Arnold, Matthew

views updated Jun 08 2018

Matthew Arnold

BORN: 1822, Laleham on the Thames, England

DIED: 1888, Liverpool, England


GENRE: Poetry, criticism

Poems (1853)
New Poems (1867)
“Dover Beach” (1867)
Culture and Anarchy (1869)
Literature and Dogma (1873)


Matthew Arnold's work deals with the difficulty of preserving personal values in a world drastically transformed by industrialism, science, and democracy. His poetry often expresses a sense of unease with modernity. He asserted his greatest influence through his prose writings as a social critic, calling for a renewal of art and culture. His forceful literary criticism, based on his humanistic belief in the value of balance and clarity in literature, significantly shaped modern theory.

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Child of the Headmaster Arnold was the eldest son of Dr. Thomas Arnold, an influential educator who became, in 1828, headmaster of the prestigious Rugby School. His family took many pleasant holidays in England's Lake District where they became acquainted with William Wordsworth. Much of the imagery in Arnold's landscape poetry was inspired by the locale.

Arnold's poetic landscapes also are indebted to the region around Oxford University, which Arnold attended after being offered a scholarship in 1840. At Oxford he met Arthur Hugh Clough, who became his close friend and correspondent. After leaving Oxford, Arnold took a temporary post as assistant master at Rugby for one term before accepting a position in London as private secretary to the politician Lord Lansdowne.

Success as a Poet While holding this position, Arnold wrote some of his finest poems. He published them, signed with the initial A., in two separate volumes: The Strayed Reveller and Other Poems (1849) and Empedocles on Etna, and Other Poems (1852). Arnold published the bulk of his poetry, including Poems in 1853, in the eight years following the publication of The Strayed Reveller. However, his best-known poem, “Dover Beach,” was not published until 1867. The poem, often viewed as a meditation on the importance of love, describes a locale on the coast of England that Arnold is said to have visited in 1851.

Oxford Lectures At the age of thirty-four, Arnold was elected to the poetry chair at Oxford University, an appointment that required him to deliver several lectures each year. Traditionally, the lectures had been read in Latin, but Arnold decided to present his in English. He used the occasion of his first lecture in 1857 to discuss his views about the worth of classical literature. In the first lecture, entitled “On the Modern Element in Literature,” later published in Macmillan's magazine (1869), Arnold advocates a liberal education that features wide-ranging knowledge and the use of the comparative method to build knowledge and to shape understanding.

Arnold's next major prose work, On Translating Homer, was a series of three lectures given at Oxford in 1860 and 1861. In these essays, he evaluates selected translations of Homer, noting the strengths and weaknesses of each in an attempt to establish the characteristics of a well-written translation. They are lively introductions to classical poetry and urge English writers to imitate Homer's “grand style”

Social Criticism In his prose works, Arnold pursued many of the same ideas he had introduced in his poems, especially man's need for spiritual and intellectual fulfillment in a materialistic, provincial society. In his Oxford lectures and in his education reports, Arnold suggested a single solution to humankind's problems—a liberal education. As an essayist, Arnold continued to address the subject of intellectual and spiritual growth.

Of the several books that Arnold wrote on politics and sociology, the most important is Culture and Anarchy (1869). He criticizes nineteenth-century English politicians for their lack of purpose and their excessive concern with the machinery of society. The English people—and the narrow-minded middle class in particular—lack “sweetness and light,” a phrase that Arnold borrowed from Jonathan Swift. England can only be saved by the development of “culture,” which for Arnold means the free play of critical intelligence and a willingness to question all authority and to make judgments in a leisurely and disinterested way.

The subject of four of Arnold's books was the threat to religion posed by science and historical scholarship. The most important of these is Literature and Dogma (1873). He argues that the Bible has the importance of a supremely great literary work, and as such it cannot be discredited by charges of historical inaccuracy. And the Church, like any other time-honored social institution, must be reformed with care and with a sense of its historical importance to English culture.

