Matthew Arnold (1822–88). The Poems of Matthew Arnold, 1840–1867. 1909.


  • ‘I do not hold up Joubert as a very astonishing and powerful genius, but rather as a delightful and edifying genius…. He is the most prepossessing and convincing of witnesses to the good of loving light. Because he sincerely loved light, and did not prefer to it any little private darkness of his own, he found light…. And because he was full of light he was also full of happiness…. His life was as charming as his thoughts. For certainly it is natural that the love of light, which is already, in some measure, the possession of light, should irradiate and beatify the whole life of him who has it.’
MANY a reader of Essays in Criticism must have paused and in thought transferred to Matthew Arnold these words of his in praise of Joubert, as well as the fine passage in which he goes on to ask What, in literature, we mean by fame? Only two kinds of authors (he tells us) are secure of fame: the first being the Homers, Dantes, Shakespeares, ‘the great abiding fountains of truth,’ whose praise is for ever and ever. But beside these sacred personages stand certain elect ones, less majestic, yet to be recognized as of the same family and character with the greatest, ‘exercising like them an immortal function, and like them inspiring a permanent interest.’ The fame of these also is assured. ‘They will never, like the Shakespeares, command the homage of the multitude; but they are safe; the multitude will not trample them down.’<PARA=”2″>To this company Matthew Arnold belongs. We all feel it, and some of us can give reasons for our confidence; but perhaps, if all our reasons were collected, the feeling would be found to reach deeper into certainty than any of them. He was never popular, and never will be. Yet no one can say that, although at one time he seemed to vie with the public in distrusting it, his poetry missed its mark. On the other hand, while his critical writings had swift and almost instantaneous effect for good, the repute they brought him was moderate, and largely made up of misconception. For the mass of his countrymen he came somehow to personify a number of things which their minds vaguely associated with kid gloves, and by his ironical way of playing with the misconception he did more than a little to confirm it. But in truth Arnold was a serious man who saw life as a serious business, and chiefly relied, for making the best of it, upon a serene common sense. He had elegance, to be sure, and was inclined—at any rate, in controversy—to be conscious of it; but it was elegance of that plain Attic order to which common sense gives the law and almost the inspiration. The man and the style were one. Alike in his life and his writings he observed and preached the golden mean, with a mind which was none the less English and practical if, in expressing it, he deliberately and almost defiantly avoided that emphasis which Englishmen love to a fault.<PARA=”3″>Matthew Arnold, eldest son of Dr. Thomas Arnold, the famous Head Master of Rugby, was born on Christmas Eve, 1822, at Laleham on the Thames, where his father at that time taught private pupils. The child was barely six years old when the family removed to Rugby, and at seven he returned to Laleham to be taught by his uncle, the Rev. John Buckland. In August, 1836, he proceeded to Winchester, but was removed at the end of a year and entered Rugby, where he remained until he went up to Balliol College, Oxford, in 1841, with an open scholarship. He had written a prize poem at Rugby—the subject, Alaric at Rome; and on this performance he improved by taking the Newdigate in 1843—the subject, Cromwell. But we need waste no time on these exercises. It is better worth noting that the boy had been used to spending his holidays, and now spent a great part of his vacations, at Fox How, near Grasmere, a house which Dr. Arnold had taken to refresh his eyes and his spirits after the monotonous ridge and furrow, field and hedgerow, around Rugby; and that, as Mr. Herbert Paul puts it, young Matthew ‘thus grew up under the shadow of Wordsworth, whose brilliant and penetrating interpreter he was destined to become’. Genius collects early, and afterwards distils from recollection; and if its spirit, like that of the licentiate Pedro Garciàs, is to be disinterred, he who would find Matthew Arnold’s must dig in and around Fox How and Oxford.<PARA=”4″>At Oxford, which he loved passionately, he ‘missed his first’, but atoned for this, three months later, by winning a fellowship at Oriel. (This was in 1844–5. His father had died in 1842.) He stayed up, however, but a short while after taking his degree; went back to Rugby as an assistant master; relinquished this in 1847 to become private secretary to Lord Lansdowne, then President of the Council; and was by him appointed in 1851 to an Inspectorship of Schools, which he retained for five-and-thirty years. In 1851, too, he married Frances Lucy Wightman, daughter of a Judge of the Queen’s Bench; and so settled down at the same time to domestic happiness and to daily work which, if dull sometimes, was not altogether ungrateful, as it was never less than conscientiously performed.