Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 01 March 2021

Arnold, Matthewfree

  • Stefan Collini

Matthew Arnold (1822–1888)

by George Frederic Watts, 1880

Arnold, Matthew (1822–1888), poet, writer, and inspector of schools, was born at Laleham-on-Thames, Middlesex, on 24 December 1822, the eldest son and second of the nine surviving children of the Revd Thomas Arnold (1795–1842) and Mary Penrose Arnold (1791–1873). Thomas Arnold had been a fellow of Oriel College, Oxford, and then a schoolmaster before being appointed headmaster of Rugby School in 1828; he became regius professor of modern history at Oxford in 1841, a year before he died of a heart attack, as his eldest son was to do forty-six years later. In 1820 Thomas Arnold had married Mary Penrose, whose family came from Cornwall; she remained a constant correspondent and close confidante of her son until her death.

Early years

Family ties always formed the core of Arnold's emotional life. He enjoyed a happy childhood at Laleham and Rugby and thereafter remained particularly devoted to his elder sister, Jane Martha (1821–1899), known as K, who later married the liberal politician William Edward Forster (1818–1886). From 1834 the family spent much time at Fox How, their holiday house in the Lake District, where William Wordsworth was a neighbour (and later a strong literary influence on Arnold). After a brief spell at Winchester College, Arnold entered Rugby School in September 1837. A fanciful and relatively idle boy, he seems to have survived the experience of being a pupil at his father's school without ever really conforming to its strenuous ethos. In 1840 he gained his first poetical honours with a prize poem entitled 'Alaric at Rome', and in 1841 he won a scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford, a college then just entering its great period of intellectual and worldly distinction. He formed several lasting friendships while an undergraduate, above all that with his fellow poet Arthur Hugh Clough, and in 1843 he won the Newdigate prize for poetry with his ode 'Cromwell'. But he idled away much of his time in pleasant pursuits rather than applying himself to his studies. As his brother later observed, 'he read a little with the reading men, hunted a little with the fast men, and dressed a little with the dressy men' (Murray, 52). At the end of 1844 he achieved only a second-class degree in literae humaniores. Friends of the family tut-tutted and observed that it was fortunate that his father had not lived to see this, but in 1845, after a brief spell as a master at Rugby, Arnold characteristically recovered by winning a fellowship at Oriel, the college where both his father and John Henry Newman had been fellows and where Clough was already in residence. In the first part of the nineteenth century, such fellowships were as much prizes as the initial steps in a scholarly career, and Arnold was now able to indulge his passion for poetry and his taste for travel.

Already a keen Francophile, Arnold took himself to Paris, largely, it seems, to follow the career of the French tragedienne Rachel, all of whose performances of the French classics in the winter of 1846–7 he attended; he also made a pilgrimage to visit the author George Sand. He thereafter retained a close familiarity with French life, and its culture and politics were frequently invoked as models in his later literary and social criticism. In the course of the early 1840s he seems to have lost his faith in the conventional Anglican Christianity in which he had been reared, though he is unusual among early- and mid-Victorian figures in appearing not to have suffered any great emotional turmoil in breaking from religious orthodoxy. He remained deeply responsive to certain forms of religious emotion, and he became increasingly concerned to salvage what was of value in Christianity in general and in the cultural inheritance of Anglicanism in particular from the general decline of belief in biblical literalism and supernatural theology.

In 1847 Arnold became personal secretary to a leading whig politician, Lord Lansdowne, an undemanding post that brought him into the world of high society and allowed him ample time to cultivate the gifts he was discovering in himself as a poet. In 1849 he brought out his first slim volume, ‘The Strayed Reveller’ and other Poems; it was published under the pseudonym A, for fear, it was said, of bringing his father's name into disrepute. In fact, his family was surprised at the evidence of seriousness, yearning, and grief the book displayed. His poems, of which there were further volumes in 1852 and 1853, spoke of unhappy searchings for a calm place within himself, for the years 1847 to 1851 were Arnold's Sturm und Drang period, vividly recorded in his moody, playful, confessional letters to Clough. Falling in love is notoriously a source of both pain and poetry, and Arnold would seem to have fallen in love twice in these years. The Marguerite of his love poems would appear to be art's tribute to the object of the first of these passions: he writes intriguingly to Clough from Switzerland in 1848 that he intends to 'linger one day at the Hotel Bellevue for the sake of the blue eyes of one of its inmates' (Letters, 1829–1859, 119). She may have been a young Swiss or French woman, or she may never have existed; the fragmentary evidence has teased and titillated biographers ever since. Then, in 1850, he met and fell in love with Frances Lucy (Flu) Wightman (1825–1901), daughter of a prominent judge. Her father objected to her marrying the dandyish man about town who had only a small stipend and a slim volume to his name. Arnold needed to obtain a substantial income and prospects. Through the good offices of Lord Lansdowne he was appointed an inspector of schools in April 1851, and on 10 June he and Flu were married. It appears to have been a close, companionable marriage, and he and his wife had six children: Thomas (1852–1868), Trevenen William (Budge; 1853–1872), Richard (1855–1908), Lucy (1858–1934), Eleanor (1861–1936), and Basil (1866–1868). Arnold proved to be an exceptionally affectionate and expressive father, whose spirits were permanently darkened by the early deaths of three of his sons. After taking a series of rented houses, the couple settled at Chester Square in Belgravia, London, in 1858; they lived at Byron House, Harrow on the Hill, Middlesex, from 1868 until 1873, when they moved to Pains Hill Cottage at Cobham in Surrey where they remained until Arnold's death.

