Matthew Arnold
Matthew Arnold; drawing by David Levine

The intelligentsia of the last century have a curious habit. Sometimes they are people whose assumptions and behavior are as remote from ours as those of the Elizabethans and at other times we instantly recognize them. It is arguable that the young Tractarians of the 1830s displayed the same proselytizing zeal, narrowness, self-satisfaction in shocking the benighted, and the same conviction that salvation lay in the rigorous dissection of propositions as did the young communists of the 1930s. But how remote they are! What Newman, Pusey, and Froude thought important and what questions had to be answered are as distant from us as those which puzzled the Paracelsians.

And then ten years later an undergraduate entered Balliol who is only too familiar to us. The handicap well known to the children of the intelligentsia today lay heavy upon him. As the son of a famous father he was expected to excel in the very world where his father was the coming man. Dr. Arnold of Rugby died in his forties, but he was already esteemed by the Whigs as a prominent Liberal Anglican, an Oxford professor of history, and a reforming headmaster. Much was expected of this eldest son of his large family, and academic success was taken for granted. But Matthew Arnold is unmistakably modern. He declined to compete with his father’s reputation.

He was a mild rebel. He did not drop out. He revered and indeed loved his parents too much for that, though he thought they never loved him enough. But he would show the world that he had not been made in his father’s image. As a schoolboy he worked at his own pace and was called idle. Still, he got through the classical grind at Winchester with such ease that he told the headmaster so—and was so mercilessly persecuted by his schoolfellows that Dr. Arnold transferred him to Rugby. There again exertion was not his most conspicuous quality. But he got the second scholarship to Balliol. At Oxford he did so little work that not even the most sedulous coaching in the last three months could get him a first—what was one to do with a fellow who wrote a sonnet on Shakespeare when he ought to have been working for the passport he needed for preferment in the Church or a headmastership or a career at the Bar?

Indeed, what was one to make of someone of his upbringing who showed such an appetite for upper-class life? He wore blue satin waistcoats, sported a monocle, lived as often as he could on champagne and port, belonged to a set which hunted rabbits with hounds and, worse still, played billiards, the sure sign that a young man was on the path to ruin. He was not going to be a good Rugbeian such as William Lake or Arthur Stanley. He was not even going to look like his intellectual college friends, Arthur Hugh Clough and Theodore Walrond. He called his intimates “my dear” and “darling”—a habit he got from the heretic W.G. Ward. Horror of horrors, he ran into debt; and he was a poet.

But his luck held. Dr. Edward Hawkins, the provost of Oriel and persecutor of the Tractarians, was not one to forget that Oriel alumnus Dr. Arnold and his onslaught on Newman. He made inquiries; found that Matthew on that score was as sound as his father; and followed the principle that had made Oriel famous for selecting young Fellows not on performance so much as on promise, and got Matthew elected a Fellow. Park Honan notes that the sonnet on Shakespeare could be read as a declaration by Matthew that he was not going to become a bustling man of action like his father but would emulate the serene objectivity of the artist. No doubt; but he was certainly not content to glow serenely as a don. The trouble with Oriel was that so effectively had Hawkins purged it of the Puseyites and their heterodox opinions that no one dared express any opinions at all. How was he to get started in London? Once again the good old Whig connection did not fail. Lord Lansdowne took Matthew on as a private secretary at a salary which, with the Oriel fellowship that he held as an absentee, kept him in funds to travel in Europe and perform his nominal duties. He became a young man about town. He might have been found sharing chambers with those charming, idle, and morally somewhat wayward young men in Our Mutual Friend, Mortimer Lightwood and Eugene Wrayburn.

