Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3335
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 attempts at love, or death.
Yet neither his poems nor his prose were written in a vacuum. In 1851, Arnold became an inspector of schools, and for the next thirty-five years, he was intensely occupied with his travels in England and on the Continent, visiting schools and teacher-training colleges, administering oral and written examinations, and writing reports for the government on school conditions. This work was very demanding: In a single year (1855), for example, he visited 280 schools and institutions and examined 465 teachers and twenty thousand students. At the same time, he was building a family, to which he was deeply devoted: His appointment as inspector of schools made it economically feasible for him to marry Frances Lucy Wightman, a judge’s daughter, in 1851; they had four sons and two daughters between 1852 and 1866.
Arnold wrote most of his major poetry between 1847 and 1853. His most important volume of poetry, Empedocles on Etna, appeared in 1852. Its title poem is now regarded by many as his major poetic achievement, although “Dover Beach” is his most well-known poem. Empedocles on Etna dramatizes a Greek philosopher of the fifth century b.c.e. who chose to take his own life rather than face depression and spiritual death as a result of the split between his skeptical intellect and his feelings. Arnold decided to exclude this work from the new edition of his poems published in 1853, and in his famous preface to that volume, he explained his reasons for doing so. Arnold asserted that poetry must not only interest but also “inspirit and rejoice the reader”; it must “convey a charm, and infuse delight.” By depicting “suffering that finds no vent in action,” Empedocles on Etna, he found, produced not joy but pain. Arnold went on in his preface to theorize about the nature of poetry, to discuss the shortcomings of the poetry of his day, and to recommend ways of addressing these defects—most notably through the study of classical Greek literature and the adoption of its principles.
The 1853 preface marks a watershed in Arnold’s career as a writer. From this point onward, most of his major work was in the form of critical prose on literary, cultural, and religious topics. “Poetry,” he wrote, “is a criticism of life”; it expresses what is best in human beings and helps to civilize them. Crucial to poetry’s important office is the cultivation of the critical spirit, which Arnold defined 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 ideas.” Arnold himself became his century’s finest exemplar of that spirit. In works such as On Translating Homer (1861) and the two series of Essays in Criticism (1865 and 1888), Arnold attempted, in witty and lucid prose, to persuade his readers to combat their British insularity and contemporary narrowness by reading the literature of other places and times. He opposed the contemporary tendencies toward transitory topicality, subjectivity, vulgar shallowness, and concern with decorative fragments and advocated the classical values of universality, objectivity, moral depth, wholeness, and stylistic restraint. He was a great comparative critic, and was aware, as his father before him had been, of the need to reevaluate constantly the present in the light of the past, and the past in the light of the present.
A number of Arnold’s essays on literary topics were first delivered as lectures at Oxford University, where he was appointed for two five-year terms as professor of poetry. Among these works, “On the Modern Element in Literature” is of special note. He was required to deliver three lectures a year, and he was the first to give the lectures in English rather than Latin.
At the same time, Arnold continued his grueling career as a school inspector, and this work lent experiential authority to his criticism on educational, social, and political topics. His central achievement in that area is Culture and Anarchy (1869), a series of lectures on British political, social, and cultural life. In these lectures, he presented his idea of culture as “Sweetness and Light,” a classical ideal of human perfection balancing beauty and intelligence; he criticized the British upper, middle, and lower classes (“Barbarians, Philistines and Populace”); he contrasted and called for a proper balance of the two human tendencies of “Hebraism” (moral awareness and strictness of conscience) and “Hellenism” (the critical urge to “see things as they really are”); and he attacked the idea that freedom consists merely in “Doing As One Likes.” Although a number of his contemporaries chafed at Arnold’s strictures in his cultural criticism (one reviewer called him an “elegant Jeremiah”) he became increasingly influential in his day. Culture and Anarchy has also had an important influence on twentieth century social thinkers.
Arnold turned next to writing and lecturing about religion. He published his thoughts in four books: St. Paul and Protestantism (1870), Literature and Dogma (1873), God and the Bible (1875), and Last Essays on Church and Religion (1877). The inquiries of nineteenth century biologists and geologists, rationalist philosophers, and biblical scholars had helped create a crisis of religious faith in the minds of many Christians. The Bible no longer appeared to be literally true, and much religious dogma had been called into question. In the light of these developments, Arnold’s effort in his writings on religion was to define an intellectually honest approach to Christian faith, to preserve the spirit, if not adhere strictly to the letter (codified dogma and biblical fundamentalism), of Christianity, and to reassert the vital connection between faith and morality: “Religion is that which binds and holds us to the practice of righteousness.”