The poet

Almost all of the poetry for which Arnold is best remembered was largely written (if not in all cases published) by the time he was thirty. In addition to the title-poems, his first three volumes included 'The Forsaken Merman', 'Tristram and Iseult', 'The Buried Life', the 'Switzerland' sequence of love lyrics, 'Stanzas in memory of the author of “Obermann”', 'Sohrab and Rustum', and 'The Scholar-Gipsy'. Even his two most celebrated verses which were published later, 'Dover Beach' and 'Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse', were almost certainly written in the early 1850s. Of his later (often longer) poems, only 'Thyrsis', his elegy for Clough, written in the early 1860s, has found much favour with critics. Arnold in fact wrote very little poetry in the last thirty-five years of his life: part of the poignancy of his biography comes from the fact that he never ceased to have the sensibilities and yearnings of a poet, though he largely ceased to write poetry. He lived the greater part of his adult life knowing that, as the prefatory poem to his 1867 collection put it, 'the Muse be gone away' (Arnold, Persistency of poetry, Poems, 578). The first collected edition of his poems appeared in two volumes in 1869 and was reprinted several times, with only very minor additions to his corpus being made in the last two decades of his life.

A special place in Arnold's poetic œuvre is occupied by his most accomplished long poem, 'Empedocles on Etna', not only because it is a brilliant dramatization of his own internal conflicts but also because he thrust additional significance on the poem by withdrawing it almost immediately after its first publication in 1852, only permitting its republication in 1867 at the public request of Robert Browning. In form, 'Empedocles on Etna', subtitled 'A Dramatic Poem', consists of long discursive monologues by its three ‘characters’. These ‘exchanges’ are dominated by the moody, despairing Empedocles himself, who attempts, with only intermittent conviction, to represent in an attractive light the stoicism necessary to confront the increasing burden of joyless life which comes with maturity. But he is racked by a 'secret and unfollowed vein of woe' as he contemplates his dwindling capacity to live for the moment and take unalloyed aesthetic pleasure from life. As the claims of the rival philosophies of life reach an impasse, Empedocles shakes himself free from the confining toils of reflection long enough to commit one last, intense existential act, and throws himself into the crater of the volcano. While critics have continued to disagree about the significance of Empedocles' suicide for the interpretation of the poem as a whole, it is hard to resist seeing it as further, oblique, evidence of Arnold's own inner struggles and his ambivalence about resolving to shoulder as best he could the only partially rewarding burdens of mundane existence.

In the course of the 1850s Arnold tried various poetic experiments which, it now seems clear, were forced against the grain of his essentially lyric and elegiac poetical inclinations. In an attempt to escape the crippling introspection of modern thought, he took his subjects from Norse sagas and Greek history. The first issued in his rather leaden epic 'Balder Dead' (damned forever by one wag as 'Balder dash'), the second in his attempt to reproduce the grandeur of ancient tragedy in his verse-drama Merope (1858). The latter has some of the smooth coolness and clear lines of an alabaster statue, but, as with most things in alabaster, one is constantly aware that one is looking at a reproduction.

