Birthplace: Laleham, Middlesex, England
Location of death: Liverpool, England
Cause of death: Heart Failure
Remains: Buried, All Saints Churchyard, Laleham, Middlesex, England
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Poet, Critic, Educator
Executive summary: Culture and Anarchy
English poet, literary critic and inspector of schools, born at Laleham, near Staines, on the 24th of December 1822. He was the son of the famous Dr. Arnold of Rugby, and Winchester, Rugby and Balliol College, Oxford, all of which contributed their best towards his education. It would be a bold critic of his life and his writings who should attempt to say what his work would have been if his training had been different. In his judgments on Goethe, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley and Hugo, it may be seen how strong was his impulse to bow to authority. On the other hand, in Arnold's ingenious reasoning away the conception of Providence to "a stream of tendency not ourselves which makes for righteousness", we see how strong was his natural impulse for taking original views. The fact that the very air Arnold breathed during the whole of the impressionable period of his life was academic is a very important fact to bear in mind.
After a year at Winchester, Matthew Arnold entered Rugby school in 1837. He early began to write and print verses. His first publication was a Rugby prize poem, Alaric at Rome, in 1840. This was followed in 1843, after he had gone up to Oxford in 1840 as a scholar of Balliol, by his poem Cromwell, which won the Newdigate prize. In 1844 he graduated with second-class honors, and in 1845 was elected a fellow of Oriel College, where among his colleagues was A. H. Clough, his friendship with whom is commemorated in that exquisite elegy Thyrsis. From 1847 to 1851 he acted as private secretary to Lord Lansdowne; and in the latter year, after acting for a short time as assistant master at Rugby, he was appointed to an inspectorship of schools, a post which he retained until two years before his death. He married, in June 1851, the daughter of Mr. Justice Wightman. Meanwhile, in 1849 appeared The Strayed Reveller, and other Poems, by A, a volume which gained a considerable esoteric reputation. In 1852 he published another volume under the same initial, Empedocles on Etna, and other Poems. Empedocles is as undramatic a poem perhaps as was ever written in dramatic form, but studded with lyrical beauties of a very high order. In 1853 Arnold published a volume of Poems under his own name. This consisted partially of poems selected from the two previous volumes. A second series of poems, which contained only two new ones, was published in 1855. So great was the impression made by these in academic circles that in 1857 Arnold was elected professor of poetry at Oxford, and he held the chair for ten years. In 1858 he published his classical tragedy, Merope. Nine years afterwards his New Poems (1867) were published. While he held the Oxford professorship he published several series of lectures, which gave him a high place as a scholar and critic. The essays On Translating Homer: Three Lectures given at Oxford, published in 1861, supplemented in 1862 by On Translating Homer: Last Words, a fourth lecture given in reply to F. W. Newman's Homeric Translation in Theory and Practice (1861), and On the Study of Celtic Literature, published in 1867, were full of subtle and brilliant if not of profound criticism. So were the two series of Essays in Criticism, the first of which, consisting of articles reprinted from various reviews, appeared in 1865. The essay on "A Persian Passion Play" was added in the editions of 1875; and a second series, edited by Coleridge, appeared in 1888.