<PARA=”5″>Meanwhile, in 1849, he had put forth a thin volume, The Strayed Reveller, and other Poems, by A; which was followed in 1852 by Empedocles on Etna, and other Poems, by A. In 1853 he dropped anonymity and under the title of Poems, by Matthew Arnold republished the contents of these two volumes, omitting Empedocles, with a few minor pieces, and adding some priceless things, such as Sohrab and Rustum, The Church of Brou, Requiescat, and The Scholar Gipsy.<PARA=”6″>‘It was received, we believe, with general indifference,’ wrote Mr. Froude of the first volume, in the Westminster Review, 1854. We need not trouble to explain the fact, beyond saying that English criticism was just then at about the lowest ebb it reached in the last century, and that the few capable ears were occupied by the far more confident voice of Tennyson and the far more disconcerting one of Browning: but the fact—surprising when all allowance has been made—must be noted, for it is important to remember that the most and best of Arnold’s poetry was written before he gained the world’s ear, and that he gained it not as a poet but as a critic. In 1855 appeared Poems by Matthew Arnold, Second Series, of which only Balder Dead and Separation were new; and in 1858 Merope with its Preface: but in the interval between them he had been elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford (May 1857).<PARA=”7″>The steps by which a reputation grows, the precise moment at which it becomes established, are often difficult to trace and fix. The poems, negligently though they had been received at first, must have helped: and, since men who improve an office are themselves usually improved by it, assuredly the Professorship helped too. The Lectures on Homer which adorned Arnold’s first tenure of the Chair strike a new note of criticism, speak with a growing undertone of authority beneath their modest professions, and would suffice to explain—if mere custom did not even more easily explain—why in 1862 he was re-elected for another five years. But before 1865, no doubt, the judicious who knew him had tested him by more than his lectures, and were prepared for Essays in Criticism.<PARA=”8″>Although we are mainly concerned here with the poems, a word must be said on Essays in Criticism, which Mr. Paul pronounces to be ‘Mr. Arnold’s most important work in prose, the central book, so to speak, of his life’. Mr. Saintsbury calls it ‘the first full and varied, and perhaps always the best, expression and illustration of the author’s critical attitude, the detailed manifesto and exemplar of the new critical method, and so one of the epoch-making books of the later nineteenth century in English’—and on this subject Mr. Saintsbury has a peculiar right to be heard.<PARA=”9″>Now for a book to be ‘epoch-making’ it must bring to its age something which its age conspicuously lacks: and Essays in Criticism did this. No one remembering what Dryden did, and Johnson, and Coleridge, and Lamb, and Hazlitt, will pretend that Arnold invented English Criticism, or that he did well what these men had done ill. What he did, and they missed doing, was to treat Criticism as a deliberate disinterested art, with laws and methods of its own, a proper temper, and certain standards or touchstones of right taste by which the quality of any writing, as literature, could be tested. In other words, he introduced authority and, with authority, responsibility, into a business which had hitherto been practised at the best by brilliant nonconformists and at the worst by Quarterly Reviewers—who, taking for their motto Iudex damnatur cum nocens absolvitur, either forgot or never surmised that to punish the guilty can be but a corollary of a higher obligation, to discover the truth. Nor can any one now read the literature of that period without a sense that Arnold’s teaching was indispensably needed just then. A page of Macaulay or of Carlyle dazzles us with its rhetoric; strikes, arrests, excites us with a number of things tellingly put and in ways we had scarcely guessed to be possible; but it no longer convinces. It does not even dispose us to be convinced, since (to put it vulgarly) we feel that the author ‘is not out after’ truth; that Macaulay’s William III is a figure dressed up and adjusted to prove Macaulay’s thesis, and that the France of Carlyle’s French Revolution not only never existed but, had it ever existed, would not be France. Arnold helping us, we see these failures—for surely that history is a failure which, like Cremorne, will not bear the daylight—to be inevitable in a republic of letters where laws are not and wherein each author writes at the top of his own bent, indulging and exploiting his personal eccentricity to the fullest. It has probably been the salvation of our literature that in the fourteenth century the Latin prevailed over the Anglo-Saxon line of its descent, and that in the forming of our verse as well as of our prose we had, at the critical moments, the literatures of Latin races, Italian or French, for models and correctives; as it was the misfortune of the Victorian period before 1865 that its men of genius wrote with eyes turned inward upon themselves or, if outward, upon that German literature which, for all its great qualities, must ever be dangerous to Englishmen because it flatters and encourages their special faults.