Matthew Arnold Arnold, Matthew - Essay


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Matthew Arnold 1822–-1888

English poet, critic, and essayist. See also, criticism on Culture and Anarchy: An Essay in Political and Social Criticism.

Arnold is considered one of the most significant writers of the late Victorian period in England. He initially established his reputation as a poet of elegiac verse, and such poems as “The Scholar-Gipsy” and “Dover Beach” are considered classics for their subtle, restrained style and compelling expression of spiritual malaise. However, it was through his prose writing that Arnold asserted his greatest influence on literature. His writings on the role of literary criticism in society advance classical ideals and advocate the adoption of universal aesthetic standards.

Biographical Information

Arnold was the eldest son of Thomas Arnold, an influential educator who served as headmaster of Rugby School for a number of years. Arnold himself attended Rugby from 1837 to 1841, and it was while he was a student there that he composed the prize-winning poem Alaric at Rome, which was published in 1840. After graduating from Balliol College at Oxford in 1844, Arnold accepted a teaching post at the university and continued to write verse, publishing The Strayed Reveller, and Other Poems in 1849. Two years later he was appointed inspector of schools, a position he held until shortly before his death.

Arnold focused his energies on poetry until 1853, when he became critical of Romantic expressions of emotion in poetry. For the remaining thirty-five years of his literary career, Arnold wrote numerous essays and reviews on literary, educational, and cultural issues; his controversial perspective on Christianity provoked the outrage of conservative politicians and religious thinkers. He died of heart failure on April 15, 1888.

Major Works

In 1852, Arnold released a collection entitled Empedocles on Etna, and Other Poems. The following year, he reissued the collection without its title poem. Explaining his actions in his preface to the reissued collection, an essay that has become one of his most significant critical statements, Arnold denounced the emotional and stylistic excesses of late Romantic poetry and outlined a poetic theory derived from Aristotelian principles of unity and decorum. He also stated that some of his own works, most notably the dramatic poem “Empedocles on Etna,” were flawed by Romantic self-absorption, and that he had therefore decided to suppress those most affected. Critics suggest that Arnold's recognition of the pervasive Romantic tendencies of his poetry, which conflicted dramatically with his classicist critical temperament, ultimately led him to abandon poetry as a form of self-expression.

Arnold's first major prose works, On Translating Homer and The Popular Education of France, with Notices of That of Holland and Switzerland, both published in 1861, inaugurated his career as a highly visible and sometimes controversial literary and social critic. With the appearance of St. Paul and Protestantism, with an Essay on Puritanism and the Church of England in 1870, Arnold's focus shifted to theological issues, particularly what he viewed as a crisis of religious faith in Victorian society. Arnold attributed this crisis to the conflict between the prevailing influence of scientific rationalism and the intransigence of conservative theology. His solution was a liberal, symbolic interpretation of biblical scripture, presented in Literature and Dogma: An Essay towards a Better Apprehension of the Bible (1873), the publication of which caused an immediate uproar among conservative Church leaders and religious theorists. Two years later Arnold answered his critics in God and the Bible: A Review of Objections to “Literature and Dogma” (1875), affirming his rejection of religious orthodoxy. During his final years, Arnold made two tours of the United States and recorded his overwhelmingly negative assessment of American culture in Civilization in the United States: First and Last Impressions of America (1888).

Arnold's prose writings articulate his desire to establish universal standards of taste and judgment. In his highly regarded Essays in Criticism (1865), he elaborates on this key principle, defining the role of critical inquiry 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 ideals.” For Arnold this endeavor should not be limited to literature, but should embrace theology, history, art history, science, sociology, and political theory, with pertinent standards drawn from all periods of world history. Arnold's approach was markedly eclectic, and in “The Literary Influence of the Academies,” the second of the Essays in Criticism, he pointedly contrasts the isolation of English intellectuals with European urbanity, hoping to foster in his own country the sophisticated cosmopolitanism enjoyed by writers and critics on the European continent. Similarly, Culture and Anarchy: An Essay in Political and Social Criticism (1869), widely viewed as one of Arnold's most important works, was motivated by his desire to redress what he saw as the smug provincialism and arrogance of English society. The essay is a sociopolitical analysis of England's class structure in which Arnold identifies three major classes: Barbarians (the aristocracy), Philistines (the middle class), and the Populace (the lower class). While Arnold praised the aristocracy for their refined manners and social assurance, he also condemned them for their conservatism. “Philistines” Arnold considered hopelessly uncouth though innovative and energetic. The lower class he dismissed as an ineffectual, inchoate mass. Arnold argued that as the middle class gradually assumed control of English politics, they must be transformed from their unpolished state into a sensitive, sophisticated, intellectual community. The alternative, he contended, would be a dissolution of England's moral and cultural standards. Arnold also endorsed the eventual creation of a classless society in which every individual would subscribe to highly refined ideals based on the culture of ancient Greece.

