Matthew Arnold’s poetic works would be sufficient to establish him as one of the important figures of English literature. Poems such as “Dover Beach,” “Thyrsis,” and “The Scholar Gypsy” fuse, as Arnold himself says in a letter to his mother, some of Tennyson’s “poetical sense” and “Browning’s intellectual vigor.” However, by the late 1850s he had written most of his poems, and for the next three decades until the end of his life devoted himself single-mindedly to the essay. In the 1860s he wrote numerous essays of literary and social criticism; in the 1870s he concentrated on religious and pedagogical writings; and in the 1880s he returned to the essay of literary criticism.
Arnold’s poetic decade could be considered a preparation, a period of intellectual gestation. During this time he first considered the questions he later sought to resolve in his essays, an opus of such magnitude (The Complete Prose Works edited by R.H.Super comes to II volumes) that had Arnold not written a single poem he would still occupy an important place in the pantheon of Victorian sages. His movement between the two worlds of poetry and nonfiction prose is, nevertheless, to be understood in an organic sense: the poetry and the prose are part of the coherent growth of Arnold’s mind.
Confronted with the advance of modern science, the decline of religion, the impact of industrialization and mechanization on labor and the worker, and the rise of intellectual skepticism, Arnold seeks in his essays ways to answer the age-old question of how a good life is to be lived in the rapidly changing modern world. While treating issues as diverse as literature, science, education, religion, the Bible, and culture in general, Arnold’s aim remains constant: to guide and inspire modern man, both ethically and intellectually. His major essays retain a moral force that often surprises the serious reader today.
Although Arnold’s intended audience was the ordinary man and woman, particularly those belonging to that middle class which his long experience as school inspector taught him to regard as narrow and lacking in authentic culture (but still educable), the essays were primarily read by the agents of cultural change, those he calls “the men of culture” and “the true apostles of equality” (Culture and Anarchy, 1869). Arnold hoped that the men of culture would transform the masses, bringing out in them what he calls in Culture and Anarchy the “best self.” He therefore used the extended philosophical essay rather than more popular essay forms, such as the polemical pamphlet or the familiar essay, to reach those catalysts of social and intellectual change.
Arnold excels in the formal essay, using its impersonal, analytical approach even when engaging in polemics, as we can see in the tightly reasoned reply to T.H.Huxley, defending humanistic learning in “Literature and Science” (1885). But he also experiments with the humorous, satiric essay, as witness the dramatic letters of Baron Arminius von Thunder-tenTronckh, later collected as Friendship’s Garland (1871). In any case, with Arnold we are always in the presence of the teacher and lecturer rather than the religious or political zealot or the utilitarian popularizer of ideas. Many of the individual essays, although later collected in various volumes, were first delivered as lectures or appeared in various Victorian periodicals, which served at the time as a forum for lively debate and exposition of ideas. His intellectual and academic conception of the essay—befitting a school inspector and an Oxford Professor of Poetry—influences not only the type of essay Arnold writes but also his prose style.
Arnold’s style has many salient virtues, but also some flaws. His critics point to a certain syntactical stiffness, a stilted quality that deadens for some the very real vigor of his ideas. His defenders counter that what those critics are really objecting to are the requirements of austere detachment or objectivity inherent in the formal essay. Less debatable as faults in his prose are Arnold’s tendency to repeat himself at times (probably a by-product of his didactic intent and professorial habit of mind) and to leave key concepts, such as the “best self” and “culture,” somewhat vaguely defined. Arnold is, however, a strict logician, and his respect for the exigencies of reason results in essays which are lucid, tightly argued, and convincing. They would have pleased classical rhetoricians like Aristotle.
Just as pleasing to a rhetorician is his sense of the essay’s structure. Typically, the shorter Arnold essay has an engaging exordium or introduction, an ample expository section (containing both a refutation of opposing views and a defense of the thesis), and a clipped, rhetorically effective peroratio or conclusion. A good example of this classical structure can be found in “Literature and Science.” His more expansive essays retain the structural coherence of the shorter pieces even though they present what Arnold in reference to his poetry called “the main movement of mind of the last quarter of a century,” indeed a great panorama of some of the most important ideas debated in England and other parts of the Western world throughout the 19th century.