Arnold's poetic activity almost ceased after he left the chair of poetry at Oxford. He was several times sent by government to make inquiries into the state of education in France, Germany, Holland and other countries; and his reports, with their thorough-going and searching criticism of continental methods, as contrasted with English methods, showed how conscientiously he had devoted some of his best energies to the work. His fame as a poet and a literary critic has somewhat overshadowed the fact that he was during thirty-five years of his life -- from 1851 to 1886 -- employed in the Education Department as one of Her Majesty's inspectors of schools, while his literary work was achieved in such intervals of leisure as could be spared from the public service. At the time of his appointment the government, by arrangement with the religious bodies, entrusted the inspection of schools connected with the Church of England to clergymen, and agreed also to send Roman Catholic inspectors to schools managed by members of that communion. Other schools -- those of the British and Foreign Society, the Wesleyans, and undenominational schools generally -- were inspected by laymen, of whom Arnold was one. There were only three or four of these officers at first, and their districts were necessarily large. It is to the experience gained in intercourse with Nonconformist school managers that we may attribute the curiously intimate knowledge of religious sects which furnished the material for some of his keen though good-humored sarcasms. The Education Act of 1870, which simplified the administrative system, abolished denominational inspection, and thus greatly reduced the area assigned to a single inspector. Arnold took charge of the district of Westminster, and remained in that office until his resignation, taking also an occasional share in the inspection of training colleges for teachers, and in conferences at the central office. His letters show that some of the routine which devolved upon him was distasteful, and that he was glad to entrust to a skilled assistant much of the duty of individual examination and the making up of schedules and returns. But the influence he exerted on schools, on the department, and on the primary education of the whole country, was indirectly far greater than is generally supposed. His annual reports, of which more than twenty were collected into a volume by his friend and official chief, Sir Francis (afterwards Lord) Sandford, attracted, by reason of their freshness of style and thought, much more of public attention than is usually accorded to blue-book literature; and his high aims, and his sympathetic appreciation of the efforts and difficulties of the teachers, had a remarkable effect in raising the tone of elementary education, and in indicating the way to improvement. In particular, he insisted on the formative elements of school education, on literature and the "humanities", as distinguished from the collection of scraps of information and "useful knowledge"; and he sought to impress all the young teachers with the necessity of broader mental cultivation than was absolutely required to obtain the government certificate. In his reports also he dwelt often and forcibly on the place which the study of the Bible, not the distinctive formularies of the churches, ought to hold in English schools. He urged that besides the religious and moral purposes of Scriptural teaching, it had a literary value of its own, and was the best instrument in the hands even of the elementary teacher for uplifting the soul and refining and enlarging the thoughts of young children.
On three occasions Arnold was asked to assist the government by making special inquiries into the state of education in foreign countries. These duties were especially welcome to him, serving as they did as a relief from the monotony of school inspection at home, and as opportunities for taking a wider survey of the whole subject of education, and for expressing his views on principles and national aims as well as administrative details. In 1859, as foreign assistant commissioner, he prepared for the duke of Newcastle's commission to inquire into the subject of elementary education a report (printed 1860) which was afterwards reprinted (1861) in a volume entitled The Popular Education of France, with Notices of that of Holland and Switzerland. In 1865 he was again employed as assistant-commissioner by the Schools Inquiry Commission under Lord Taunton; and his report on this subject, On Secondary Education in Foreign Countries (1866), was subsequently reprinted under the title Schools and Universities on the Continent (1868). Twenty years later he was sent by the Education Department to make special inquiries on certain specified points -- free education, the status and training of teachers, and compulsory attendance at schools. The result of this investigation appeared as a parliamentary paper, Special Report on certain points connected with Elementary Education in Germany, Switzerland and France, in 1886. He also contributed the chapter on "Schools" (1837-87) to the second volume of Humphry Ward's Reign of Queen Victoria. Part of his official writings may be studied in Reports for Elementary Schools (1852-82), edited by Sir F. Sandford in 1889.
All these reports form substantial contributions to the history and literature of education in the Victorian age. They have been quoted often, and have exercised marked influence on subsequent changes and controversies. One great purpose underlies them all. It is to bring home to the English people a conviction that education ought to be a national concern, that it should not be left entirely to local, or private, or irresponsible initiative, that the watchful jealousy so long shown by Liberals, and especially by Nonconformists, in regard to state action was a grave practical mistake, and that in an enlightened democracy, animated by a progressive spirit and noble and generous ideals, it was the part of wisdom to invoke the collective power of the state to give effect to those ideals. To this theme he constantly recurred in his essays, articles and official reports. "Porro unum est necessarium. One thing is needful; organize your secondary education."