<PARA=”10″>Of Arnold from 1865 onward—of the books in which he enforced rather than developed his critical method (for all the gist of it may be found in Essays in Criticism)—of his incursions into the fields of politics and theology—much might be written, but it would not be germane to our purpose. New Poems, including Bacchanalia, or the New Age, Dover Beach, and the beautiful Thyrsis, appeared in 1867, and thenceforward for the last twenty years of his life he wrote very little in verse, though the fine Westminster Abbey proved that the Muse had not died in him. He used his hold upon the public ear to preach some sermons which, as a good citizen, he thought the nation needed. In his hardworking official life he rendered services which those of us who engage in the work of English education are constantly and gratefully recognizing in their effects, as we still toil in the wake of his ideals. He retired in November, 1886. He died on April 15th, 1888, of heart-failure: he had gone to Liverpool to meet his eldest daughter on her return from the United States, and there, in running to catch a tram-car, he fell and died in a moment. He was sixty-five, but in appearance carried his years lightly. He looked, and was, a distinguished and agreeable man. Of good presence and fine manners; perfect in his domestic relations, genial in company and radiating cheerfulness; setting a high aim to his official work yet ever conscientious in details; he stands (apart from his literary achievement) as an example of the Englishman at his best. He cultivated this best deliberately. His daily note-books were filled with quotations, high thoughts characteristically chosen and jotted down to be borne in mind; and some of these—such as Semper aliquid certi proponendum est and Ecce labora et noli contristari!—recur again and again. But the result owed its amiability also to that ‘timely relaxation’ counselled by Milton—
  • To measure life learn thou betimes, and know
  • Toward solid good what leads the nearest way;
  • For other things mild Heav’n a time ordains,
  • And disapproves that care, though wise in show,
  • That with superfluous burden loads the day
  • And, when God sends a cheerful hour, refrains.
To those, then, who tell us that Arnold’s poetic period was brief, and imply that it was therefore disappointing, we might answer that this is but testimony to the perfect development of a life which in due season used poetry and at the due hour cast it away, to proceed to things more practical. But this would be to err almost as deeply as those who tell us that Arnold, as he himself said of Gray, ‘never spoke out’—whereas Arnold habitually spoke out, and now and then even too insistently. Again it would be a mistake for us to apply to him au pied de la lettre the over-sad verses—
  • Youth rambles on life’s arid mount,
  • And strikes the rock, and finds the vein,
  • And brings the water from the fount,
  • The fount which shall not flow again.
  • The man mature with labour chops
  • For the bright stream a channel grand,
  • And sees not that the sacred drops
  • Ran off and vanish’d out of hand.
  • And then the old man totters nigh
  • And feebly rakes among the stones.
  • The mount is mute, the channel dry;
  • And down he lays his weary bones.
Yet it were stupid not to recognize that here is contained a certain amount of general truth, and of truth particularly applicable to Arnold. ‘The poet,’ Mr. Saintsbury writes of him (and it sums up the matter), ‘has in him a vein, or, if the metaphor be preferred, a spring, of the most real and rarest poetry. But the vein is constantly broken by faults, and never very thick; the spring is intermittent, and runs at times by drops only.’ Elsewhere Mr. Saintsbury speaks of his ‘elaborate assumption of the singing-robe’, a phrase very happily critical. Arnold felt—no man more deeply—the majesty of the poet’s function: he solemnly attired himself to perform it: but the singing-robe was not his daily wear. The ample pall in which Tennyson swept, his life through, as to the manner born; the stiffer skirts in which Wordsworth walked so complacently; these would have intolerably cumbered the man who protested that even the title of Professor made him uneasy. Wordsworth and Tennyson were bards, authentic and unashamed; whereas in Arnold, as Mr. Watson has noted,
  • Something of worldling mingled still
  • With bard and sage.
