British Poetry Seminar I(2019)
 

Matthew Arnold

 

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Although MATTHEW ARNOLD is best remembered today as the leading Victorian critic of literature and culture, he began his literary career as a poet. In this he resembles his great predecessors in English literary criticism, Samuel Johnson and Samuel Taylor Coleridge , as well as the twentieth-century critic on whom he had perhaps the greatest influence, T. S. Eliot . Like these other poet-critics, Arnold produced a relatively small body of poetry: two early volumes (1849 and 1852), followed by a number of collected editions containing only a handful of significant new poems, and finally one new volume in 1867. Yet Arnold's reputation in his lifetime placed him securely at the head of the second rank of Victorian poets--behind Tennyson and Robert Browning --and certain of his poems, notably 'Dover Beach', have never lost their popularity.

Arnold was born Christmas Eve, 1822, at Laleham-on-Thames, the second child and eldest son of Dr. Thomas Arnold, who was soon (1828) to become headmaster of Rugby School and the most famous educator in England. The influence of his father on Matthew Arnold's life and writings is difficult to overestimate. Thomas Arnold's reputation surpassed that of his son for many decades: he was famous not only as a strict moral reformer of the English boarding-school system, but also as a liberal religious polemicist (the opponent of the Tractarian movement at Oxford) and as a classical historian. Arnold addresses his father directly in his elegy, 'Rugby Chapel', and indirectly in a long, Homeric blank-verse episode, Sohrab and Rustum , which tells the tale of a Persian warrior, Sohrab, who after searching all his life for his great father, Rustum, unknowingly meets him in battle and is killed by him. Critics have also seen evidence of Arnold's troubled relationship to his beloved but demanding father in the despondency of his early poetry, much of which was written after Thomas Arnold's death but before Matthew felt he had lived up to his father's high expectations.

Arnold received an education consisting almost entirely of the classics, first from private tutors at home, then for two years at a private school at Laleham and one year at Winchester before he finally enrolled at Rugby in 1837. There, under the direct supervision of his father, he proved to be an able but not particularly dedicated student of classical literature, although he did win the school prize for verse with his first published poem, 'Alaric at Rome' (1840). In his scholarly indolence (as his father perceived it), he contrasted with Arthur Hugh Clough , Dr. Arnold's star pupil, several years older than Matthew, who had in a sense been adopted by the Arnolds and was held up as a model to the Arnold sons. Yet Matthew surprised his family when he followed in Clough 's footsteps by winning a scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford, in 1840. There Arnold developed the friendship with Clough which had begun at Rugby and which lasted, with some intervals of coolness, until Clough 's death in 1861. Their correspondence is the source of much of our insight into Arnold's personal life and opinions during his early adulthood, and the two were simultaneously strong supporters and stern critics of each other's poetry. Arnold's elegy for Clough , 'Thyrsis' (published 1866), was one of his last major poems; the frame is conventionally pastoral and the diction and stanza derived from Keats , yet Arnold manages to evoke his sincere regret for his lost friend as well as his fondness for the Oxford countryside he associated with him.

Arnold loved Oxford, which he commemorated in several poems, most famously in 'The Scholar Gipsy'. His career there very closely resembled his time at Rugby: although he scored a notable success by winning the Newdigate prize for poetry in 1843 with his poem 'Cromwell', he was better known for his dilettantism and aloof wit than for his scholarship. By this nonchalance he sought to distance himself from his famously earnest father, as he did also by attending the sermons of John Henry Newman , Dr. Arnold's opponent in the Tractarian controversy. Unlike Clough , however, Arnold did not allow himself to be thrown into doubt by Newman 's Anglo-Catholic teachings, but maintained an aesthetic distance from the whole debate which would soon become his trademark stance in all his writings.

Yet Thomas Arnold continued to make his presence felt in his son's life, even as the latter sought to separate himself. Soon after Matthew's arrival in Oxford, his father was appointed Professor of Modern History (1841) and delivered a very well-received inaugural lecture; less than a year later, he died at the age of forty-six of heart failure. Matthew was left disconsolate, fearing for his own health and worried about not living up to his father's legacy. In Oxford he was known as the son of a great man, yet he managed only a second-class degree in 1844, which by destroying his chances of a fellowship at Balliol left him without immediate prospects for employment. But once again he followed Clough by winning a fellowship at Oriel, which was based on a competitive exam rather than on degree results, in the spring of 1845.