Although the 1867 volume New Poems is generally thought to include some pieces that fell below the standards of his earlier volumes, it did contain a few poems which have since become among his best-known pieces, notably 'Dover Beach' (probably written as early as 1851, though the evidence is inconclusive) and the thematically linked but poetically more discursive 'Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse' (largely composed in 1852). The organizing trope of 'Dover Beach' is the way in which the retreat of the tide-driven sea suggests the withdrawing of 'the Sea of Faith', a favoured Arnoldian metaphor. The poem broods on the predicament of human life in a godless world:

And we are here as on a darkling plainSwept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Poems, 257'Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse' similarly meditates on the impossibility of ever again inhabiting an animating faith in the way the imagined occupants of the monastery did, leaving the poet

Wandering between two worlds, one dead,The other powerless to be born.

ibid., 305It is a nice question just how far the poem's strenuously undeceived stoicism involves a certain condescension to the credulity of that ‘age of faith’ whose passing it ostensibly laments. One of the most perceptive among Arnold's contemporary critics, R. H. Hutton, unfavourably contrasted 'the true humility of the yearning for faith' with Arnold's 'grand air of tearful Virgilian regret' (Collini, 41). In much of Arnold's poetry one sees the disconsolate Romantic trying to turn himself into the resolute Stoic: his partial success has a pathos of its own, though we may wonder whether it is the small element of failure or the larger degree of success which is the sadder sight. Yet there is a kind of self-indulgence here, too: perhaps genuine stoicism does not need to keep calling attention to its achievement in this way.

Looking back in 1869, Arnold concluded that 'my poems represent, on the whole, the main movement of mind of the last quarter of a century' (Letters, 1866–1870, 347); certainly, they have been seen as striking testimony to the corrosion of ‘Faith’ by ‘Doubt’. But this theme is, in reality, only part of a wider poetic preoccupation and tone. The dominant note of his best poetry is reflection on loss, frustration, sadness. It is important to emphasize ‘reflection’ because his poems nearly always are, even if not explicitly, second-order reflections on the nature or meaning of certain kinds of experience rather than expressions or records of that experience itself. When he spoke, famously, of modern poetry as 'the dialogue of the mind with itself' (Preface to Poems, 1853; Prose Works, 1.1), he coined a phrase which irresistibly asks to be applied to his own verse. At the same time, and in a spirit with which later generations have become more rather than less familiar, the poetry frequently expresses a desperate, eternally self-defeating desire to escape from this unending round of intellection, from being 'prisoners of our consciousness' (Arnold, Empedocles on Etna, Poems, 200). Correspondingly, those who have found Arnold's poetry unsympathetic have been inclined to note that its chief defect lies precisely in the way that it arises too exclusively from a ‘movement of mind’.

The school inspector

Arnold worked as a school inspector for thirty-five years. At the beginning of this period there were, strictly speaking, no state schools at any level. The limit of public involvement with education was a small annual grant made to various elementary schools, usually denominational in origin and character, which conformed to certain minimal standards. A small number of well-educated gentlemen, often with scholarly or literary inclinations which they continued to pursue, were employed to inspect and report on these schools. Initially, Arnold was responsible for inspecting nonconformist schools across a broad swathe of central England. He spent many dreary hours during the 1850s in railway waiting-rooms and small-town hotels, and longer hours still in listening to children reciting their lessons and parents reciting their grievances. But this also meant that he, among the first generation of the railway age, travelled across more of England than any man of letters had ever done. Although his duties were later confined to smaller areas around London, he knew the society of provincial England better than most of the metropolitan authors and politicians of the day.

However, the work involved, as Arnold frequently complained, much drudgery ('I am now at the work I dislike most in the world', he wrote to his mother in 1863, 'looking over and marking examination papers'; Letters, 1860–1865, 176). Not only was the work itself demanding and only intermittently rewarding, but he also found himself frequently at odds with his political masters. In particular he protested, publicly and courageously, at the system of ‘payment by results’ introduced by the liberal politician Robert Lowe in 1862 in order to curb public expenditure. Although two of Arnold's reports on foreign schools proved to be of such weight as to warrant republication in book form, his official career was, perhaps partly as a result of incurring official displeasure, undistinguished, with promotions coming late and seldom: he was granted the title of senior inspector in 1870 and that of chief inspector only in 1884, two years before his retirement. A collection of his annual reports, Reports on Elementary Schools, 1852–1882, was published in the year after his death.

The monotony of school-inspecting was interrupted by several extended tours of Europe to report on educational arrangements there. A five-month visit to France in 1859 on behalf of the Newcastle commission was particularly formative for Arnold's later social criticism, as well as enabling him to meet Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve, the living critic he most admired. His report was published in 1861 as The Popular Education of France (the introduction to which was later reprinted separately under the title 'Democracy'). He made another such tour on behalf of the Taunton commission in 1865 (leading to the publication in 1868 of his Schools and Universities on the Continent), and in 1885–6 he went at the behest of the education department to report on elementary education in Germany, Switzerland, and France.