There was never a finer worldling than Matthew Arnold: but the criticism is just.<PARA=”11″>The critics, while noting this, have missed something which to us seems to explain much in Arnold’s verse. We said just now that English literature has been fortunate in what it owes to the Latin races: we may add that it has been most fortunate in going to Italy for instruction in its verse, to France for instruction in its prose. This will be denied by no one who has studied Elizabethan poetry or the prose of the ‘Augustan’ age: and as little will any one who has studied the structure of poetry deny that Italy is the natural, France the unnatural, school for an English poet. The reason is not that we understand Italian better than French history and with more sympathy—though this, too, scarcely admits of dispute; nor again that the past of Italy appeals to emotions of which poetry is the consecrated language. It lies in the very structure and play of the language; so that an Englishman who has but learnt how to pronounce the Italian vowels can read Italian poetry passably. The accent comes to him at once; the lack of accent in French remains foreign after many months of study. Now although Arnold was no great admirer of French poetry (and indeed has a particular dislike for the Alexandrine), France was to him, among modern nations, the heir of those classical qualities which differentiate the Greek from the barbarian, and his poetry seems ever to be striving to reproduce the Greek note through verse subdued to a French flatness of tone, as though (to borrow a metaphor from another art) its secret lay in low relief. But an English poet fighting against emphasis is as a man fighting water with a broom: and an English poet, striving to be unemphatic, must yet contrive to be various or he is naught. Successfully as he managed his prose, when he desired it to be emphatic Arnold had, in default of our native methods of emphasis, to fall back upon that simple repetition which irritates so many readers. In his poetry the devices are yet more clumsy. We suppose that no English poet before or since has so overworked the interjection ‘Ah!’ But far worse than any number of ah!s is Arnold’s trick of italic type—
  • How I bewail you!
  • We mortal millions live alone.
  • In the rustling night-air came the answer—
  • ‘Wouldst thou be as these are? Live as they.’
—a device almost unpardonable in poetry. So when he would give us variety, as in Tristram and Iseult, Arnold has no better resource than frequent change of metre: and although every reader must have felt the effect of that sudden fine outburst—
  • What voices are these on the clear night air?
  • What lights in the court? what steps on the stair?
yet some must also have reflected that the great masters, having to tell a story, choose their one metre and, having chosen, so adapt and handle it that it tells all. Sohrab and Rustum indeed tells itself perfectly, from its first line to its noble close. But Sohrab and Rustum is, and professes to be, an episode. Balder is little more, and most readers find Balder, in spite of its fine passages and general dignity, long enough. Arnold—let it be repeated—was not a bard; not a Muse-intoxicated man. He had not the bardic, the architectonic, gift. ‘Something of worldling’ in him forbade any such fervour as, sustained day after day for years, gave the world Paradise Lost, and incidentally, no doubt, made Milton’s daughters regret at times that their father was not as ordinary men.<PARA=”12″>Nor had Arnold an impeccable ear for rhyme (in The New Sirens, for instance, he rhymes ‘dawning’ with ‘morning’): and if we hesitate to follow the many who have doubted his ear for rhythm, it is not for lack of apparently good evidence, but because some of his rhythms which used to give us pause have come, upon longer acquaintance, to fascinate us: and the explanation may be, as we have hinted, that they follow the French rather than the Italian use of accent, and are strange to us rather than in themselves unmusical. Certainly the critics who would have us believe that The Strayed Reveller is an unmusical poem will not at this time of day persuade us by the process of taking a stanza or two and writing them down in the form of prose. We could do the same with a dozen lines of The Tempest or Antony and Cleopatra, were it worth doing, and prove just as much, or as little.