The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

IV. Matthew Arnold, Arthur Hugh Clough, James Thomson

§ 1. Arnold’s early poems

EMINENT alike as poet and critic, Matthew Arnold holds a place of singular distinction among the representative writers of the Victorian age. His poetical work is much smaller in volume and less varied in interest and range than that of his two more popular contemporaries, Tennyson and Browning, but it reflects, along certain lines, even more faithfully than the poetry of either, some peculiarly significant tendencies of nineteenth-century thought. Arnold himself, at any rate, was convinced—and few poets have been surer critics of their own work than he—that he need not fear comparison with either Browning or Tennyson as an interpreter of even the “main movement of mind” in the England of his time. In his intellectual sympathies and interests, he was much nearer akin to Browning than to Tennyson. Like Browning, Arnold was largely a man of the world, though, unlike him, he studiously kept this side of his character out of his poetry. It is in his critical prosewritings, and in his letters, disappointing though the latter may be from a purely literary point of view, that we discover the real Arnold—both the self-searching poet, with his

  • hidden ground
  • Of thought and of austerity within,
  • and the shrewd observer of men and movements, curiously sensitive to all “play of the mind,” wherever and in whomsoever he found it. When, at a comparatively early period in his literary career, he virtually abandoned poetry for prose, he at once came into touch with a much wider public, and his letters frankly express the delight which he felt in having, at last, found an “audience.” His poetry was the fruit of “calm contemplation and majestic pains,” rather than of urgent and imperative impulse. There is a sense of freedom, and even of gaiety, about his prose which suggests a liberated spirit moving easily and happily in its proper element. And it was not only a delight, but a source of serious satisfaction, to Arnold to feel that, through his prose writings, he was able to exert a real influence upon the life and thought of his own generation. He was an ineffective public speaker; but his written excursions into regions where the popular speaker holds the field attracted as much attention and made as powerful an impression as the most sounding platform utterances of the day. His manner of preaching his new-found gospel had little in it of the fervour of the social crusader, and offered a marked contrast to the strident rhetoric with which Carlyle, for example, sought to impress his contemporaries. He himself defined his method as “sinuous, easy, unpolemical”; but he employed it with deadly effect in undermining the “forts of folly.” His banter and his irony often gave offence, and many of his readers found it difficult to put up with the Olympian air of superiority affected by a critic who took the whole conduct of life for his province. But there was no escaping the literary charm of prose discourses cast in a delightfully fresh and individual style, which, with all its mannerisms, retained the pellucid clearness and distinction of his poetry. Moreover, his later prose writings confirmed the opinion which his poetry, and a few early essays, had gone far to establish, that Matthew Arnold was the most brilliant literary critic of his time. Much of his social, political and religious criticism is, perhaps because of its ephemeral subjects, doomed, ultimately, to oblivion, although a good part of it can never lose its point or practical value while the temper and habits of the English people remain substantially what they are. His literary criticisms, however, will live as long as the best of their kind; and, in the combination of remarkable poetic achievement with illuminating discourse on the art of poetry and on “the best that is known and thought in the world,” Dryden and Coleridge alone, among English writers, share his pre-eminence.

