The Triumph of Matthew Arnold

Matthew Arnold: A Life

by Park Honan
McGraw-Hill, 496 pp., $19.95

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…

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