<PARA=”13″>Something of Arnold’s own theory of poetry may be extracted from the prefaces, here reprinted, of 1853 and 1854. They contain, like the prefaces of Dryden and of Wordsworth, much wisdom; but the world, perhaps even more wisely, refuses to judge a poet by his theory, which (however admirable) seldom yields up his secret. Yet Arnold had a considered view of what the poet should attempt and what avoid; and that he followed it would remain certain although much evidence were accumulated to prove that he who denounced ‘poetry’s eternal enemy, Caprice’, could himself be, on occasion, capricious. He leaves the impression that he wrote with difficulty; his raptures, though he knew rapture, are infrequent. But through all his work there runs a strain of serious elevated thought, and on it all there rests an air of composure equally serious and elevated—a trifle statuesque, perhaps, but by no means deficient in feeling. No one can read, say, the closing lines of Mycerinus and fail to perceive these qualities. No one can read this volume from cover to cover and deny that they are characteristic. Nor, we think, can any one study the poetry of 1850 and thereabouts without being forced to admit that it wanted these qualities of thoughtfulness and composure. Arnold has been criticized for discovering in Tennyson a certain ‘deficiency in intellectual power’. But is he by this time alone in that discovery? And if no lack of thoughtfulness can be charged against Browning—as it cannot—is not Browning violent, unchastened, far too often energetic for energy’s sake? Be it granted that Arnold in poetical strength was no match for these champions: yet he brought to literature, and in a happy hour, that which they lacked, insisting by the example of his verse as well as by the precepts of his criticism that before anything becomes literature it must observe two conditions—it must be worth saying, and it must be worthily said.<PARA=”14″>Also he continued, if with a difference, that noble Wordsworthian tradition which stood in some danger of perishing—chiefly, we think, beneath the accumulation of rubbish piled upon it by its own author during his later years. That which Matthew Arnold disinterred and re-polished may have been but a fragment. His page has not, says Mr. Watson, ‘the deep, authentic mountain-thrill.’ We grant that Arnold’s feeling for Nature has not the Wordsworthian depth; but so far as it penetrates it is genuine. Lines such as—
  • While the deep-burnish’d foliage overhead
  • Splinter’d the silver arrows of the moon—
may owe their felicity to phrase rather than to feeling. The Mediterranean landscape in A Southern Night may seem almost too exquisitely elaborated. Yet who can think of Arnold’s poetry as a whole without feeling that Nature is always behind it as a living background?—whether it be the storm of wind and rain shaking Tintagel—
  • I forgot, thou comest from thy voyage.
  • Yes, the spray is on thy cloak and hair—
or the scent-laden water-meadows along Thames, or the pine forests on the flank of Etna, or an English garden in June, or Oxus, its mists and fens and ‘the hush’d Chorasmian waste’. If Arnold’s love of natural beauty have not those moments of piercing apprehension which in his master’s poetry seem to break through dullness into the very heaven: if we have not that secret which Wordsworth must have learnt upon the Cumbrian Mountains, from moments when the clouds drift apart and the surprised climber sees all Windermere, all Derwentwater, shining at his feet; if on the other hand his philosophy of life, rounded and complete, seem none too hopeful, but call man back from eager speculations which man will never resign; if it repress, where Browning encouraged, our quest after
  • Thoughts hardly to be packed
  • Into a narrow act,
  • Fancies that broke through language and escaped…
yet his sense of atmosphere, of background, of the great stage on which man plays his part, gives Arnold’s teaching a wonderful comprehension, within its range. ‘This,’ we say, ‘is poetry we can trust, not to flatter us, but to sustain, console.’ If the reader mistake it for the last word on life his trust in it will be illusory. It brings rather that
  • lull in the hot race
  • Wherein he doth for ever chase
  • That flying and elusive shadow, Rest.
  • An air of coolness plays upon his face
  • And an unwonted calm pervades his breast;
and then—if after protesting against italics in poetry we may italicize where, for once, Arnold missed the opportunity—
  • And then he thinks he knows
  • The Hills where his life rose,
  • And the Sea where it goes.