Matthew Arnold Arnold, Matthew

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(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...

(The entire section is 133,330 words.)