During those four years as a languid secretary he wrote poetry, including the love poems to Marguerite. Park Honan is sure he has identified this girl as Mary Claude, who came of a Huguenot family and had a home near Fox How, the Arnold home in Wordsworth’s Lake District. Arthur Clough was Matt’s best friend at Oxford—though when Clough sent him poetry he snubbed him cruelly—and Mary Claude was the best friend of Clough’s sister. Honan may be right. That learned, skeptical, and perceptive Irish scholar, Denis Donoghue, has his doubts. But if Mary Claude was Marguerite why did not Arnold marry her? After all, Arnold had submerged himself in Goethe, Heine, Jean Paul, Senancour, and George Sand, and Mary Claude was a devotee of the German sentimentalists. She spoke more than half a dozen languages and was what few other girls could be—an intellectual companion to someone who thought that even the intelligent among his compatriots were provincial.


Honan gives no explanation. Perhaps it was that Arnold, though marveling at “The lovely lips, with their arch smile that tells / The unconquered joy in which her spirit dwells,” knew she would not fit into his set. Socially she was a mouse. He enjoyed the London beau monde, the flattery of Disraeli, balls, and the titillation of contemplating the appearance of a slim volume of poetry by the anonymous “A.” The girl he determined to marry was a Tory baronet’s tiny daughter with the tiniest of waists. He was in love with femininity.

Then followed a terrible time. No baronet would have such an impecunious suitor. Certainly Sir William Wightman, a judge living in Eaton Place, would not. Indeed if Arnold married he lost three-fifths of his income as his fellowship at Oriel would lapse. His family had for long urged him to give up his life of leisure and apply for an inspectorship of schools. Now he was forced to take their advice. Lord Lansdowne, obliging as ever, nominated him—and then the government fell. Luckily, however, the radicals were turned out, the Whigs came back and—miracle of miracles—his old Balliol tutor Ralph Lingen happened to be education secretary in the civil service. He was in. He was married.

He had gained a wife and he lost a sister. Can anyone today recapture the passion and devotion—and conversely the hatreds and rows—of a Victorian family? How well they knew each other! “Matt,” sister Jane wrote to her brother Tom, “is stretched at full length on one sofa, reading a Christmas tale of Mrs. Gaskell’s which moves him to tears, and the tears to complacent admiration of his own sensibility.”

Jane was Matthew’s inseparable sister and confidante but it was not his marriage but hers that parted them. She married William Forster, a radical who in Gladstone’s first administration was to fight through the bill which made elementary education virtually compulsory in England and was to leave in their lifetime far more of a mark on education than did his brother-in-law. Arnold could not endure Forster; he regarded him as scarcely better than Gradgrind. He was to give his sister away at the altar; suddenly his own courtship took a turn for the worse (though all was well two days later), so he didn’t show. If he behaved so callously to someone he loved and knew so well, how would he behave on his own honeymoon?

At first things went well, though he made his bride spend a freezing night because he was determined to stay at the Grande Chartreuse monastery, and then mount a mule and cross a little-used pass in order to see the view down to Aosta, she suffering from vertigo and in hysterics. But the selfish bachelor became the enslaved husband. His college friends noticed how he seemed to land always on his feet, but his life had its ups and downs. His choice of a wife was unerring, his family life intense and protective. He was hopelessly indulgent to all their children, the boys turning out to be even more idle than their father had been. But three times he lost a son and each time the heart was torn out of him.

His career too had its ups and downs. His old Balliol tutor turned out to be a fiend. Pursued by Gladstone’s miserable parsimony, Lingen could no longer indulge his education inspectors in the way that his predecessor, the humanitarian James Kay-Shuttleworth, had done. Park Honan gives a first-class account of the drudgery of Arnold’s life as an inspector, the tyranny of hours and regulations under which he worked, the distress of knowing that reports that told the truth would be rejected and possibly lead to dismissal. The roads along which the inspectorate traveled were lined with the graves of those who had died from overwork. Arnold saw no reason why he should add to them. But his inspections were cursory not simply to spare himself; they were cursory in order to encourage the children on whom he habitually lavished praise and to spare the wretched pupil-teachers who were paid by results—examination results. As he grew more famous, Arnold did not hesitate to pillory the system—he thought rightly that Lingen would not dare to dismiss him. But he missed his promotion and twice suffered serious defeats at the hands of the odious Robert Lowe and his own brother-in-law Forster. In nothing was Victorian England more wickedly insensitive than in its provision for state education: and the country is paying for it still.