    Matthew Arnold, the eldest son of Thomas Arnold, head master of Rugby, was born at Laleham on Christmas eve, 1822. His mother, who survived her husband more than thirty years, was a woman of great force of character, who had so much intellectual sympathy with her son as to make his letters to her the most intimate personal records of him that we possess. Matthew owed much to his distinguished father—his high sense of duty, his intellectual honestry, his austere moral ideals were abiding paternal inheritances; but, as his life and writings tended more and more to show, he was in some ways, and particularly in temperament, curiously unlike him. Matthew Arnold entered Rugby in 1837, where he remained until he won a Balliol scholarship at Oxford in 1841. Oxford, at that time, was agitated by the tractarian movement, and Newman was at the height of his extraordinary influence in the university. That influence does not seem to have had much, if any, intellectual or spiritual effect upon Matthew Arnold; but, like others of more or less note in the Oxford of his day, he fell under the spell of Newman’s personal charm, of which he gives a vivid description in one of the latest of his public utterances. Arnold, by temperament, was too anti-clerical, and probably, shared too strongly his father’s pronounced hostility to the neo-catholic movement, to have any deep sympathy with Newman’s teaching. In 1843, he won the Newdigate prize with a poem entitled Cromwell, but he disappointed his friends and tutors, a year later, by obtaining only a second class in Literae Humaniores. Like his friend Clough, however, who had met with a similar fate before him, he was consoled for his ill-success in the schools by the award of a fellowship at Oriel. Passionately though Matthew Arnold loved the “sweet city with her dreaming spires,” even the attainment of this coveted academic dignity could not keep him at Oxford. Probably, as some of his admirers have suggested, the line of life that would have suited him best was that of a diplomatist. A diplomatic career seemed to lie in his way when, in 1847, he was appointed private secretary to lord Lansdowne. The best thing, however, in the way of advancement which lord Lansdowne, then president of the council, could do for him was to appoint him to an inspectorship of schools. “Though I am a schoolmaster’s son,” Arnold long afterwards frankly told a meeting of teachers, “I confess that school-teaching or school-inspecting is not the line of life I should naturally have chosen. I adopted it in order to marry.” That was in 1851, when he married Frances Lucy Wightman. The conditions of his official work were anything but favourabel to the production of poetry; but nearly all Arnold’s best poetry was written during the busiest years of his school inspectorate. As the years went on, he came to discover that even the drab task-work of school inspection had its compensations. He loved children, and he took a genuine interest in the welfare of teachers; moreover, in his journeys from school to school, he acquired that many-sided knowledge of English life and character of which he made effective use in his social criticisms. He dwelt with “the Philistines” in their tents, was constantly going in and out among “the populace” and, on occasions, broke bread with “the barbarians.”

    In 1859, Matthew Arnold was appointed foreign assistant commissioner on education, and sent on a mission to enquire into the systems of primary education prevailing in France, Holland, Belgium, Switzerland and Piedmont. The immediate result of this continental visit was the issue, in 1861, of his Popular Education of France, of which the most permanently valuable part, the introductory essay, was subsequently republished under the title “Democracy” in Mixed Essays (1879). In 1864 appeared a by-product of the same foreign mission entitled (not, perhaps, very appropriately) A French Eton, being an account of the general economy of a Lycee at Toulouse. In 1865, he went abroad on a second educational mission, of which the published record appeared, in 1868, under the title Schools and Universities on the Continent. These volumes, and the Reports on Elementary Schools, edited after his death by Sir Francis Sandford, make up the sum of Arnold’s official educational writings, and they all belong to the period of his poetical activity, which practically ended with the year 1867. To the same period, also, belong two other prose works which stand somewhat apart from the series of writings, beginning with Culture and Anarchy, which won for him his contemporary renown as a social and political critic. They are the delightful critical discourses On Translating Homer (1861) and The Study of Celtic Literature (1867), in which we find the essence of his prelections from the chair of poetry at Oxford, a post to which he was elected in 1857 and which he held for ten years. After 1867, Arnold wrote little poetry, and entered upon a career as publicist on social, religious and political subjects which led him somewhat far afield from the high road of literature. He soon became a controversialist whom the newspapers and magazines of the hour found it profitable to notice and to attack; his fame spread across the Atlantic, and in 1883, led to the inevitable Amercian lecturing tour which has been the not always happy lot of many popular English authors. Arnold’s Amercian experiences seem, on the whole, to have been fairly fortunate, and he himself set such store by his lectures in the United States as to tell one of his friends that Discourses in America “was the book by which, of all his prose writings, he most desired to be remembered.” In 1886, he resigned his school inspectorship, and was awarded a state pension. He died suddenly at Liverpool on 15 April, 1888. His life, in spite of uncongenial tasks and some sore domestic trials, was a peculiarly happy one, and the secret of its happiness was his serene temper and an inexhaustible interest in mundane things, evident throughout his letters to his friends and his family.