Arnold focused on social and literary topics during the last ten to twelve years of his life, offering more elaborate or definitive statements of his views on matters that had long interested him. In 1883 and 1886 he toured the United States and gave lectures in which he tried to win Americans to the cause of culture. Many of Arnold's late essays deal with literature and, more specifically, with sound criticism of literature. The best known of his later collections is Essays in Criticism, Second Series, which Arnold began discussing with his publisher in January of 1888, but which was not actually printed until November of that year, seven months after Arnold's sudden death from a heart attack

Works in Literary Context

Emptiness One of the dominant themes of Arnold's poems is that of the intellectual and spiritual void he believed to be characteristic of nineteenth-century life. Looking about him, he witnessed the weakening of traditional areas of authority, namely the dwindling power of the upper classes and the diminishing authority of the Church. He believed man had no firm base to cling to, nothing to believe in, nothing to be sustained by.

Arnold's early poetry, such as Alaric at Rome (1840), had the brooding tone that would become characteristic of his mature work. In “To Marguerite—Continued,” he concludes that the individual is essentially isolated. The theme of man's alienation and longing for refuge is echoed in later poems such as “Rugby Chapel” and “Dover Beach”

Influences For Arnold, the German poet Heinrich Heine truly possessed the critical spirit. Heine cherished the French spirit of enlightenment and waged “a life and

death battle with Philistinism,” the narrowness Arnold saw typified in the British. Arnold felt that the English romantics had failed to reinstitute the critical spirit. The German romantic Heine, however, he believed, was able to accomplish what the English romantics could not.

Despite his criticism, however, the two romantics Arnold held in highest esteem were Lord Byron and William Wordsworth. He praised Byron at length for his stand on social injustice, and ranked Wordsworth only after William Shakespeare, Moliére, John Milton, and Johann von Goethe in his list of the premier poets of “the last two or three centuries.”

Works in Critical Context

Poetry As E. D. H. Johnson has pointed out, Arnold tried “to reaffirm the traditional sovereignty of poetry as a civilizing agent.” Arnold believed that great art, functioning as a civilizing agent to enrich the intellectual and spiritual life of man, had universal application. But his views were not the same as those of his contemporaries, who felt that art should have immediate, practical application to everyday experience.

Arnold's first collection, The Strayed Reveller (1849) was a failure; sales were poor and the book was withdrawn. Empedocles on Etna, and Other Poems (1852), after a sale of only fifty copies, also was withdrawn. Critics charged that Arnold's first two volumes of poems did not consistently deal with contemporary life. Charles Kingsley's comments in 1849 are representative: “The man who cannot … sing the present age, and transfigure it into melody, or who cannot, in writing of past ages, draw from them some eternal lesson about this one, has no right to be versifying at all.”

Poems (1853) included works from the two earlier collections as well as new ones, notably “Sohrab and Rustum” and “The Scholar Gypsy.” That volume contains his famous preface outlining why he did not include the title poem from Empedocles on Etna, and Other Poems. Arnold declared that it did not fulfill the requirements of a good poem and therefore did not qualify as meaningful art. Alba Warren explains that “great poetry for Arnold is not lyric, subjective, personal; it is above all objective and impersonal.” H. F. Lowry says of Arnold that “[t]he deepest passion of his life was for what is permanent in the human mind and the human heart,” and that he found this in classical literature.

Because, perhaps, of the mournful tone of his verse, Arnold was not a popular poet in his day. However, many of his poems—most notably “The Scholar-Gypsy,” “Empedocles on Etna,” “Thyrsis,” and “Dover Beach”—are still studied and respected as some of the best verse of the Victorian period. T. S. Eliot stated that “the valuation of the Romantic poets, in academic circles, is still very largely that which Arnold made.”

Culture and Its Enemies ” In “Culture and Its Enemies,” published in the Cornhill Magazine in 1867 and later included in Culture and Anarchy, Arnold continues to wage war against complacency. But his views were met with considerable scorn. Readers claimed that he was an elitist, a snob, and they labeled his ideas inadequately developed and impractical. Henry Sidgwick found the essay “over-ambitious, because it treats of the most profound and difficult problems of individual and social life with an airy dogmatism that ignores their depth and difficulty.”

Arnold responded to his critics in a series of five essays published in 1868, entitled “Anarchy and Authority.” In the essay series Arnold continues his championship of culture by stressing the present need for it.