In 1883 a pension of £250 was conferred on Arnold in recognition of his literary merits. In the same year he went to the United States on a lecturing tour, and again in 1886, his subjects being "Emerson" and the "Principles and Value of Numbers." The success of these lectures, though they were admirable in matter and form, was marred by the lecturer's lack of experience in delivery. It is sufficient, further, to say that Culture and Anarchy: an Essay in Political and Social Criticism, appeared in 1869; St. Paul and Protestantism, with an Introduction on Puritanism and the Church of England (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); 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). Such essays as the first of these, embodying as they did Arnold's views of theological and polemical subjects, attracted much attention at the time of their publication, owing to the state of the intellectual atmosphere at the moment; but it is doubtful, perhaps, whether they will be greatly considered in the future. Many severe things have been said, and will be said, concerning the inadequacy of poets like Coleridge and Wordsworth when confronting subjects of a theological or philosophical kind. Wordsworth's High Church Pantheism and Coleridge's disquisitions on the Logos seem farther removed from the speculations of today than do the dreams of Lucretius. But these two great writers lived before the days of modern science. Arnold, living only a few years later, came at a transition period when the winds of tyrannous knowledge had blown off the protecting roof that had covered the centuries before, but when time and much labor were needed to build another roof of new materials -- a period when it was impossible for the poet to enjoy either the quietism of High Church Pantheism in which Wordsworth had basked, or the sheltering protection of German metaphysics under which Coleridge had preached -- a period, nevertheless, when the wonderful revelations of science were still too raw, too cold and hard, to satisfy the yearnings of the poetic soul. Objectionable as Arnold's rationalizing criticism was to contemporary orthodoxy, and questionable as was his equipment in point of theological learning, his spirituality of outlook and ethical purpose were not to be denied. Yet it is not Arnold's views that have become current coin so much as his literary phrases -- his craving for "culture" and "sweetness and light", his contempt for "the dissidence of Dissent and the Protestantism of the Protestant religion", his "stream of tendency not ourselves making for righteousness", his classification of "Philistines and barbarians" -- and so forth. His death at Liverpool, of heart failure on the 15th of April 1888, was sudden and quite unexpected.
Arnold was a prominent figure in that great galaxy of Victorian poets who were working simultaneously -- Tennyson, Browning, Rossetti, William Morris and Swinburne -- poets between whom there was at least this connecting link, that the quest of all of them was the old-fashioned poetical quest of the beautiful. Beauty was their watchword, as it had been the watchword of their immediate predecessors -- Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley and Byron. That this group of early 19th-century poets might be divided into two -- those whose primary quest was physical beauty, and those whose primary quest was moral beauty -- is no doubt true. Still, insofar as beauty was their quest they were all akin. And so with the Victorian group to which Arnold belonged. As to the position which he takes among them opinions must necessarily vary. On the whole, his place in the group will be below all the others. The question as to whether he was primarily a poet or a prosateur has been often asked. If we were to try to answer that question here, we should have to examine his poetry in detail -- we should have to inquire whether his primary impulse of expression was to seize upon the innate suggestive power of words, or whether his primary impulse was to rely upon the logical power of the sentence. In nobility of temper, in clearness of statement, and especially in descriptive power, he is beyond praise. But intellect, judgment, culture and study of great poets may do much towards enabling a prose writer to write what must needs be called good poetry. What they cannot enable him to do is to produce those magical effects which poets of the rarer kind can achieve by seizing that mysterious, suggestive power of words which is far beyond all mere statement. Notwithstanding the exquisite work that Arnold has left behind him, some critics have come to the conclusion that his primary impulse in expression was that of the poetically-minded prosateur rather than that of the born poet. And this has been said by some who nevertheless deeply admire poems like "The Scholar Gypsy", "Thyrsis", "The Forsaken Merman", "Dover Beach", "Heine's Grave", "Rugby Chapel", "The Grande Chartreuse", "Sohrab and Rustum", "The Sick King in Bokhara", "Tristram and Iseult", etc. It would seem that a man may show all the endowments of a poet save one, and that one the most essential -- the instinctive mastery over metrical effects.
