Matthew Arnold

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Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) was an English poet, critic, and writer on culture.


Arnold was born on 24 December 1822, the second child and oldest son of Dr Thomas Arnold and his wife Mary (née Penrose). In 1828 his father became headmaster of Rugby School, where he finished his schooling. A family home was acquired at Fox How in the Lake District, near Rydal Mount, the home of William Wordsworth. Matthew developed from a clumsy child into a tall, darkly handsome and debonair young man, a bit of a dandy. He went up to Oxford University, where he enjoyed himself, despite the death of his father during this period. He gained the Newdigate Prize with a poem on the subject of Cromwell, but his extra-curricular activities had their consequences as he failed to get the first-class degree expected of him. He redeemed this to a certain extent by winning, by examination, a fellowship at Oriel College. While at Oxford, he developed his friendship with Arthur Hugh Clough whom he had known before.

Later, through family connections, he became private secretary to Lord Lansdowne, a member of the government. The post, a near-sinecure, required his attendance but little work. In 1849 he published anonymously, his first collection of poetry, The Strayed Reveller and other Poems. This collection was taken seriously by some heavyweight reviewers but not by his Oxford friends. He then started on an extended philosophical poem with lyrical interludes, Empedocles on Etna.

He fell in love with Frances Lucy Wightman, the daughter of a Tory judge who, when Arnold declared that he wanted to marry her, forbade him to see her. Mr Justice Wightman's opposition was on the grounds of Arnold's low income, and was overcome when Arnold succeeded in being appointed an Inspector of Schools. On his honeymoon he wrote Dover Beach. The work as an Inspector was arduous, requiring much travelling, in which his wife insisted on accompanying him.

In 1852 he published, again anonymously, Empedocles on Etna and other Poems. In the following year he acknowledged his authorship of the two previous publications in his collection of old and new work, simply entitled Poems. This had a critical preface repudiating Empedocles on Etna, and included the narrative poem Sohrab and Rustum. In 1857 he was elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford and in effect started on a new career as a literary critic, though at first his lectures were neither distinctive nor well-attended. In 1860, however, he started on what he later published as On Translating Homer, which had a sprightlier tone, was controversial, and began to convey new ideas about criticism. His lectures were moulded into articles, later collected in book form.

Meanwhile he was diverted from his normal round as an Inspector of Schools by undertaking a mission to look at schools in France, Switzerland and the Netherlands. In addition to his report he produced, at his own expense, a pamphlet which aroused little interest. Later he found himself attacking Robert Lowe's "payment by results" system of education. The attack was in vain, but he was not disciplined for publishing on this. In 1865 he was appointed to a Schools Enquiry Commission which took him to the continent again.

In 1867 he published New Poems which included Dover Beach and Thyrsis, his elegy on Clough. Shortly after this, two of his sons died in quick succession, with a third dying in 1872. This did not prevent him from producing his most influential work, Culture and Anarchy in 1869. He acknowledged he over-indulged the surviving son, Richard (Dick), who took some time to settle into a career, but in later life befriended Edward Elgar. From 1870 Arnold was working largely on several theological works, approaching the subject from the point of view of a literary critic.

In 1883 he made the first of his visits to the USA, on a lecture tour (partly to pay off Dick's debts). After a difficult beginning —- he had to take elocution lessons to make himself heard —- the tour was very successful. On his return the articles he wrote caused offence because although he praised America (or what he had seen of it) for many things, he wrote of a lack of inward development. These views resulted in him being assailed by the American press when he returned in 1886 on a private visit to his daughter Lucy, just after he had retired as an Inspector of Schools.

He died in 1888, in Liverpool, where he had gone in order to meet Lucy, who was returning on a visit.


Unlike the women poets of the time, the major male poets of the Victorian age dealt little with the enormous social problems all around them. (Clough remarked that the novelists did better in this respect.[1]) Despite his revealing experiences as a schools inspector, Arnold took mythology and intellectual questions[2] as his major subjects in verse.

His earlier verse, in particular, is in rhymed octosyllables, making it difficult to achieve effects in cadence or emotion. He often shows a fatalistic or pessimistic streak in some of the narrative (Balder Dead, Sohrab and Rustum) and reflective poems: "Wandering between two worlds, one dead,/:The other powerless to be born" (Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse)

The poems for which he is now best known, and which evoke the strongest sense of feeling have been tagged with the label "elegiac".

Critical works

Arnold's criticism was distinguished by clarity, by the connections it made with social issues, and by what has been called his European consciousness — actually western European, with particular reference to France (which he visited often), Germany and the Celtic fringe. He produced one volume On the Study of Celtic Literature which influenced Oxford University's decision to set up a Chair of Celtic Studies.

During his lifetime Swinburne wrote of him: "'The light of the body is the eye'; he is the eye of English criticism."[3] After his death A.E. Housman described him as "illuminating" and called him "the great critic of our land and time", who "spent a lifetime trying to teach his countrymen how to use their minds".[4]

Culture and Anarchy

In his best known work, Culture and Anarchy (1869), Arnold wrote of culture as "being a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all matters which most concern us, the best that has been thought and said in the world; and through this knowledge turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits, which we now follow staunchly but mechanically, vainly imagining that there is a virtue in following them staunchly which makes up for the mischief of following them mechanically." Culture does not stop with study, which can be a solitary and inward occupation, but requires that the individual carries others along with him in his own development. Arnold continues the tradition of Coleridge and Carlyle in criticising the age as mechanical and "external". The people who believe that the value of its achievements can be judged by monetary wealth and the products of science and engineering he dubs "Philistines" (a word deriving from the German Philister, meaning non-student, but with suitable other connotations). As for how culture is to be achieved, while Coleridge proposed his "clerisy" — or National Church, in a peculiarly Coleridgean sense — and Carlyle had his "organic literary class", Arnold put forward the State as the agent. The anarchy element in the title comes particularly from his fears of what he termed the "populace", which he saw as beginning to organise itself in order to destroy the framework of society.

The work has had a continuing impact, both T.S. Eliot and F.R. Leavis, among others, acknowledging its influence on their writing.[5]

Notes and references

Most of this article is taken from Honan, P. Matthew Arnold: A Life. Weidenfeld and Nicolson. 1981. with additions from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and the Oxford Companion to English Literature (ed. Drabble, M)

  1. "There is no question that people much prefer Vanity Fair and Bleak House. why so? Poetry should deal more . . . with the actual, palpable things with which our ever-day life is concerned. . . " Article in The North American Review July 1853, quoted Honan, p 282
  2. He wrote to Clough in 1852 that "modern poetry can only subsist by its contents: by becoming a complete magister vitae". Honan p 273
  3. Swinburne, A C. Matthew Arnold's New Poems. Fortnightly Review, Oct 1867, republished with additions in Essays and Studies, 1875
  4. Carter, J (ed). A E Housman: Selected Prose. Cambridge University Press. 1961
  5. Williams, R. Culture and Society 1780-1950. Chatto and Windus. 1958