Essays on Religion Arnold also championed religion as a profound cultural force. However, Ruth Roberts shows that Arnold is guilty of “overingenuity” in his religious works. His argument is not as disinterested as he claims, and he often glosses over biblical passages inconsistent with his position. For Arnold, the Bible was literature and must be read as such. J. C. Shairp, a contemporary of Arnold's, argued, “They who seek religion for culture-sake are aesthetic, not religious.” The same charge was later echoed by T. S. Eliot, who found that Arnold had confused “poetry and morals in the attempt to find a substitute for religious faith.”


Arnold's famous contemporaries include:

Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919): American industrialist and businessman; made his fortune in the steel industry

Charles Darwin (1809–1882): English naturalist who, with A. R. Wallace, first introduced the idea of natural selection

Charles Dickens (1812–1870): English novelist and journalist, whose writing often commented on the lives of the poor

George Eliot (1819–1880): Pen name of Mary Ann Evans; English novelist who emphasized realistic plots and characters

Karl Marx (1818–1883): Prussian philosopher and revolutionary; developed the theory of communism with Friedrich Engels; author of Das Kapital (1867), criticizing capitalism.

George Sand (1804–1876): Pen name of Amantine Dupin; French novelist and feminist; stated that women should have the same rights within marriage as men

Basil Willey summarized Arnold's view in Literature and Dogma as being a “false approach to the Bible which seeks to extract dogma from poetry.” Unsurprisingly, Literature and Dogma stirred even more controversys

than his previous religious works. Many of Arnold's critics were clergymen, such as John Tulloch, who was not alone in accusing Arnold of dabbling in “amateur theology.”

The Study of Poetry ” One of Arnold's most important later essays, “The Study of Poetry,” first appeared in 1880 as the introduction to The English Poets, an anthology edited by T. Humphry Ward. R. H. Super reminds that the essay was intended “to give some guidance to a middle-class public not sophisticated in the reading of poetry.” “The Study of Poetry” no more remained unchallenged than had any of Arnold's other works. Many, including contemporary critics, have disagreed with Arnold's choice of touchstone passages, and many have taken offense at Arnold's pronouncements about the merits of individual authors. Despite such objections, the essay remains an historically important piece of criticism and an important guide to Arnold's own tastes.

As John Holloway observes, in Arnold's prose, it is “his handling of problems” that is more important than his solutions to them. One of Arnold's contemporaries, John Burroughs, writing two months after Arnold's death, claimed that Matthew Arnold deserved to be read extensively, for only then could he be fully appreciated. In Arnold's prose, Burroughs wrote, “his effect is cumulative; he hits a good many times in the same place, and his work as a whole makes a deeper impression than any single essay of his would seem to warrant.”

Responses to Literature

  1. Look up several definitions of culture. What does today's popular culture—movies, music, TV shows, books—say about American culture as a whole? Does “American culture” mean different things depending on someone's gender or ethnicity? Should it?
  2. What is the point of education? Should it broaden students' minds, or should it focus on practical results? Is it more worthwhile to learn about interesting things you may never use, or to learn practical things, even if they're less exciting?
  3. Arnold thought art should be a “civilizing agent.” What does he mean by that? Is it patronizing to think that art should improve people? Should art shock, anger, calm, or excite people? Write a paper discussing your views of the purpose of art today, using specific examples.
  4. One criticism of Arnold's poetry was that he did not deal with contemporary issues. Does poetry have to be contemporary to be effective? Research three poets from different eras, and write a paper examining how—or whether—their time period affects their current relevance.


Anxiety about the rapidly changing world characterized much of Victorian literature and is a theme echoed in Arnold's poetry. He evokes feelings of isolation, loneliness, and fear of the future. Recent scientific discoveries made people question religion's place in their lives, but without religion, people are essentially alone. Here are some other works that examine feelings of isolation and emptiness:

Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger. Three days in the life of an alienated teenage boy, who rebels against the smug adult world.

Lament for the Dorsets by Al Purdy. Elegy for a civilization that died out because it was unable to survive in changing conditions.

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert. A middle-class woman struggles to find fulfillment through a realization of her romantic fantasies of love and wealth.

Shizuko's Daughter by Kyoko Mori. Growing up in Japan, a girl is lonely, partly because she does not relate to others who accept their status in life without questioning it.

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. A wealthy yet spiritually empty Hindu goes on a quest to explore the deepest meaning of life and the self.