In February 1856 Arnold was elected a member of the Athenaeum; thereafter several of his most enduring works (as well as a great many of his letters) were composed in its library, where he sought refuge from his job and his growing family. His inspecting duties were also no barrier to his being elected in May 1857 to the (largely honorary) professorship of poetry at Oxford, an office which he held for ten years and which obliged him to deliver three lectures a year. Arnold was the first unordained holder of the post and the first to deliver his lectures in English rather than Latin. Several of the essays with which he was to make his mark as a literary and social critic were first delivered as his professorial lectures.

The literary critic

Arnold's first published prose took the form of the preface to his Poems of 1853, in which he attempted to rationalize his withdrawal of 'Empedocles on Etna' on the grounds of its (and most modern poetry's) morbid preoccupation with self. He called, instead, for a return to the impersonality and 'grand style' of the ancients. He pursued a similar theme in his inaugural lecture as professor of poetry at Oxford in 1857 which also asserted 'the absolute, the enduring interest of Greek literature, and, above all, of Greek poetry' (Arnold, On the modern element in literature, Prose Works, 1.37). The classical authors were the constant companions of Arnold's mind, and just how far he was from taking a merely scholarly attitude towards them was revealed by his first extended venture into criticism in his three lectures published in 1861 under the title On Translating Homer. Here, taking the translation of the Iliad by F. W. Newman, brother of the theologian, as his main target, Arnold pilloried the tendency of learning to degenerate into antiquarianism and pedantry. What was needed in its place, he insisted, was a responsiveness to the literary properties of the poetry and what he called a form of critical 'tact': 'to handle these matters [of poetical criticism] properly there is needed a poise so perfect that the least overweight in any direction tends to destroy the balance. Temper destroys it, a crotchet destroys it, even erudition may destroy it' (On Translating Homer, ibid., 1.174).

Arnold was almost forty years old before he published his first essay in one of the great Victorian periodicals of general culture, then in their heyday. It was a genre which was to prove well suited to his conversable mind, and all but one of his later books began life as essays in these journals. In the first half of the 1860s he wrote several substantial essays on European writers and on the place of literature in modern society; they were collected as Essays in Criticism in 1865, a work which has remained one of the bench-marks of the tradition of English literary criticism. Its opening essay, 'The function of criticism at the present time', was a manifesto for a conception of criticism that is more than purely literary—for criticism as 'the disinterested endeavour to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world' (Prose Works, 3.270). Its companion essay, 'The literary influence of academies', elaborated an ideal of how critical standards could, if given a kind of cultural centrality, operate beneficially on all the writing and thinking of a society. Here, he was not really arguing (as has subsequently often been assumed) that English intellectual life exhibited such a low level and a lack of standards because it did not have an academy on the model of the Académie Française, but rather that, because of the qualities manifested in its already low level and lack of standards, it could never understand the virtues of having an academy in the first place.

These essays constitute Arnold's earliest performances in what has been described as 'the unpopular office of detector-general of the intellectual failings of his own nation' (DNB). In order to show up and correct the eccentricity of English taste, he constantly invokes the wider frame of judgement provided by comparison, whether with the landmarks of other European literatures or, above all, with the towering presences of the classics. This tactic, especially when combined with certain Gallic affectations, did not always win the hearts of his English readers. (Some of these reservations resurfaced in later descriptions of him as 'England's foremost French writer'.) But Arnold thrived on controversy, and throughout the 1860s he waged a kind of playful guerrilla warfare on behalf of the conception of criticism he felt to be lacking in England. Some readers took offence at his raillery, but although he several times had occasion to make mock apologies for what he called his 'vivacities', it was essential to his purpose that his writing should, by turns, provoke, tease, and charm.

Arnold looked to another source to leaven the stolidity of English sensibilities in the little book he published in 1867 entitled On the Study of Celtic Literature. He was drawn to the lushly imaginative and sentimental strains of Irish literary tradition (he was also more sympathetic than most of his English contemporaries to the economic and ecclesiastical grievances of Catholic Ireland), and his work encouraged the founding of the first chair of Celtic at Oxford in 1877. In considering his accomplishments as a literary critic, however, one is bound to be struck by the fact that, though living through one of the most abundantly creative periods of the English novel, he never wrote any critical essays on this genre, apart from a late essay on Lev Tolstoy (which was chiefly an assessment of his moral teaching). In this, as in other respects, his work as a critic remained curiously backward-looking, always more alert to the ways in which the great heritage of European literature might animate and discipline contemporary sensibilities than it was to the innovations and expressive possibilities of the present.