In the first two volumes of Essays in Criticism (1865, 1888), Arnold mainly evaluates through the works of authors from different periods and nations—Homer, Spinoza, Milton, Wordsworth, and Tolstoi, among others—the virtues of good literature: primarily an unadorned, plain style and seriousness or elevation of ideas. In these critical essays, which include the well-known “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” and “The Study of Poetry,” Arnold mainly considers literature as a civilizing, ethical force. It is, therefore, not surprising that there is a connection between his literary and his social criticism. The most important of the latter is perhaps Culture and Anarchy, where Arnold posits that the “priests of culture” can deliver modern men and women from their idolatrous submission to the god of industrial materialism and help restore them to a condition of social and personal wholeness. In this work we encounter Arnold’s famous notion of culture, derived mainly from Johann Gottfried Herder, which essentially entails an openness of mind that rejects the embracing of ideas because of tradition or convention.
On the Study of Celtic Literature (1867) is another example of Arnold’s combination of literary, political, ethnic, and racial criticism. It remains a delightful apologia for Irish and Welsh poetry, and his argument influenced the eventual establishment of a chair of Celtic studies at Oxford. Irish Essays and Others (1882), which includes “The Future of Liberalism” as well as prefaces to various editions of his poetry, contains essays on both literary and social topics and is an eclectic volume much like the earlier Mixed Essays (1879).
The religious essays are an important part of Arnold’s work and in a sense can be considered an extension of his literary and social criticism. They also provide the reader with a vivid sense of Arnold as a moderately liberal Victorian representative of that brand of modern skepticism which remains sympathetic to what it disbelieves. Literature and Dogma (1873) and God and the Bible (1875) expound his theological relativism and propose an ethical system as a substitute for traditional religion’s doctrinal strictures.
Still, for Arnold the Bible and the Church remain important civilizing forces. St. Paul and Protestantism (1870) contains incisive analyses of the Church of England; A Bible Reading for Schools (1871), edited by Arnold, is basically a catechetical instruction for school children based on the prophecies of the Old Testament and the parables and stories of the New. Although skeptical of the supernatural teachings of Christianity, Arnold nevertheless remained convinced that the Bible and the Church, and even ritualistic worship, are powerful sources of culture.
Arnold’s vitality as a major English essayist has not diminished today. He embodies the classical traits of the great writers of expository prose: a humble but firm conviction that the humanist tradition he proposes can enrich both the individual person and society; a breadth of interests that encompasses many disciplines and intellectual traditions; a strong sense of responsibility toward the exigencies of the rational process; a respectful open-mindedness toward the past and the present; and an intellectual curiosity that best illustrates the Arnoldian concept of culture. Whether as a critic of literature, religion, the Bible, or society, in Matthew Arnold we meet that rare individual—the humanist who earnestly and honestly seeks, as does the reticent pilgrim of “Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse,” “the high, wide star of Truth” wherever it may be found. It was natural, then, that the expansive and accommodating scope of the essay should recommend it as the ideal literary vehicle for his quest, and that Arnold should have been for the greater part of his career a tireless and prolific essayist.
Born 24 December 1822, in Laleham-on-Thames, Middlesex. Studied at Winchester College, Hampshire, 1836–37; Rugby School, Warwickshire, 1837–41; Balliol College, Oxford, 1841–44, graduated, 1844. Fellow, Oriel College, Oxford, 1845–46; assistant master, Rugby School, 1846; private secretary to Lord Lansdowne (lord president of the Privy Council), 1847–51. Married Frances Lucy Wightman, 1851: four sons and two daughters. Inspector of schools, 1851–86: sent several times to the continent to study education systems. Professor of Poetry, Oxford University, 1857–67. Contributor to many journals, including the National Review, Fraser’s Magazine, Cornhill Magazine, Macmillan’s Magazine, Pall Mall Gazette, Victoria Magazine, Nineteenth Century, and the Fortnightly Review.
Died in Liverpool, 15 April 1888.