In 1847 Arnold was appointed private secretary to the liberal peer Lord Lansdowne, a post with few responsibilities which introduced him into London society and, together with his Oriel scholarship, provided a reasonable income. Arnold travelled to France and to Switzerland, adopted continental habits, and generally maintained the reputation he had acquired at Oxford for aloofness and rather directionless dandyism. Little of this worldliness, however, is evident in his first book of poems, The Strayed Reveller, and Other Poems , which appeared under the pseudonym 'A' in 1849. The 'strayed reveller', for example, is an ancient Greek follower of Bacchus, but he is tired out by his own revels and (as the poem's title suggests) distanced from them. The title character of 'Mycerinus', an Egyptian king who is told that he has only six years to live and who responds by feasting day and night, is another failed hedonist, who does not particularly enjoy the festive lifestyle he has adopted. Most of the longer poems in the volume concern similarly melancholy characters, usually foreign or exotic (sirens, Gypsies, mermen), and often near death.

The other significant group of poems in the volume are first-person meditations, mostly sonnets of a didactic turn. The most important of these sonnets, 'To a Friend', lists the authors who are said to provide a 'prop [...] in these bad days', concluding with Sophocles, 'Who saw life steadily, and saw it whole'. This exaltation of poetic distance and comprehensiveness reappears in the collection's final poem and Arnold's first extended lyric in his own voice, 'Resignation'. The poem is addressed to Arnold's elder sister, Jane (whom he calls 'Fausta' in his poetry), and urges a philosophy of stoic detachment. The true poet sees 'Not deep [...] but wide':
 

Before him he sees Life unroll,
A placid and continuous whole;
That general Life, which does not cease,
Whose secret is not joy, but peace;
That Life, whose dumb wish is not miss'd
If birth proceeds, if things subsist.


'Resignation' directly and consciously recalls Wordsworth . It is set in the Lake District, where the Arnolds had a summer house, Fox How, and where Matthew as a child had met Wordsworth , whom he never ceased to admire. Moreover, in both its time-scheme and its address to a beloved sister, 'Resignation' rewrites 'Tintern Abbey'. Arnold's poem pales next to its great predecessor, in comparison with which its choppy versification and overt didacticism seem heavy-handed; but the comparison is nevertheless fruitful, as it shows how deliberately Arnold avoids the consolations and 'recompences' that Wordsworth famously finds for the sadness that comes with experience. Reviewers of Arnold's volume almost universally disapproved of this pessimism; those who knew the identity of the author could not have helped contrasting his expressions of enervation with the muscular Christianity of his father.

The years surrounding the publication of his first volume proved to be personally and vocationally crucial for Arnold. On a trip to Switzerland in 1848 he fell in love with a Frenchwoman of whom nothing is known but that they agreed to meet again in the same place a year later-- which they did, and then for whatever reason parted. The result was a series of despondent but touching love-lyrics addressed to 'Marguerite', most of which Arnold published in his second volume and which in later collections he assembled as a series entitled 'Switzerland'. Back in London in 1850, he fell in love with Frances Lucy Wightman, who also gave rise to a number of love-poems, later assembled as 'Faded Leaves'. In 1851 Arnold was appointed Inspector of Schools, a job which gave him the financial security to marry Miss Wightman later that year. For the rest of his life Arnold's job and his family, to both of which he was extremely devoted, took up most of his time: his work as inspector involved an enormous amount of travel and drudgery, while his children, several of whom died before their father, were a source of constant concern, as can be seen from his letters home to his wife.