Culler, A. Dwight. The Imaginative Reason: The Poetry of Matthew Arnold. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1966.

Eliot, T. S. “Matthew Arnold.” In The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism. London: Faber & Faber, 1933.

Lowry, H. F., ed. The Letters of Matthew Arnold to Arthur Hugh Clough. London: Oxford University Press, 1932.

Madden, William A. Matthew Arnold: A Study of the Aesthetic Temperament in Victorian England. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1967.

Russell, G. W. E., ed. Letters of Matthew Arnold, 1848–1888. London: Macmillan, 1895.

Trilling, Lionel. Matthew Arnold. New York: Meridian, 1939.


Buckler, William. “Studies in Three Arnold Problems.” PMLA 73 (1958): 260–69.

Donovan, Robert. “The Method of Arnold's Essays in Criticism.” PMLA 71 (1956): 922–31.

Goodheart, Eugene, George Levine, Morris Dickstein, and Stuart M. Tave. “The Function of Matthew

Arnold at the Present Time.” Critical Inquiry 9 (March 1983).

Matthew Arnold

views updated May 11 2018

Matthew Arnold

The most characteristic work of the English poet and critic Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) deals with the difficulty of preserving personal values in a world drastically transformed by industrialism, science, and democracy.

Matthew Arnold was born at Laleham on the Thames on Dec. 24, 1822. His father, Dr. Thomas Arnold, one of the worthies whom Lytton Strachey was to portray somewhat critically in Eminent Victorians, became the celebrated master of Rugby School, and his ideals of Christian education were influential. As a young man, Matthew Arnold saw something of William Wordsworth, Robert Southey, and other veterans of English romanticism. Educated at Rugby and then at Balliol College, Oxford, he early began to write poetry. The closest friend of his youth was Arthur Hugh Clough, a poet and sometime disciple of Dr. Arnold, whose death Matthew Arnold would later mourn in his elegy "Thyrsis."

In 1844 Arnold took a second-class honors degree at Oxford, and the following year he was elected to a fellowship at Oriel College. After some teaching he became private secretary to Lord Lansdowne, who eventually had him appointed to an inspectorship of schools, a difficult, demanding job which required Arnold to do a good deal of traveling and which he held for most of his life.

Several of Arnold's early poems express his hopeless love for a girl he calls Marguerite. Scholars have been unable to identify an original for this girl, and whether she existed at all is a question. In 1851 Arnold married Frances Lucy Wightman, the daughter of a judge. The marriage was a happy one, and some of Arnold's most attractive poems are addressed to his children.

Career as a Poet

In 1849 Arnold, under the pseudonym "A," published a collection of short lyric poems called The Strayed Reveller; the sale was poor and the book was withdrawn. In 1852 he published another collection, Empedocles on Etna and Other Poems, but this too, after a sale of 50 copies, was withdrawn. Two poems in this collection, however, require special notice. The first, "Empedocles on Etna," is in dramatic form, though it consists mostly of a series of monologues in which the hero, a Sicilian philosopher, meditates on the transient glories and satisfactions of human life and then throws himself into the volcano. The second is Arnold's long poem on Tristram and Iseult, which again uses the monologue form. Tristram, watched over by Iseult of Brittany, is dying; he remembers his past happiness with Iseult of lreland, who arrives just before he dies for a brief, passionate reunion.

In 1853 Arnold published a collection called simply Poems; it included poems from the two earlier collections as well as others never before published, notably "Sohrab and Rustum" and "The Scholar Gypsy." The former is a short epic; in style it is frequently reminiscent of John Milton but very beautiful in its own right. The Persian hero Rustum has never seen his son Sohrab, who is raised by the Tatars and becomes one of the bravest of their warriors. The two men meet in single combat, and just as the son recognizes his father, the former falls dead. "The Scholar Gypsy" is based on an old story of an Oxford student who left his university and joined a gypsy band; his spirit is supposed still to haunt the Oxford countryside. The poem contrasts the life of the legendary gypsy with Arnold's own times, which he finds sick, divided, and distracting.