And so the poet receded and the portly, tall, good-humored, loud-spoken, great-hearted essayist took his place, respected today as the greatest critic of his age, a writer whose influence upon our time is immense. But he was not then so respected. The Oxford lectures which he gave as professor of poetry were thought to be failures—even the famous offering On Translating Homer. (He never learned how to deliver a lecture and his tour in America was a disappointment even when he took a crash course on elocution midway.) His contemporaries disliked his humor, his banter, his badinage, his Olympian tone, his continual reminder that their religion and culture were impoverished and insular. Arnold kept on telling them that for all their obsession with the classics, German scholars were their superiors in philology and ancient history and that there was more to Greek myth and drama than philology.

For all its lack of incident, Arnold’s life was exemplary. He spoke with the tongues of angels but never flattered; his finest critical essays were pooh-poohed as lightweight but he never sulked; popularity evaded him but he continued to smile. He took reverses in his stride. Does this shine through Park Honan’s pages? Well, it hardly shines. Mr. Honan has adopted the normal method of relating Arnold’s writings to the story of his life in order to show how this or that reference in his verse or prose relates to things that he thought or that happened to him. That is done about as well as it could be done, and certainly where the events of his life are concerned Honan has added to knowledge. His treatment of Arnold’s relations with his brothers and sisters and then with his own family could not be bettered. Nor could his way of continually reminding the reader that behind the flâneur was a man of immense integrity who read enormously and also—for it is not always the same thing—cogently, always expanding his mind and his critical range. The sheer detail of his account drives the point home.

The trouble, however, with his method is that we never see any topic in perspective. Each event and Arnold’s response to it is treated as of equal value. Looming over the book, as was inevitable, is Lionel Trilling’s incomparable work on Arnold.* Trilling called it a biography of Arnold’s mind and Honan would have shown better manners had he been more generous in his references to it. For entirely justified as he was in writing the story not of Arnold’s mind but of his life and works, can one really decline to judge how great a poet or critic he was? I am bound to admit that I find many of the love lyrics…unconvincing. Suddenly there are bursts of flawless inspiration—“Dover Beach,” “On Growing Old,” even “Sohrab and Rustum”—but the very restraint on which Arnold prided himself is impaired by his use of high poetical words. Honan could very well retort that he will leave it to others to use the by now well-worn techniques of practical criticism to analyze Arnold’s language; but in that case why make any claims for the poetry at all? Let the quotations stand by themselves.

On the other hand one would have thought that it was almost impossible not to make some assessment of Arnold as a critic. But what is one to make of a sentence such as this?

In proposing what the critical sensibility might be, he began to fashion the voices of later critics of literature and society such as Eliot and Richards, Leavis, Tillotson and Wilson Knight, Trilling and Tate and Blackmur and Ransom, or the more recent voices (to cite very different examples) of Northrop Frye in Anatomy of Criticism, Iris Murdoch in The Sovereignty of Good, or Raymond Williams in Culture and Society and his later books.

Well, we all know that Abraham begat Isaac, and Isaac begat Jacob, but since some of these critics wrote pages explaining why they rejected Arnold’s criteria, to press a suit of paternity of these dimensions is rash. I.A. Richards, who has better claims than any to be the founder of practical criticism, could arguably be said to write in direct opposition to Arnold. Eliot’s criticism of Arnold—of his distrust of ideas in criticism—and his contempt for Arnold’s inference that literature can do the work of Christianity are well known enough. But on very different grounds, until Trilling wrote, it was fashionable to criticize Arnold for being a phrasemaker whose phrases fell apart when they were tested; for being a snob and an authoritarian believer in the state; and for his desire to see a Platonic elite handing down judgments to the unenlightened.

