Matthew Arnold

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

In 1939, Lionel Trilling began his famous critical biography of Matthew Arnold by saying that he had consulted almost no unpublished material and by warning readers that whatever biographical material he used was incidental to his critical purpose. Park Honan, in this new, extensively researched and documented biography, has taken just the opposite approach and might very well have begun his book by warning readers that whatever critical comments he makes are incidental to his biographical purpose. Honan says in his Preface that he was only a student when he first read Trilling’s study and that although the book challenged him, it did not take him close to Arnold’s life. In an effort to make up for that deficiency, Honan spent ten years in researching and writing Matthew Arnold: A Life, a definitive biography for the Arnold specialist and the general reader alike. Trying to find every known fact about Arnold, he pored over diaries, letters, and journals, largely unpublished, to accumulate a mass of biographical data, three-quarters of which has never before appeared in a study of Arnold.

Certainly no one can doubt the claim that this is the fullest account of Arnold’s life to date. Moreover, no one can doubt, after consulting the more than fifty pages of notes and citations, that this biography is both thoroughly researched and authoritative. It is surely clear after reading this book that one knows more about Matthew the man than ever before; however, as to whether one knows more about Matthew Arnold the poet or Matthew Arnold the critic, or even Matthew Arnold the intellectual spokesman of his age—that is another question, which involves one’s fundamental expectations of a literary biography.

Biographical literary criticism, that is, the use of a man’s life as a way of understanding his art, is a risky business and may involve the biographical critic in speculations both fanciful and farfetched. Most readers, however, come to a biography of a literary figure with the expectation of seeing at least some relationship between the man and his art. Although Honan notes in his Preface that he respects the distinction between life and art, he says that he has tried to show how Arnold defined himself in his work. Indeed, the most disappointing aspect of this massive biography is that Honan has respected the distinction between life and art too much. On the one hand, there is such a slavish regard for documentation and detail that the vitality of Arnold’s life does not come through for the general reader. What is presented is Arnold as the subject of a biography, not Arnold the re-created and rendered figure of real experience.

On the other hand, the problem with this biography for the Arnold specialist is that although Honan’s book tells a great deal about Arnold’s life, it has too little to say about what generated his art and dominated his thought. Park Honan is, by training and experience, a critic. His early book, Browning’s Characters, was one of a half dozen books published in the early 1960’s that started a revival of interest in Victorian writers. It was a book that helped to show that the Victorians were the true harbingers, both in thought and artistic technique, of the modernist method and point of view. In that light, the relative lack of critical analysis in Honan’s biography of Arnold is all the more disappointing, especially since his subject was the primary proponent of the critical spirit in the nineteenth century and one of the great critical minds of the last hundred years.

The most important early influence in the development of Matthew Arnold was that of his father, the great Dr. Thomas Arnold, Headmaster of Rugby School, and the most important problem young Matt faced was establishing his own identity as distinct from that of his father. His first reaction was a kind of rebellion, for the young Arnold was a lazy late-bloomer, although he was the eldest son and his father’s fondest hope. In his earliest years Arnold picked up the family nickname of “Crabby,” not for his disposition but because of the crablike crawl he developed as an infant; he wore leg braces until he was four. Arnold’s father was disappointed but somewhat indulgent concerning his son’s lackluster school performance. In one letter to the young Matt, the father, after learning that “Crabby” has received “unsatisfactory” twice in one week, chides: “it makes me sadly afraid that my boy Matt is an idle Boy, who thinks that God sent him into the world to play and eat and drink.”

In spite of the inauspicious beginnings of his academic career, and much to the astonishment of everyone in his family, Arnold won a Balliol College Scholarship and went to Oxford in 1841. Oxford, Honan says, was treated by Arnold as if it were a country house. On one memorable occasion, Arnold, after being scolded...

(The entire section is 1995 words.)