Critical Reception

Critics generally view Arnold's poetry as a reflection of a spiritual dilemma that was innately Victorian, experienced by people who, in the words of Arnold's “Scholar-Gipsy,” “were caught” between “two worlds, one dead / the other powerless to be born.” The “dead” world is widely interpreted as a metaphoric evocation of the early Romantic movement, during which Western culture was reinvigorated by newly developed humanist and democratic ideals, while the “unborn” world is considered to be a not-yet-realized society in which the scientific materialism of industrialized nations would be tempered by a highly developed state of cultural enlightenment. Although Arnold strove to imitate classical Greek and Roman models in his poetry, critics agree that his work manifests Romantic subjectivism. Many of his poems assume the form of a soliloquy or confession in which the narrator communicates feelings of melancholy or regret. However, Arnold's essentially Romantic sentiments are praised for the precisely wrought and measured manner in which they are expressed.

Critical scholarship attests to Arnold's prescience in his prose writings, in forecasting the problems and possibilities that would arise with the transition from an aristocratic society to a democratic one. Arnold's conception of culture, frequently read as strongly conservative, has recently been reevaluated as suggesting a model of critical and “imaginative reason” that continues to guide literary theory. In discussing Arnold's place in modern literature studies, Timothy Peltason notes that although Arnold's name has long been considered “shorthand … for … cultural conservatism,” there is a misunderstanding among many scholars and critics regarding what Arnold actually wrote and said. According to Peltason, Arnold did not endorse “received cultural values,” nor did he passively accept the value of accredited masterpieces. Instead, contends Peltason, Arnold focused his writing and scholarship on an examination of how things “work for us here and now.” This interest in maintaining the value of culture and using criticism to stress that value to society was a central theme in Arnold's prose works. In an essay comparing Arnold's “The Function of Criticism” to T. S. Eliot's essay of the same name, critic Terence Hawkes notes that both writers consider criticism a seminal tool in helping society objectively examine its failures and successes. Hawkes relates that the role of criticism as described by Arnold and his contemporaries is often haunted by the notion that it is secondary to the actual happening. Instead, says Hawkes, Arnold himself viewed criticism as a necessary and complementary act to the primary text or idea it was examining, often serving to illustrate uncanny and noteworthy aspects not inherent in the original text or incident. Recent scholarship on Arnold has acknowledged that Arnold's writing reflects the tensions of modern literature, particularly his remarks on aesthetic judgment, and his attempts to formulate a theory of the role of criticism in culture. His integration of social criticism and literary analysis, says Stefan Collini, is acknowledged as his most significant and lasting achievement. In Collini's words, Arnold “characterized in unforgettable ways the role that criticism—that kind of literary criticism that is also cultural criticism, and thus … a sort of informal political theory—can and must play in modern societies.”

Principal Works

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Alaric at Rome (poetry) 1840

The Strayed Reveller, and Other Poems (poetry) 1849

Empedocles on Etna, and Other Poems (poetry) 1852

Poems (poetry) 1853

Poems: Second Series (poetry) 1855

Merope (verse drama) 1858

On Translating Homer (lectures) 1861

The Popular Education of France, with Notices of That of Holland and Switzerland (essay) 1861

Essays in Criticism (criticism) 1865

New Poems (poetry) 1867

On the Study of Celtic Literature (criticism) 1867

Culture and Anarchy: An Essay in Political and Social Criticism (essay) 1869

St. Paul and Protestantism, with an Essay on Puritanism and the Church of England (essay) 1869

