p. 127.
New Statesman and Society. IX, May 31, 1996, p. 39.
The New York Times Book Review. CII, March 16, 1997, p. 14.
The Spectator. CCLXXVI, June 8, 1997, p. 32.
The Times Literary Supplement. June 14, 1996, p. 4.
The Washington Post Book World. XXVII, February 23, 1997, p. 4.