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

§ 9. Culture and Anarchy

The first two of Essays in Criticism, semi-polemical as they were in their motive, and creating, as they did, a considerable stir among the Philistines, seem to have opened Arnold’s eyes to his opportunities as a social critic. He became conscious, by degrees, of having something like a “mission” to his countrymen, who soon came to speak of him as, pre-eminently, the “apostle of culture” in the England of his day. It was the effect of Essays in Criticism that led to the composition by instalments, between 1867 and 1869, of the book ultimately called Culture and Anarchy, which may be termed his central work in criticism other than literary, containing, as it does, the quintessence of what he had already written, and of much that he was again to write, upon English life and character. Memorable phrases which he had already used are here effectively repeated and expanded; and new phrases and catch-words, with the same quality of “adhesiveness” as the old, are paraded with the same imperturbable iteration. Some of these phrases, such as “sweetness and light” and “the Dissidence of Dissent,” are borrowed from well-known sources, while other things, like the description of English public life as a “Thyestean banquet of claptrap,” and the definition of “the two points of influence” between which our world moves as “Hebraism and Hellenism,” are the author’s own. Culture and Anarchy is, if not a great, an undoubtedly stimulating, book, still capable of exerting a strong influence on young minds. In 1871, Arnold published another series of essays in social criticism under the title Friendship’s Garland, perhaps the most mischievously amusing of his books.

It was, undoubtedly, the impression made in certain quarters by Culture and Anarchy that led Arnold into the somewhat perilous field of theological and religious criticism—in which his chief works are St. Paul and Protestantism (1870), Literature and Dogma (1873), God and the Bible (1875) and Last Essays on Church and Religion (1877). Little need be said of these works here, constituting as they do, as a whole, the least valuable and enduring group of his prose writings. The most popular of them in its day was Literature and Dogma, a work bearing obvious marks of the influence of Renan, and an elaborate disquisition upon a text enunciated in Culture and Anarchy—“No man, who knows nothing else, knows even his own Bible.” The frequent flippancy, not to say levity, of tone which characterises his treatment of sacred subjects in this and other books, together with his too exclusively literary and “intuitional” critical methods in dealing with problems of theological scholarship, aroused a good deal of resentment. No careful and dispassionate reader of his religious writings can, however, have any question about the sincerity and the seriousness of Arnold’s motives. Some of his catch-phrases obtained a wide currency, and are, perhaps, destined to live among the most famous things of their kind coined by him. The definition of God as “a stream of tendency, not ourselves, which makes for righteousness,” of religion as “morality touched by emotion,” of [char] as “the sweet reasonableness” of Jesus—these and other phrases have an epigrammatic quality which will prevent their being soon forgotten.

Sufficent has been incidentally said about the characteristics of Matthew Arnold’s prose style to make it unnecessary to attempt here any elaborate estimate of its qualities as a whole. “The needful qualities of a fit prose,” he himself has said, in a familiar sentence, “are regularity, uniformity, precision, balance.” All these things, it may be said, Arnold’s own prose has markedly as that of any other modern English writer. The one pre-eminent virtue of his prose, as of his verse, style is its lucidity—we never miss, or doubt, his meaning. But the qualities which he enumerates—and clearness—may be found in prose styles which have little or no distinction; and distinction, in the strict sense of the word, Matthew Arnold’s has. It is an unmistakably individual style, and, in spite of its obvious mannerisms and occasional affections, is extremely difficult of imitation. It is a style which is not free from some caprices that “prose of the centre” would avoid, but which, at its best, is about as near a fulfilment as is humanly possible of his own ideals of order and lucidity, with the added graces of ease, elegance and a grave rhythmical movement, the effect of which, like that of the best music, can be felt but never adequately described.