Literature and Dogma: An Essay towards a Better Apprehension of the Bible (essay) 1873

God and the Bible: A Review of Objections to “Literature and Dogma” (essay) 1875

Mixed Essays (essays) 1879

Discourses in America (lectures) 1885

Civilization in the United States: First and Last Impressions of America (essay) 1888

Essays in Criticism: Second Series (criticism) 1888

Letters of Matthew Arnold, 1848-1888 (letters) 1895

Matthew Arnold's Notebooks (notebooks) 1902

The Works of Matthew Arnold 15 vols. (criticism, essays, lectures, and poetry) 1903-04

The Letters of Matthew Arnold to Arthur Hugh Clough (letters) 1932

The Poetical Works of Matthew Arnold (poetry) 1950

Complete Prose Works (criticism, lectures, and essays) 1960-77

Barbara Fass Leavy (essay date 1980)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Iseult of Brittany: A New Interpretation of Matthew Arnold's Tristram and Iseult,” in Arthurian Women: A Casebook, edited by Thelma S. Fisher, Garland Publishing, 1996, pp. 205-28.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1980, Leavy argues that Arnold's sympathetic portrayal of Iseult, especially the fantasy world she has created for herself to help cope with the monotony of her existence, is an astute example of “female fantasy in nineteenth-century literature.”]

Matthew Arnold was pleased with his version of the Tristram and Iseult legend. He was especially proud of having gotten to the story before Richard Wagner popularized it, and...

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David G. Riede (essay date 1988)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Love Poetry: Sincerity and Subversive Voices,” in Matthew Arnold and the Betrayal of Language, University Press of Virginia, 1988, pp. 163-203.

[In the following essay, Riede discusses Arnold's love poetry and his frustration with the inadequacy of human speech.]

The conventions and consolatory purposes of elegy put enormous pressure on poetic language to say the utmost that can be said about life, death, and the hereafter. Indeed, elegy tempts the poet to say more than can be justly said, excuses the flattering fictions and the consoling lie. Similarly, love poetry involves sets of conventions that may tempt the poet to excess, to flattery, seductive...

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Mary W. Schneider (essay date 1989)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Great Work of Criticism,” in Poetry in the Age of Democracy: The Literary Criticism of Matthew Arnold, University Press of Kansas, 1989, pp. 103-34.

[In the following essay, Schneider reviews the major themes in Arnold's Essays in Criticism, including the role of literary criticism, modernity, and the distinctive natures of poetry and prose.]

When Arnold collected the best of his articles for Essays in Criticism (1865), he wrote an introductory essay that in its general theory sought to explain his own recent criticism and to work out new answers to the old questions. “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” asserted once more...

(The entire section is 12370 words.)

Tony Pinkney (essay date 1992)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Matthew Arnold and the Subject of Modernity,” in Critical Survey, Vol. 4, No. 3, 1992, pp. 226-32.

[In the following essay, Pinkney emphasizes the continuities between Arnold's account of the detached subject of literature's emergence and more recent elaborations on the death of the subject.]

One thing which traditionalist and radical literary critics tend to agree on, however bitterly they fight over everything else, is the idea that a decisive transformation or what the French Marxist Louis Althusser might have termed a coupure épistémologique has taken place in English studies over the last twenty or so years. Both sides, naturally, have a...

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Stefan Collini (essay date 1993)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Arnold,” in Victorian Thinkers, Oxford University Press, 1993, pp. 27-47.

[In the following essay, Collini surveys Arnold's poetic achievements, focusing on such works as “Empedocles on Etna,” the Switzerland poems, and “Dover Beach.”]

The collected prose works of Matthew Arnold occupy eleven fat volumes; the complete poetry, even when fleshed out with notes, variants, and appendices, fits easily into one volume in any of the several modern editions in which it has appeared. Though any rounded account of his achievement must to some extent reflect these proportions, such crude quantities tell us little about the relative value or enduring...

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Lionel Gossman (essay date 1994)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Philhellenism and Antisemitism: Matthew Arnold and his German Models,” in Comparative Literature, Vol. 46, No. 1, Winter, 1994, pp. 1-39.