The social critic

It was Arnold's professional involvement with the question of the weakness of educational provision in England by contrast to that of her leading continental neighbours that first drew him into the arena of social criticism, but this soon broadened into a consideration of the distinctive features of modern societies more generally. He focused in particular on the question of how increasingly democratic societies were to sustain those cultural and political activities which had in the past depended on the existence of a wealthy and leisured aristocracy. 'The difficulty for democracy', as he put it in the introduction to his 1861 report that was later reprinted as a separate essay, 'is how to find and keep high ideals' (Arnold, The popular education of France, Prose Works, 2.17). His criticisms of official educational policy in the early 1860s were founded on his conviction that education was too important to this task of propagating 'high ideals' to be left to private provision, though at times he could seem less concerned with the merits of a state system in its own right, and more with the way it instantiated an expansive conception of the state as the embodiment of the national life more generally.

Literary and social criticism were never far apart in Arnold, and his classic essay, 'The function of criticism at the present time', was as much addressed to the dominance in English public life of complacent notions of ‘muddling through’ and of the superiority of ‘the practical man’ as it was to more purely literary topics. In response, James Fitzjames Stephen, most pugnacious of Victorian controversialists, attacked what he saw as Arnold's airs of superiority and fastidiousness, provoking Arnold to reply in 1867 in the earliest of the essays which were to make up Culture and Anarchy, which was published as a book in 1869. It is for this work, more than any other, that Arnold is widely known today.

The book, subtitled 'An Essay in Political and Social Criticism', is a sustained attempt to demonstrate how the consideration of a wide range of topical issues could be refocused and enriched by scrutinizing them from the perspective of what Arnold called 'culture' or, as he famously put it, 'the best that has been thought and said'. By this, he did not mean some passive body of art and learning whose natural home is the museum and the library, nor simply a set of high-status activities encased in an aura of snobbery and pretentiousness. He was talking, rather, about an ideal of human life, a standard of excellence and fullness for the development of our capacities—aesthetic, intellectual, and moral. Such standards, he claimed, had all too little currency in public debate in England, and much of the book is devoted to an analysis of what he saw as some of the enduring characteristics of English life—its complacency, its moralism, its overvaluing of the practical. As part of this analysis he elaborated his account of the three main social classes under the labels 'Barbarians' (the aristocracy), 'Philistines' (the middle class), and 'Populace' (the working class). The first and last of these terms are in effect classical allusions, while the middle one is, of course, biblical; these two sources always remained the chief reference-points of his thought and sensibility. Arnold also memorably sketched what he saw as the two elements needing to be combined for full human flourishing, namely Hellenism and Hebraism. 'The governing idea of Hellenism is spontaneity of consciousness; that of Hebraism, strictness of conscience' (Arnold, Culture and Anarchy, 1869, Prose Works, 5.165). He proposed that many of the defects of what he called 'the bad civilisation of the English middle class' could be traced to an overdevelopment of the qualities embodied in Hebraism at the expense of those represented by Hellenism.

In these ways, Culture and Anarchy was an attack on English parochialism and—in a term, borrowed from Heinrich Heine, which Arnold did much to make familiar—philistinism. But it also constituted a critique of the individualism which dominated Victorian social and political thinking, and thus of the devotion to what Arnold mocked as the creed of 'doing as one likes'. The popular liberalism founded on such values was, he argued, incapable of rising to 'the notion, so familiar on the Continent and to antiquity, of the State—the nation in its collective and corporate character' (Arnold, Culture and Anarchy, Prose Works, 5.117). His high regard for the ideal of the state as the expression of the 'best self' of the national community has led him to be attacked as a conservative and even authoritarian thinker, though this characterization requires the neglect of many of his other, no less fundamental allegiances. Politically, his leanings were always towards an enlarged liberalism, and he liked to describe himself as 'a Liberal of the future' (The future of liberalism, 1880, ibid., 9.138), which did not prevent him from being a more or less constant critic of liberal measures in the present. Certainly, no writer who was as severe as Arnold was on the deforming power of inequality and who referred to the French Revolution as 'the greatest, the most animating event in history' (The function of criticism at the present time, 1864, ibid., 3.265) could easily be accommodated in the ranks of conservatism.

Arnold's polemic against English narrowness was pursued on several fronts through the 1860s, and it included a series of playful and at times exuberantly farcical satirical pieces, which he collected in book form in 1871 under the title Friendship's Garland, in which the Voltairean theme of the observing foreign ingénu is handled with an almost Dickensian extravagance. At the same time, he became increasingly preoccupied with what he saw as the truculence and defensive obstructiveness of the nonconformist sects, then so powerful in English middle-class society. As he observed in a letter of 1869:

The feeling of the harm [the dissenters'] isolation from the main current of thought and culture does in the nation, a feeling that has been developed in me by going about among them for years, is the source of all that I have written on religious, political and social subjects.

