of sacred poems. Gottfried Arnold has rightly been classed with the pietistic section of Protestant historians (Bibliotheca Sacra, 1850).
ARNOLD, MATTHEW (1822–1888), English poet, literary critic and inspector of schools, was born at Laleham, near Staines, on the 24th of December 1822. When it is said that he was the son of the famous Dr Arnold of Rugby, and that Winchester, Rugby and Balliol College, Oxford, contributed their best towards his education, it seems superfluous to add that, in estimating Matthew Arnold and his work, training no less than original endowment has to be considered. A full academic training has its disadvantages as well as its gains. In the individual no less than in the species the history of man’s development is the history of the struggle between the impulse to express original personal force and the impulse to make that force bow to the authority of custom. Where in any individual the first of these impulses is stronger than usual, a complete academic training is a gain; but where the second of these impulses is the dominant one, the effect of the academic habit upon the mind at its most sensitive and most plastic period is apt to be crippling. In regard to Matthew Arnold, 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 therefore a very important fact to bear in mind.
In one of his own most charming critical essays he contrasts the poetry of Homer, which consists of “natural thoughts in natural words,” with the poetry of Tennyson, which consists of “distilled thoughts in distilled words.” “Distilled” is one of the happiest words to be found in poetical criticism, and may be used with equal aptitude in the criticism of life. To most people the waters of life come with all their natural qualities—sweet or bitter—undistilled. Only the ordinary conditions of civilization, common to all, flavoured the waters of life to Shakespeare, to Cervantes, to Burns, to Scott, to Dumas, and those other great creators whose minds were mirrors—broad and clear—for reflecting the rich drama of life around them. To Arnold the waters of life came distilled so carefully that the wonder is that he had any originality left. A member of the upper stratum of that “middle class” which he despised, or pretended to despise—the eldest son of one of the most accomplished as well as one of the most noble-tempered men of his time—Arnold from the moment of his birth drank the finest distilled waters that can be drunk even in these days. Perhaps, on the whole, the surprising thing is how little he suffered thereby. Indeed those who had formed an idea of Arnold’s personality from their knowledge of his “culture,” and especially those who had been delighted by the fastidious and feminine delicacy of his prose style, used to be quite bewildered when for the first time they met him at a dinner-table or in a friend’s smoking-room. His prose was so self-conscious that what people expected to find in the writer was the Arnold as he was conceived by certain “young lions” of journalism whom he satirized—a somewhat over-cultured petit-maítre—almost, indeed, a coxcomb of letters. On the other hand, those who had been captured by his poetry expected to find a man whose sensitive organism responded nervously to every uttered word as an aeolian harp answers to the faintest breeze. What they found was a broad-shouldered, manly—almost burly—Englishman with a fine countenance, bronzed by the open air of England, wrinkled apparently by the sun, wind-worn as an English skipper’s, open and frank as a fox-hunting squire’s—and yet a countenance whose finely chiselled features were as high-bred and as commanding as Wellington’s or Sir Charles Napier’s. The voice they heard was deep-toned, fearless, rich and frank, and yet modulated to express every nuance of thought, every movement of emotion and humour. In his prose essays the humour he showed was of a somewhat thin-lipped kind; in his more important poems he showed none at all. It was here, in this matter of humour, that Arnold’s writings were specially misleading as to the personality of the man. Judged from his poems, it was not with a poet like the writer of “The Northern Farmer,” or a poet like the writer of “Ned Bratts,” that any student of poetry would have dreamed of classing him. Such a student would actually have been more likely to class him with two of his contemporaries between whom and himself there were but few points in common, the “humourless” William Morris and the “humourless” Rossetti. For, singularly enough, between him and them there was this one point of resemblance: while all three were richly endowed with humour, while all three were the very lights of the sets in which they moved, the moment they took pen in hand to write poetry they became sad. It would almost seem as if, like Rossetti, Arnold actually held that poetry was not the proper medium for humour. No wonder, then, if the absence of humour in his poetry did much to mislead the student of his work as to the real character of the man.
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 honours, 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, however, 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 Lord 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,
- These essays were edited in 1905 with an introduction by W. H. D. Rouse.