Poems: Second Series (1855) includes another small blank-verse epic, "Balder Dead." Arnold takes his subject from Norse mythology. Balder, god of the sun, has been killed by a trick of the evil Loki, god of mischief. The gods mourn his death, and Hermod goes to the land of the shades to persuade Hela to return Balder to the land of the living. Hela agrees on condition that all living things mourn for Balder; and so they do, with the fatal exception of Loki. Balder is resigned to his death, and at the conclusion of the poem there is a promise of better things when this generation of gods has passed away.

In 1857 Arnold was elected to the professorship of poetry at Oxford, and he held this post for the next decade. He was the first professor of poetry to give his lectures in English rather than in Latin.

In 1858 Arnold published Merope, a classical tragedy, which concerns the revenge of a young man on a tyrant who has killed the young man's father and married his mother. New Poems (1867) includes "Thyrsis: A Monody," the pastoral elegy in which Arnold again celebrates the Oxford countryside and mourns the death of his friend Clough. The poem invites comparison with other great classical elegies in English—for example, Milton's "Lycidas" and Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Adonais." In 1869 Arnold collected his poems in two volumes. An important new poem is "Rugby Chapel," in which he pays tribute to his father. Although Arnold wrote both epic and dramatic poetry, his best poems are probably his lyrics, such poems as "Dover Beach," "To Marguerite—Continued," and "The Buried Life."

Literary and Social Criticism

In 1861 Arnold published his lectures On Translating Homer and in the next year On Translating Homer: Last Words. He first isolates the main characteristics of the Homeric style and then consides a number of translations of Homer and the degree of their success in duplicating these characteristics in English. The books are lively introductions to classical poetry and urge English writers to imitate Homer's "grand style."

Arnold's two-volume Essays in Criticism (1865 and 1888) includes essays on a variety of writers—Marcus Aurelius, Heinrich Heine, Leo Tolstoy, and Wordsworth among them. His critical essays are concerned with the discipline and preservation of taste at a time when literary standards were threatened by commercialism and mass education. With schoolmasterly repetitiousness Arnold attacks English provincialism, or "Philistinism" as he calls it. He particularly values the quality of "high seriousness," an author's power to concentrate on the perpetually important issues in human life. Arnold suggests that his readers keep always in mind certain sublime moments in literature which will serve as "touchstones" in the judgment of contemporary work.

Of the several books which Arnold wrote on politics and sociology the most important is Culture and Anarchy (1869). He criticizes 19th-century English politicians for their lack of purpose and their excessive concern with the machinery of society. The English people—and the narrow-minded middle class in particular—lack "sweetness and light," a phrase which Arnold borrowed from Jonathan Swift. England can only be saved by the development of "culture," which for Arnold means the free play of critical intelligence, a willingness to question all authority and to make judgments in a leisurely and disinterested way.

Of the four books in which Arnold dealt with the threat to religion posed by science and historical scholarship, the most important is Literature and Dogma (1873). He argues that the Bible has the importance of a supremely great literary work, and as such it cannot be discredited by charges of historical inaccuracy. And the Church, like any other time-honored social institution, must be reformed with care and with a sense of its historical importance to English culture.

Arnold was one of the great Victorian controversialists, and his books are contributions to a national discussion of literature, religion, and education. His style is witty, ironic, and varied; he exhorts his readers, chides them, even teases them. His books were widely read, and in the magazines in which he regularly published he defended his views against all comers. In 1883 and 1886 he toured the United States and gave lectures, in which he tried to win Americans to the cause of culture.

On April 15, 1888, Arnold went to Liverpool to meet his beloved daughter, and he died there of a sudden heart attack.

Further Reading

Two important collections of Arnold's letters are Letters of Matthew Arnold, 1848-1888, edited by George W.E. Russell (2 vols., 1895-1896), and The Letters of Matthew Arnold to Arthur Hugh Clough, edited by Howard Foster Lowry (1932). The standard introduction to Arnold is Lionel Trilling, Matthew Arnold (1939; 2d ed. 1949). A more recent critical study, synthesizing earlier views, is William A. Madden,Matthew Arnold: A Study of the Aesthetic Temperament in Victorian England (1967). Two excellent works devoted to Arnold's poetry are Wendell Stacy Johnson, The Voices of Matthew Arnold: An Essay in Criticism (1961), and A. Dwight Culler, Imaginative Reason: The Poetry of Matthew Arnold (1966). A contrasting approach to the poems is G. Robert Stange, Matthew Arnold: The Poet as Humanist (1967).