Letters, 1866–1870, 382

The preface to Culture and Anarchy contained a long meditation on the value of belonging to an established church, and in the next phase of his career Arnold went on to address religious topics in a more direct and, ultimately, even more provocative manner.

The religious critic

In his lifetime Arnold commanded a wider readership, and attracted more severe criticism, for his works on religion than for all the rest of his writings put together. This topic was his dominant preoccupation in the years 1869 to 1877, and he antagonized orthodox opinion by repeatedly attacking what he saw as the two pillars of an obstructive and outmoded dogmatism: first, the literalist interpretation of the Bible; and second, the whole superstructure of systematic theology which had been reared upon the shifting sands of historically variable beliefs and ad hoc pronouncements. In addressing the distinctive convictions of the dissenters in St Paul and Protestantism (1870), he in effect accused them of being inadequate literary critics. With respect to their central doctrines of predestination and salvation by faith, they had taken their stand on the writings of St Paul, but, alleged Arnold, they had misinterpreted their texts: 'What in St Paul is figure and belongs to the sphere of feeling, Puritanism has transported into the sphere of intellect and made thesis and formula' (Arnold, St Paul and Protestantism, Prose Works, 6.8). He generalized this case in his major work of religious criticism, Literature and Dogma: an Essay towards the Better Apprehension of the Bible (1873), which was the only one of his books which had not first appeared in the form of periodical essays. One could even say that this book is his most extended single work of literary criticism; certainly no single text engaged his critical energies to anything like the same extent as did the Bible. Arnold argued that the Bible was a historical and literary text which would yield its full riches only if read 'with the tact which letters, surely, alone can give' (Literature and Dogma; ibid., 6.196). An example of this approach was his discussion of the very notion of ‘God’ as found in the Old Testament:

the word ‘God’ is used in most cases as by no means a term of science or exact knowledge, but a term of poetry and eloquence, a term thrown out, so to speak, at a not fully grasped object of the speaker's consciousness, a literary term, in short; and mankind mean different things by it as their consciousness differs.

ibid., 6.171

This led him to his famous formulation of the 'real germ' of the idea of God as 'a consciousness of the not ourselves that makes for righteousness' (ibid., 6.196). Arnold puzzled many of his contemporary readers, for although he protested that he was trying to save 'the natural truth of Christianity', he seemed to be setting aside all its distinctive doctrines. God and the Bible, published two years later, was largely an attempt to reply to his critics; the work displayed a surprising mastery of the technicalities of biblical history and textual criticism but did little to appease the hostility of those who felt that matters of salvation were being reduced to the level of belles-lettres.

Whatever the precise nature of Arnold's theological beliefs, if any, he remained convinced of the cultural value of the Anglican church which, like Bishop Joseph Butler (1692–1752), whom he so much admired, he found to be 'a reasonable Establishment'. From the preface to Culture and Anarchy through to the pieces collected in Last Essays on Church and Religion (1877), he urged that the dissenters were handicapped by their exclusion from, and antagonism to, the church of Thomas Cranmer and the Authorized Version. As these allusions suggest, his case rested on literary and aesthetic rather than eschatological grounds, and to the end he remained true to his broad-church, and hence ultimately Coleridgean, lineage in being convinced of the need for an established church as 'a beneficial social and civilising agent' (Arnold, A French Eton, Prose Works, 2.321).

Last years and reputation

In the course of the 1860s Arnold acquired a reputation as a critic and controversialist of note; during the 1870s he became a public figure, constantly invited to write essays and make speeches. In the last decade of his life he continued to be a prolific contributor to the major cultural periodicals, selections of his essays appearing in Mixed Essays in 1879 and in Irish Essays in 1882. Some of his most enduring pieces from this final period were collected in Essays in Criticism, Second Series, which he had been arranging at the time of his death in 1888 and which appeared later in that year. The volume is notable for, above all, his attempt to come to terms with the legacy of English Romanticism and thus to do for his generation what Dr Johnson had done a century earlier in his Lives of the English Poets; it contained essays on Wordsworth, Byron, and Keats, as well as his frequently anthologized essay 'The study of poetry', first published in 1880 as the introduction to a selection of English poetry aimed at the newly literate readership created by late nineteenth-century educational reforms (most notably the act of 1870, sponsored by his brother-in-law William Edward Forster, which initiated compulsory elementary schooling). It is in this essay that he announced his belief, later to be travestied as the claim that poetry would supplant religion, that 'The future of poetry is immense, because in poetry, where it is worthy of its high destinies, our race, as time goes on, will find an ever surer and surer stay' (Prose Works, 9.161). This piece also contained his sketch of the critical usefulness of 'touchstones', those lines of indisputably great poetry (whether from Homer or Dante, Shakespeare or Milton) which we should bring to the task of helping us discriminate between good and bad poetry—indeed, between great and merely good poetry. As in so much of his writing of this last decade, Arnold was less concerned with refining sophisticated critical techniques and more with helping a new wide readership to acquaint itself with the riches of the literary culture which he believed would come to provide one of its most potent sources of moral inspiration and spiritual consolation.