Much has been said about what is called the "Greek temper" of Matthew Arnold's muse. A good deal depends upon what it meant by the Hellenic spirit. But if the Greek temper expresses itself, as is generally supposed, in the sweet acceptance and melodious utterance of the beauty of the world as it is, accepting that beauty without inquiring as to what it means and as to where it goes, it is difficult to see where in Arnold's poetry this temper declares itself. Surely it is not in Empedocles on Etna, and surely it is not in Merope. If there is a poem of his in which one would expect to find the joyous acceptance of life apart from questionings about the civilization in which the poet finds himself environed (its hopes, its fears, its aspirations and its failures) -- such questionings, in short, as were forever vexing Arnold's soul -- it would be in "The Scholar Gypsy", a poem in which the poet tries to throw himself into the mood of a "Romany Rye." The great attraction of the gypsies to Englishmen of a certain temperament is that they alone seem to feel the joyous acceptance of life which is supposed to be specially Greek. Hence it would have been but reasonable to look, if anywhere, for the expression of Arnold's Greek temper in a poem which sets out to describe the feelings of the student who, according to Glanville's story, left Oxford to wander over England with the Romanies. But instead of this we got the old fretting about the unsatisfactoriness of modern civilization. Glanville's Oxford student, whose story is glanced at now and again in the poem, flits about in the scenery like a cloud shadow on the grass; but the way in which Arnold contrives to avoid giving us the faintest idea either dramatic or pictorial of the student about whom he talks so much, and the gypsies with whom the student lived, is one of the most singular feats in poetry. The reflections which come to a young Oxonian lying on the grass and longing to escape life's fitful fever without shuffling off this mortal coil, are, no doubt, beautiful reflections beautifully expressed, but the temper they show is the very opposite of the Greek. To say this is not in the least to disparage Arnold. "A man is more like the age in which he lives", says the Chinese aphorism, "than he is like his own father and mother", and Arnold's polemical writings alone are sufficient to show that the waters of life he drank were from fountains distilled, seven times distilled, at the topmost slope of 19th-century civilization. George Meredith's "Old Chartist" exhibits far more of the temper of acceptance than does any poem by Matthew Arnold.
His most famous critical dictum is that poetry is a "criticism of life." What he seems to have meant is that poetry is the crowning fruit of a criticism of life; that just as the poet's metrical effects are and must be the result of a thousand semi-conscious generalizations upon the laws of cause and effect in metric art, so the beautiful things he says about life and the beautiful pictures he paints of life are the result of his generalizations upon life as he passes through it, and consequently that the value of his poetry consists in the beauty and the truth of his generalizations.
The place Arnold held and still holds as a critic is due more to his exquisite felicity in expressing his views than to the penetration of his criticism. Nothing can exceed the easy grace of his prose at the best. It is conversational and yet absolutely exact in the structure of the sentences; and in spite of every vagary, his distinguishing note is urbanity. Keen-edged as his satire could be, his writing for the most part is as urbane as Joseph Addison's own. His influence on contemporary criticism and contemporary ideals was considerable, and generally wholesome. His insistence on the necessity of looking at "the thing in itself", and the need for acquainting oneself with "the best that has been thought and said in the world", gave a new stimulus alike to originality and industry in criticism; and in his own selection of subjects -- such as Joubert, or the de Guérins -- he opened a new world to a larger class of the better sort of readers, exercising in this respect an awakening influence in his own time akin to that of Walter Pater a few years afterwards. The comparison with Pater might indeed be pressed further, and yet too far. Both were essentially products of Oxford. But Arnold, whose description of that "home of lost causes, and forsaken beliefs, and unpopular names, and impossible loyalties", is in itself almost a poem, had a classical austerity in his style that savored more intimately of Oxford tradition, and an ethical earnestness even in his most flippant moments which kept him notably aloof from the more sensuous school of aesthetics.
Father: Thomas Arnold (headmaster)
Wife: Frances Lucy Wightman (m. Jun-1851, three sons)
High School: Rugby School (1837-)
University: Balliol College, Oxford University (1844, 2nd Class Honors)
Is the subject of books:
Matthew Arnold, 1939, BY: Lionel Trilling
Matthew Arnold: A Study, 1947, BY: Sir E. K. Chambers
Matthew Arnold: The Poet As Humanist, 1967, BY: G. Robert Stange
Author of books:
The Strayed Reveller, and Other Poems (1849, poetry)
Empedocles on Etna, and Other Poems (1852, poetry)
Merope (1858, poetry)
The Popular Education of France with Notices of That of Holland and Switzerland (1861)
On Translating Homer (1861, lectures)
On Translating Homer: Last Words (1862, lectures)
A French Eton: or, Middle Class Education and the State (1864)
On the Study of Celtic Literature (1867)
New Poems (1867, poetry)
Essays in Criticism (1865, criticism)
On the Study of Celtic Literature (1867, lectures)
Schools and Universities on the Continent (1868)
Culture and Anarchy (1869)
St. Paul and Protestantism (1870)
Friendship's Garland (1871)
Literature and Dogma (1873)
God and the Bible (1875)
Last Essays on Church and Religion (1877)
Mixed Essays (1879, essays)
Irish Essays (1882, essays)
Discourses in America (1885)
Essays in Criticism, Second Series (1888)
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