In the late 1870’s and early 1880’s, Arnold wrote more essays about politics and literature; “The Study of Poetry,” one of his most famous essays on literature, appeared in 1880. He made two visits to the United States: a lecture tour in 1883-1884 and a visit to his daughter, who had married an American, in the summer of 1886, just after he retired from school inspecting. Of all of his prose writings, the one he wanted most to be remembered for was Discourses in America (1885), three lectures from his tour: “Numbers: Or, The Majority and the Remnant,” “Literature and Science,” and “Emerson.”
Arnold died of a heart attack in a suburb of Liverpool on April 15, 1888, at the age of sixty-five. He was buried at Laleham, the town where he was born, next to the graves of three sons who had died early. He was survived by his wife, Fanny Lucy, who died in 1901, and by two daughters and a son.
In an 1859 letter, Matthew Arnold wrote:
My poems represent . . . the main movement of mind of the last quarter of a century. . . . It might be fairly urged that I have less poetical sentiment than Tennyson, and less intellectual vigour and abundance than Browning; yet, because I have perhaps more of a fusion of the two than either of them, and have more regularly applied that fusion to the main line of modern development, I am likely enough to have my turn, as they have had theirs.
Arnold’s self-estimate was prescient. His poetry articulates the problems and feelings of an age that is modern, and much of it is remarkably relevant to twentieth century society. Among Victorian poets, his importance is surpassed only by that of Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Robert Browning.
Arnold’s legacy as a critic is even more significant. More than anyone else in the nineteenth century, he helped shape the course of literary studies and values in the modern university. His cultural and religious criticism has also been very influential. It continues to foster intellectual curiosity, a humanistic outlook, and deep moral awareness. His lucid and urbane style and tone have established him as one of the great masters of English prose.
Arnold, Matthew. The Complete Prose Works of Matthew Arnold. Edited by R. H. Super. 11 vols. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1960-1977. The standard edition of Arnold’s prose. Includes comprehensive critical and explanatory notes.
Arnold, Matthew. Letters of Matthew Arnold, 1848-1888. Edited by G. W. E. Russell. 2 vols. New York: Macmillan, 1895. The standard edition of Arnold’s letters. It is not complete, however, and many of the letters are abridged.
Arnold, Matthew. The Letters of Matthew Arnold to Arthur Hugh Clough. Edited by Howard F. Lowry. London: Oxford University Press, 1932. These letters are an important record of Arnold’s friendship with Clough; in them Arnold develops many of his ideas about poetry and life in the nineteenth century.
Arnold, Matthew. The Poems of Matthew Arnold. Edited by Kenneth Allott. London: Longman, 1965, 2d ed. 1979. The second edition is the first fully annotated edition of Arnold’s poems. Includes previously unpublished material. The poems are arranged by order of composition, and the editor includes informative headnotes about the composition, publication, and historical and biographical backgrounds of each poem.
Bloom, Harold. Matthew Arnold: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Gathers together ten critical articles written between 1940 and 1986, representing a variety of critical approaches and analyzing the poetry and prose works of Matthew Arnold. Contains chronology, bibliography, and index.
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.
Culler, A. Dwight. Imaginative Reason: The Poetry of Matthew Arnold. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1966. The best study of Arnold’s poetry.
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 prose and back to his poetry.
Honan, Park. Matthew Arnold: A Life. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981. A definitive biography of Arnold, accessible to the general reader and illuminating to the scholar. Most of this biographical information had never before appeared in print. The biography is lively as well as thoroughly researched and documented. Includes a generous index.
Machann, Clinton. Matthew Arnold: A Literary Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. This study is a succinct and well-articulated exposition of Arnold’s intellectual and literary concerns, spanning his career in chronological chapters. Emphasizes Arnold’s achievement as an essayist: His ethical, interpretive, and instructional concerns are given full play, and due allowance is made for both the scope and limitations of his vision.
Mazzeno, Laurence W. Matthew Arnold: The Critical Legacy. Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 1999. Mazzeno surveys the critical response to Arnold. Resembling an annotated bibliography in that it treats its material item by item, this is a book for those interested in the scholarship on Arnold.
Murray, Nicholas. A Life of Matthew Arnold. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. A biographical study that critically examines Arnold’s work. (See Magill’s Literary Annual review)
Neiman, Fraser. Matthew Arnold. New York: Twayne, 1968. This fine introduction to Arnold’s wide-ranging work presents only enough biographical information to give shape and meaning to the analysis of Arnold’s writing. Presents the study of Arnold’s thought as a way into the study of mid-Victorian thought. Includes a chronology and a brief annotated bibliography.
Tinker, C. B., and H. F. Lowry. The Poetry of Matthew Arnold: A Commentary. New York: Russell and Russell, 1940. A useful companion to Arnold’s poems, including interpretation and information on sources and backgrounds.
Trilling, Lionel. Matthew Arnold. Rev. ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1949. This “intellectual biography” is an early but still unsurpassed study of Arnold’s thought. Clear and insightful, it is a standard critical work on Arnold. Includes an extensive bibliography of early studies.