While Eliot called for ever sharper discrimination, others attacked Arnold for putting such weight upon discrimination. Was it really the first duty of a critic to argue that Wordsworth should be ranked above Tennyson? Should he not rather consider that his first duty was to reveal what each was saying and how admirably they said it? Such critics made a point when they mocked the infallibility of Arnold’s judgment and taste. For had he not, after slashing Francis Newman’s translation of Homer, slashed his own throat by choosing for his translations of passages from the Iliad that most intractable of meters for the English language, the hexameter?

But Trilling’s book and the revaluation of the Victorians which followed G.M. Young’s Portrait of an Age (1936) at last saw justice done. Arnold was acknowledged as the greatest critic of his age. He was the first man to argue that the spiritual health of a nation depended on there being a sufficient number of civilized beings devoting themselves to spreading sweetness and light. He was the first to claim that the role of the critic was to civilize the nation’s mind and to follow a calling every bit as dedicated and strenuous as that of a scholar. At last his dreams began to be realized. Many people came to regard literature as a substitute for church-going. Criticism replaced theology and book reviews sermons. State patronage of the arts, fathered by Keynes, became a commonplace. Arnold’s old stalking-horses in Literature and Dogma, Lord Salisbury and Samuel Wilberforce, were put out to grass, and to refer to the doctrine of the Trinity or the Atonement in the Anglican Church became positively ill-bred.

In education his ideas triumphed almost too conclusively. Of course he was right to oppose the spirit of Gradgrind and Bounderby and to insist that education geared solely to what was commercially profitable was not education at all. Of course he was right to insist that philology was not enough and that the education Lord Lumpington received at Eton and Christ Church was inadequate. He was right to say that schoolchildren ought to learn more than grammar and mathematical manipulation, and that children too needed time to reflect and find their interests. Arnold taught us to waste time profitably in reading the Bhagavad Gita and other works remote from the burning issues of the day. Indeed his whole life was a justification of selective idleness: he read us a homily to moderate our desire to bustle and shine and succeed.

It is not Arnold’s fault that the English need to remind themselves that unless children learn grammar and multiplication elementary education is a waste of time. But it is his fault that for two generations his essay “Literature and Science” reinforced the disdain in the public schools for science. Instead of going against the grain and shaking the complacency of the governing classes, Arnold’s figure of fun, Mr. Bottles the manufacturer, persuaded them that industry was a part of the nation’s activity which was beneath their notice. Not that they required much persuading. The engineer, the hero of early Victorian days, sank in esteem and became a forgotten lowly subordinate, a McAndrew rescued from oblivion only by Kipling. Arnold never understood how scientists worked or thought or in what relation science stood to society. Today sweetness and light beam through education; but where is the industrial wealth to pay for them?

There was in Arnold’s philosophy of life a faint sign of self-indulgence. The dandified slim youth vanished under the shadow of the 240-pound, florid, genial man talking rather too loudly at parties and drinking rather too much whiskey. On his lecture tour one American compared him to “an intelligent and educated bricklayer—spokesman of a striker’s delegation.” Perhaps it was hard for him to believe that the Barbarians and Philistines would ever respond to his voice and regard money-making as a disagreeable diversion from the delights of leisure.

But what a voice it is—for it speaks to us still across the years. Arnold was a master of rhetoric. He entrances by the play of his mind, and the eloquence and delicacy of his advocacy. He likes to present himself as a lonely and deprecating figure. But he speaks with the assurance of a man at ease with himself, with his audience, with even his opponents. A century passes, the issues change their shape, the terms of discourse change. What hope has a critic of immortality other than the tone of voice which gives us an impression of his character? The tone of some critics who aspired to Arnold’s crown, for instance that of F.R. Leavis, reminds one of the tone of those Dissenters whom Arnold so disliked. The whine, the rancor, and the unction are so unlike the tone of Arnold’s voice, with its humor, wry astonishment at stupidity, delighted amusement at folly, instant recognition of distinction, and deprecating weary inflection. His tone of voice will ensure that he is read long after the irritation of posterity has consigned the ill-tempered to oblivion.

This Issue

December 17, 1981