In 1852 Arnold published, again under the pseudonym 'A', Empedocles on Etna, and Other Poems , but he soon withdrew the book from circulation. In 1853 he issued Poems by Matthew Arnold , the contents of which were largely the same as those of the 1852 volume but with some omissions-- most notably the title poem, which was now replaced by Sohrab and Rustum -- and with the addition of a 'Preface' explaining Arnold's reasons for omitting Empedocles . The Preface was Arnold's first published piece of literary criticism and indicated the direction his literary endeavors would take from now on. It explains that Empedocles , a lyric drama about the Greek philosopher who committed suicide by throwing himself into the crater of Mt. Etna, was not worthy of inclusion because 'it is not enough that the Poet should add to the knowledge of men, it is required of him also that he should add to their happiness'. Inappropriate subjects for poetry include any 'in which the suffering finds no vent in action; in which a continuous state of mental distress is prolonged, unrelieved by incident, hope or resistance; in which there is everything to be endured, nothing to be done'. Arnold considers such situations typically 'modern' (in the despair of Empedocles 'we hear already the doubts, we witness the discouragement, of Hamlet and of Faust'), and recommends that modern writers should spend less time on introspection and fine sentiments, and concentrate instead, like the ancient Greek tragedians, on heroic actions.

The Preface caught the attention of reviewers and launched Arnold's career as a critic. But in fact it has little to say about most of the poems in his 1853 volume, since it deals exclusively with dramatic or narrative poetry, whereas the bulk of the volume, aside from Sohrab and Rustum and Tristram and Iseult (the latter an uneven but narratively complex and interesting performance), is lyric. Besides the love-lyrics to Marguerite and to his wife, the collection included Arnold's best and most original poem to date, 'The Scholar Gipsy'. The title character, an Oxford scholar who, according to legend, grew tired of waiting for preferment at Oxford and ran off to join the Gypsies and learn their secrets, resembles earlier Arnold characters, but without their despair. The speaker congratulates the scholar on having escaped from our world:


Before this strange disease of modern life,
With its sick hurry, its divided aims,
Its heads o'ertax'd, its palsied hearts, was rife.


Arnold's poems went through new editions in 1854, 1855, and 1857, each time including a slightly different selection in a new arrangement, and with a few new poems added. His reputation as poet and critic was great enough that in 1858 he was elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford. His lectures on Homer achieved a major success, and from then on Arnold devoted himself primarily to prose, writing on education, religion, literature ( Essays in Criticism ), and culture ( Culture and Anarchy ). He did however publish New Poems in 1867, which included Empedocles on Etna (reprinted, according to Arnold's note, on the advice of Robert Browning ) and a number of important poems that had not appeared in previous volumes, including 'Dover Beach' and 'Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse', both of which had been written more than a decade earlier. These two poems not only represent Arnold's most assured and tuneful verse, but have also come to be considered typical, even quintessential 'Victorian' poems on account of their concern with the decline of faith and the absence of any acceptable substitute. The speaker of 'Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse', for instance, touring the old monastery, finds himself


Wandering between two worlds, one dead,
The other powerless to be born,
With nowhere yet to rest my head.


Arnold's poetic talents clearly lay in the expression of such angst, which he himself recognized to be representative of his age; yet these poems directly contradicted the precepts of the 1853 Preface, which had condemned the delineation of situations 'in which there is everything to be endured, nothing to be done'. Arnold felt that he could accomplish much more by his prose writing, a field in which he could also establish pre-eminence-- as he could not in poetry, where he grudgingly recognized the superiority of Tennyson . Most twentieth-century critics of Arnold's works have therefore concentrated on his criticism, although most have also followed the example of Lionel Trilling , whose magisterial 1939 study, Matthew Arnold , considers Arnold's poetry as an important early indication of the direction his genius would take. Important studies devoted entirely to the poetry include A. Dwight Culler, Imaginative Reason: The Poetry of Matthew Arnold (1966); G. Robert Stange, Matthew Arnold: The Poet as Humanist (1967); William E. Buckler, On the Poetry of Matthew Arnold: Essays in Critical Reconstruction (1982); and David G. Riede, Matthew Arnold and the Betrayal of Language (1988). Recent critics of Victorian poetry, however, have generally turned their attention away from Arnold in favor of previously underappreciated poets, including Elizabeth Barrett Browning , Christina Rossetti , and even Clough . Yet Arnold continues to figure largely in current debates over cultural studies, canon formation, and the practice of professional criticism, and hence his poetry, if only by proximity to his more controversial prose, is unlikely to disappear from view.
 

 

 

 

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