More specialized works include William Robbins, The Ethical Idealism of Matthew Arnold (1959); Patrick McCarthy, Matthew Arnold and the Three Classes (1964); and Warren D. Anderson, Matthew Arnold and the Classical Tradition (1965). "Matthew Arnold" in T.S. Eliot, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1932; 2d ed. 1964), is an examination of Arnold by an influential 20th-century critic. □

Arnold, Matthew

views updated Jun 11 2018



ARNOLD, MATTHEW (1822–1888), English poet, critic, and polemical writer.

Matthew Arnold was born at Laleham, England, in 1822. His father, Dr. Thomas Arnold, was a teacher and clergyman who subsequently became famous as the reforming head master of Rugby School. Educated at Rugby and Balliol College, Oxford, Arnold became a fellow of Oriel College, Oxford, in 1845. This was a nonteaching post, which he combined, between 1847 and 1851, with a job as secretary to Lord Lansdowne (Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice), a senior cabinet minister in the Whig government of Lord John Russell. In 1851 he married and became an inspector of schools, rising to chief inspector in 1884 and retiring in 1886. He died in 1888.


Arnold's early verse was published in two anonymous volumes, The Strayed Reveller (1849) and Empedocles on Etna and Other Poems (1852). This was a poetry of ideas, some of it written in a pioneering prototype of modernist "free verse," in which Arnold reflects on the dilemmas created by the decline of traditional religious authority. The "modern" condition was "the dialogue of the mind with itself." In poems such as "The Forsaken Merman" and "Resignation" he considers hedonist and stoic alternatives to the established Christian ethic. In "Empedocles on Etna" he uses a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher as a parallel for his own experience of living in an era of transition from religious faith to anxious doubt.

Despite its intellectual stress, Arnold came to feel that this poetry was overly Romantic in its subjectivity and lack of formal control. In 1853 he replaced Empedocles on Etna with a volume simply entitled Poems—no longer anonymous, and equipped with a preface that argued for a new, post-Romantic poetics. Literature, he suggested, should address not the inner life of the author but external "actions." Literary texts should display "Architectonicè" or coherent form. If Arnold's attempts to embody these ideas in the brief epics "Sohrab and Rustum" (1853) and "Balder Dead" (1855) were not entirely successful, his theoretical contribution to a shift of taste from the Romantic enthusiasm for spontaneous and fragmentary expression to the late-nineteenth-century cult of form was considerable.

In 1857 Arnold became professor of poetry at Oxford, a part-time post that he occupied for ten years. In his inaugural lecture, "On the Modern Element in Literature," he added another criterion to his poetic theory—"adequacy," or the demand that a satisfactory poetry should reflect the most advanced thought of its era. His 1867 volume, New Poems, contains several poems that endeavor to meet this demand—most notably "Dover Beach."


In the 1860s Arnold began to publish his lectures and to contribute to the periodical press. In "The Function of Criticism at the Present Time" (printed in Essays in Criticism, 1865) he sets out his assumptions as a critic and suggests, by implication, how he wishes to reform English literary criticism. Previously criticism had been party political: the Whig Edinburgh Review dismissed the Tory William Wordsworth; the Tory Quarterly condemned John Keats for his association with the "Cockney School" of Whig and Radical writers. Inspired by the example of the French critic Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve (1804–1869), Arnold recommended instead the values of "disinterestedness" and objectivity, or the endeavor "to see the object as in itself it really is."

In the twentieth century Arnold's aspiration to objectivity was sometimes dismissed as an illusion, and an overtly political literary criticism (Marxist, feminist, green, queer, or postcolonialist) reasserted itself. Arnold would have seen this development as reactionary. In "The Study of Poetry" (1880) he identifies two obstacles to a "real estimate" of a text: the "historic" fallacy (or the scholarly tendency to overvalue texts because they are old) and the "personal" fallacy, which overestimates writers on grounds of national, social, political, or sexual affinity. What we should seek is "high seriousness," whether or not we sympathize with the views of the author. One way to test this is the application of "touchstones"—a constant comparison with passages acknowledged to be of the highest quality.