Arnold had been awarded the honorary degree of DCL by his beloved Oxford in 1870. (His famous paean to the university city with its 'dreaming spires', the 'home of lost causes', had appeared in the preface to the first series of Essays in Criticism in 1865.) In 1883 he was offered by Gladstone a civil-list pension of £250 'in public recognition of service to the poetry and literature of England' which, after much hesitation, he accepted. Later that year he embarked on his first lecture tour to the United States. (The second was in 1886.) This earned him a substantial sum (of which he was always more or less urgently in need, especially to pay off the debts of his scapegrace son, Richard) but few fresh admirers: he was not a good lecturer, and Americans found him mannered. It did not help his popularity that his assessment of American civilization had always been frankly unflattering, lamenting as he did its philistinism and its hostility to 'high ideals'. He published his Discourses in America in 1885 (including 'Literature and science', which he had first given as the Rede lecture at Cambridge in 1882), and a companion piece, 'Civilisation in the United States', appeared three years later.

As part of his campaign against the assumptions behind English puritanism, Arnold remarked at one point that 'the wealth of the human spirit is shown in its enjoyments', and his own tastes did not lean towards austerity. He was tall, accounted good-looking, with thick, youthfully brown hair parted in the middle. He was noted for his good humour and a charm that owed as much to listening as to talking. Even after he had outgrown his dandy phase, he still inclined to high dressing and ran a good deal to fancy waistcoats. He was very responsive to the charms of beautiful women (albeit in his later writings increasingly censorious of sexual misconduct, especially among the 'lubricious' French), and he particularly liked champagne. In characterizing him, some found that the term ‘fop’ came to mind very easily, and some took his wit as a sign of a lack of seriousness, as some always will. Charlotte Brontë had perhaps been more perceptive in finding 'a real modesty … under the assumed conceit' (Murray, 112). Those who knew him well concurred in emphasizing his warmth and gaiety, as well as a sentimentality which, while it could be a blemish in the poet, was lovable in the man.

Arnold's manner, which was at once both literary and personal, contained elements which the diverse proponents of late nineteenth-century 'aestheticism' were to find congenial, but the more general reaction against all things Victorian in the early decades of the twentieth century conspired with literary modernism's hostility to the spoilt Romanticism of Victorian verse to propel his reputation to its nadir by the 1920s. However, his conception of the social role of the literary critic ensured him the ambivalent respect of those twentieth-century critics who scorned a merely academic definition of their craft, such as T. S. Eliot or F. R. Leavis in Britain or, most enthusiastically, Lionel Trilling in the USA. His writings on religion, the most widely read during his lifetime, passed into near oblivion in the half-century following his death, though they adumbrated several ideas which have become commonplace in late twentieth-century theology and biblical criticism. His poetry has always retained its discriminating admirers, especially among scholars, though in the pantheon of Victorian verse he now clearly ranks below such popular and copious poets as Tennyson and Browning.

It is his work as a critic, more than anything else, which has earned Arnold his pedestal among the immortals, though the fate of his reputation has been particularly closely bound up with developments within higher education. As part of the immense expansion of the academic study and teaching of English literature that took place in Britain and the USA from the middle of the twentieth century, Arnold became retrospectively canonized as one of the presiding spirits of the new discipline, and when, from the late 1960s onward, the traditional conception of this activity came in for hostile treatment from those committed to a more theoretical or more political form of criticism, he was frequently singled out for abuse for his part in inscribing an ‘élitist’ and socially conservative notion of culture at the heart of the academic study of English. This posthumous career threw up more than the usual crop of ironies, beginning with the fact that, despite his sentimental attachment to an idealized Oxford, he himself was the least academic of writers. Moreover, he was sceptical about some of the proposals for the introduction of literature into the university syllabus which were advanced towards the end of his life, urging, for example, that English literature should certainly not be taught in isolation from its classical and European sources. But, despite the fact that he never confined his notion of ‘criticism’ exclusively to literary criticism, just as the literature he recommended was not primarily English literature, Arnold has been identified, by both friend and foe, with a particular understanding of the nature and social importance of the subject known as 'English'. More broadly, he has also remained a constant reference-point in discussions about the nature and value of ‘culture’ which have been such a prominent feature of public debate in Britain in the second half of the twentieth century.