[In the following essay, Gossman claims that Arnold's criticisms of “Hebraism” obscure a vision of society that is inclusive of both culture and religion and that his work cannot be equated with antisemitism.]

No one says it, but every one knows that pantheism is an open secret in Germany. We have, in fact, outgrown deism. We are free and don’t want any thundering tyrant. We are of age and need no parental care. Nor are we the botches of any great mechanic. Deism is a religion for servants, for...

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Terence Hawkes (essay date 1994)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Heimlich Manoeuvre,” inTextual Practice, Vol. 8, No. 2, Summer, 1994, pp. 302-16.

[In the following essay, Hawkes analyzes Arnold's understanding of the role of criticism in culture, asserting that, like T. S. Eliot, Arnold views the role of English literature criticism as the mirror that reflects the “true nature of English national culture.”]


I will focus on two eruptions. The first occurs in the middle of Matthew Arnold's essay of 1864, ‘The Function Of Criticism At The Present Time’. Arnold has been addressing the linked questions of the true nature of English literary criticism on the one hand and the...

(The entire section is 6807 words.)

Timothy Peltason (essay date 1994)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Function of Matthew Arnold at the Present Time,” in College English, Vol. 56, No. 7, November, 1994, pp. 749-65.

[In the following essay, Peltason contests the characterization of Arnold as a cultural conservative and emphasizes his continued significance as a literary theorist.]

In recent debates about cultural politics, Matthew Arnold's name regularly appears as a kind of shorthand for a familiar and long discredited form of cultural conservatism. Sometimes it is not Arnold's name, but just a phrase, “the best that is known and thought” or “sweetness and light,” quoted without attribution and taken to represent an uncritical endorsement of...

(The entire section is 8337 words.)

Alan Grob (essay date 1996)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Arnold's ‘The Scholar-Gipsy’: The Use and Abuse of History,” in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 34, No. 2, Summer, 1996, pp. 149-74.

[In the following essay, Grob contends that Arnold's later poetry and his prose represent a fundamental break from a “predominantly metaphysical mode … of explanation” of the human condition to a philosophy of cyclical history that was closely aligned with prevailing Victorian intellectual tendencies.]

After the publication in 1849 of The Strayed Reveller, And Other Poems, Arnold's poetry conceptually underwent something of a midcourse correction, a tentatively taken turn from predominantly metaphysical modes of...

(The entire section is 11503 words.)

Donald D. Stone (essay date 1997)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Arnold and the Pragmatists: Culture as Democracy,” in Communications with the Future: Matthew Arnold in Dialogue, University of Michigan Press, 1997, pp. 139-74.

[In the following essay, Stone claims that despite Arnold's largely unfavorable view of American culture, he appealed to American intellectuals and that his philosophy has been an inspiration for many American pragmatists, including John Dewey and William James.]

I am more and more convinced that the world tends to become more comfortable for the mass, and more uncomfortable for those of any natural gift or distinction—and it is as well perhaps that it should be so—for...

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Douglas W. Sterner (essay date 1999)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Matthew Arnold, The Apostle of Culture,” in Priests of Culture: A Study of Matthew Arnold and Henry James, Peter Lang, 1999, pp. 23-67.

[In the following essay, Sterner studies Arnold's conception of culture and the implications of this ideal for his evaluation of modernity.]

Culture is then properly described not as having its origin in curiosity, but as having its origin in the love of perfection; it is a study of perfection. It moves by the force, not merely or primarily of the scientific passion for pure knowledge, but also of the moral and social passion for doing good. … there is no better motto which it can have than...

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Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


Tollers, Vincent L., ed. A Bibliography of Matthew Arnold, 1932-1970. University Park: Pennsylvania State University, 1974, 172 p.

Compiles primary and secondary sources on Arnold's poetry and prose writings. Coverage of secondary sources is limited to 1932-1970.


Honan, Park. Matthew Arnold: A Life. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983, 496 p.

Definitive biography aimed at both Arnold specialists and general readers.

Rowse, A. L. Matthew Arnold: Poet and Prophet. London: Thames and Hudson, 1976, 208 p.


(The entire section is 935 words.)