Arnold's criticism is not, however, narrowly literary. In 1860, in the lectures published in On Translating Homer (1861), he identified critical objectivity as a necessary endeavor in "all branches of knowledge,—theology, philosophy, history, art, science." Accordingly, he himself published essays on other topics.

The underlying problem for his social writing is the advent of democracy. If every man is to have a vote, then every man needs to be educated—and Arnold had been struggling, since the 1840s, with the obstacles that religious sectarianism placed in the way of a compulsory school system. Culture and Anarchy (1869) addresses this difficulty. Religion cannot, in the absence of a common faith, provide the core values for a universal elementary education. Instead, Arnold proposes the secular value of "culture." His polemical manner is witty and pugnacious. British society is divided into "Barbarians" (the aristocracy), "Philistines" (the middle classes), and "Populace." Moral earnestness is characterized as "Hebraism," to which a counterbalance is required in the form of "Hellenism" or the "free play of mind on every object." But beneath the playful surface there is a recommendation that has been widely adopted as a basis for education in multicultural or postreligious human societies.

The playfulness reaches its peak in Friendship's Garland (1871), a witty sequel to Voltaire's Candide (1759) and Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus (1833–1834) that recommends German intellectual rigor to the unsystematic Anglo-Saxons. In Literature and Dogma (1873) Arnold turned, more seriously, to theology. His purpose was simultaneously to rescue religion from the Bible (that is, from the misreading of this poetic text as a series of falsifiably scientific statements) and to rescue the Bible from religion—stressing its literary value to retain it as part of the "culture" in an era of declining religious assent. Thomas Arnold had sought to invent a creed for a national church from which no citizen could feel excluded. Pushing this liberal theology to a controversial extreme, his son redefines religion as "morality touched with emotion" and God as "the something not ourselves which makes for righteousness."

Matthew Arnold has been attacked as a poet of limited range and a prose writer whose elegantly witty manner makes rigorous argument impossible. He is better understood as an author who works, distinctively, and in an ingenious combination of verse and prose, to unsettle assumptions and suggest new directions for literary and intellectual life.

See alsoCarlyle, Thomas; Education; Great Britain; Liberalism.


Primary Sources

Allott, Kenneth, and Miriam Allott, eds. The Poems of Matthew Arnold. 2nd ed. London, 1979.

Super, R. H. ed. The Complete Prose Works of Matthew Arnold. 11 vols. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1960–1977.

Secondary Sources

Collini, Stefan. Arnold. Oxford, U.K., 1988.

Coulling, Sidney. Matthew Arnold and His Critics: A Study of Arnold's Controversies. Athens, Ga., 1974.

Culler, A. Dwight. Imaginative Reason: The Poetry of Matthew Arnold, New Haven, Conn., 1966.

Trilling, Lionel. Matthew Arnold. New York, 1939.

Nicholas Shrimpton

Arnold, Matthew

views updated May 23 2018

Arnold, Matthew (1822–88). Poet and critic. Son of Thomas Arnold, headmaster of Rugby school, Matthew was educated also at Winchester and Oxford, before election to an Oriel fellowship (1845). From 1851 to 1883 he was an inspector of schools, sent to study systems in Europe, and became a leading propagandist for improved secondary education in England. Emerging as a mature poet by 1853, with a recognizably Celtic temperament (from his mother), he was professor of poetry at Oxford 1857–67, but subsequently turned to literary then social criticism. He broadened the accepted form of the critical essay, and in Culture and Anarchy (1869) famously classified English society into ‘Barbarians, Philistines and Populace’ as it lagged behind continental ideas; refusal to comply with Victorian complacency about England's perceived world-wide supremacy was unforgivable to many. Arnold's religious liberalism found voice in subsequent works which sought to free Christianity from doctrinal lumber, despite his own admiration for Newman.

A. S. Hargreaves

Arnold, Matthew

views updated May 23 2018

Arnold, Matthew (1822–88) English poet and critic. Arnold held the Oxford chair in poetry (1857–67). A school inspector (1851–86), his writings include literary criticism, such as Essays in Criticism (series 1, 1865; series 2, 1888), and social studies, such as Culture and Anarchy (1869), as well as classic Victorian poems, such as “Dover Beach” and “The Scholar Gypsy”. His theories about the social and moral benefits of culture were largely responsible for the establishment of English literature as a “core” subject in schools and universities.

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