Essays and Related Prose
On Translating Homer (lectures), 1861; edited by W.H.D.Rouse, 1905
Essays in Criticism, 3 vols., 1865–1910; vol. 1 edited by Sister Thomas Marion Hoctor, 1964
On the Study of Celtic Literature, 1867
Culture and Anarchy: An Essay in Political and Social Criticism, 1869; edited by J.Dover Wilson, 1932., Ian Gregor, 1971, and Samuel Lipman, 1994
St. Paul and Protestantism, 1870
Friendship’s Garland, Being the Conversations, Letters, and Opinions of the Late Arminius, Baron von Thunder-ten-Tronckh, 1871
Literature and Dogma: An Essay Towards a Better Apprehension of the Bible, 1873; edited by James C.Livingston, 1970
God and the Bible: A Review of Objections to “Literature and Dogma”, 1875
Last Essays on Church and Religion, 1877
Mixed Essays, 1879
Irish Essays and Others, 1882.
Discourses in America, 1885
Arnold as Dramatic Critic, 1903; as Letters of an Old Playgoer, 1919
Selections from the Prose Works, edited by William Savage Johnson, 1913
Selections from the Prose Writings, edited by Lewis E.Gates, 1926
Five Uncollected Essays, edited by Kenneth Allott, 1953
The Portable Matthew Arnold, edited by Lionel Trilling, 1959; as The Essential Matthew Arnold, 1969
Essays, Letters, and Reviews, edited by Fraser Neiman, 1960
The Complete Prose Works, edited by R.H.Super, II vols., 1960–77
Essays, Letters and Reviews, edited by Fraser Neiman, 1960
Selected Essays, edited by Noel Annan, 1964
Selected Prose, edited by P.J.Keating, 1970
Selected Poems and Prose, edited by Miriam Allott, 1978
Culture and Anarchy and Other Writings, edited by Stefan Collini, 1993
Other writings: many collections of poetry, a play, volumes of correspondence, and reports on elementary education, particularly on the continent.
Collected works edition: The Works of Matthew Arnold, 15 vols., 1904, reprinted 1970.
Magoon, Joseph, A Bibliography of the Editions of, and Writings About, Matthew Arnold’s Works from 1971 to 1985, Bournemouth: privately printed, 1988
Smart, Thomas B., The Bibliography of Matthew Arnold, London: Davy, 1892
Tollers, Vincent L., editor, A Bibliography of Matthew Arnold, 1932–1970, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1974
Anderson, Warren D., Matthew Arnold and the Classical Tradition, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1965
Brown, E.K., Studies in the Text of Matthew Arnold’s Prose Works, New York: Russell and Russell, 1969 (original edition, 1935)
Carroll, Joseph, The Cultural Theory of Matthew Arnold, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982
Chambers, E.K., Matthew Arnold: A Study, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1947; New York: Russell and Russell, 1964
Dawson, William Harbutt, Matthew Arnold and His Relation to the Thought of Our Time, New York: Putnam, 1904
DeLaura, David J., Hebrew and Hellene in Victorian England: Newman, Arnold, and Pater, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1969
Eells, John Shepard, Jr., The Touchstones of Matthew Arnold, New Haven, Connecticut: College and University Press, 1955
Faverty, Frederic E., Matthew Arnold the Ethnologist, New York: AMS Press, 1968
(original edition, 1951)
Holloway, John, The Victorian Sage: Studies in Argument, London: Macmillan, 1953;
Hamden, Connecticut: Archon, 1962
Honan, Park, Matthew Arnold: A Life, New York: McGraw Hill, and London:
Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1981
Jump, John D., Matthew Arnold, London: Longman, 1955
Lowry, Howard F., Matthew Arnold and the Modern Spirit, Folcroft, Pennsylvania: Folcroft 1974
McCarthy, Patrick J., Matthew Arnold and the Three Classes,, New York: Columbia University Press, 1964
Miyoshi, Masao, The Divided Self: A Perspective on the Literature of the Victorians, New York: New York University Press, 1969
Murray, Nicholas, A Life of Matthew Arnold, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1996
Robbins, William, The Arnoldian Principle of Flexibility, Victoria, British Columbia: University of Victoria, 1979
apRoberts, Ruth, Arnold and God, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983
Trilling, Lionel, Matthew Arnold, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977 (original edition, 1939)
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