In April 1888 Matthew Arnold went to Liverpool to meet his favourite daughter, Lucy, on her return from the United States; he died of a sudden heart attack on 15 April on his way down to the docks, and he was buried alongside his three children in the churchyard of All Saints', Laleham-on-Thames, four days later. A special train brought an impressive body of mourners from London, including Robert Browning, Henry James, and Benjamin Jowett, the last of whom, though hardly given to fulsomeness, recorded one of the most apposite tributes: 'No-one ever united so much kindness and light-heartedness with so much strength. He was the most sensible man of genius I have ever known' (Collini, 24).


  • P. Honan, Matthew Arnold: a life (1981)
  • N. Murray, A life of Matthew Arnold (1996)
  • The letters of Matthew Arnold, ed. C. Y. Lang, 6 vols. (1996–2001), vols. 1–4
  • Letters of Matthew Arnold, 1848–1888, ed. G. W. E. Russell, 2 vols. (1895)
  • The complete prose works of Matthew Arnold, ed. R. H. Super, 11 vols. (1960–77)
  • The poems of Matthew Arnold, ed. K. Allott, rev. M. Allott, 2nd edn (1979)
  • S. Collini, Matthew Arnold: a critical portrait (1994)


  • BL, letters to G. L. Craik and Sir F. Macmillan, Add. MS 61895
  • BL, letters to W. E. Gladstone, Add. MS 60488
  • BL, corresp. with Macmillans, Add. MSS 54978–54979
  • BL OIOC, letters to Sir M. Grant Duff, MS Eur. F 234
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to F. W. Farrar
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to James Hepworth
  • Ches. & Chester ALSS, Delves Broughton archive, letters to Rhoda Broughton
  • Girton Cam., letters to Emily Davies
  • Hove Central Library, letters to Wolseley
  • ICL, letters to Thomas Huxley
  • Lincoln Central Library, Tennyson Research Centre, letters to Tennyson
  • NL Scot., letters to John Stuart Blackie
  • NL Wales, Lysdinam collection, MSS and letters to G. S. Venables
  • NPG, letters to George Frederick Watts
  • NRA Scotland, priv. coll., corresp. with Lord Wemyss
  • Saffron Walden Museum, letters to George Stacey Gibson
  • Somerville College, Oxford, letters to Amelia B. Edwards
  • U. Birm. L., letters to Harriet Martineau
  • U. Leeds, Brotherton L., letters to Robert Browning
  • University of Sheffield, letters to Anthony John Mundelle and Maria Theresa Mundelle
  • Wordsworth Trust, Dove Cottage, Grasmere, letters


  • C. Silvy, carte-de-visite, 1861, NPG
  • G. F. Watts, oils, 1880, NPG [see illus.]
  • T. B. Wirgman, pencil drawing, 1882, Art Institute, Chicago
  • W. Tyler, marble bust, exh. RA 1889, Balliol Oxf.
  • L. C. Dickinson, oils, 1896, Oriel College, Oxford
  • J. J. Cade, stipple and line engraving, NPG; repro. in The eclectic
  • Elliott & Fry, three cartes-de-visite, NPG
  • F. Hollyer, etching, NPG
  • A. B. Joy, marble bust, Westminster Abbey
  • R. Taylor, woodcut (after photograph by Elliott & Fry), NPG; repro. in Illustrated Review (1872), vol. 3
  • J. J. Tissot, chromolithograph caricature, NPG; repro. in VF (11 Nov 1871)
  • H. Weigall, oils, Athenaeum, London
  • woodcut and engraving (after photograph by Sarony), NPG

Wealth at Death

£1040 17s. 9d.: administration with will, 23 May 1888, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

University of Leeds, Brotherton Library
National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth
University of Birmingham Library
Bodleian Library, Oxford
British Library, London
Cambridge University Library
National Archives of the United Kingdom, Public Record Office, London
Girton College, Cambridge
John Rylands University Library of Manchester
British Library, Oriental and India Office Collections
National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh
Imperial College, London
National Portrait Gallery, London
Yale University, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library
Huntington Library, San Marino, California
University of Newcastle upon Tyne
, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)
Balliol College, Oxford