Authors: Matthew Arnold

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

English literary critic

December 24, 1822

Laleham, England

April 15, 1888

Dingle Bank, Liverpool, England


Matthew Arnold—poet, educator, and literary and social critic—was born at Laleham-on-Thames in Surrey on December 24, 1822, the second child and eldest son of Mary Penrose Arnold and the Reverend Thomas Arnold, the famous headmaster. His godfather was John Keble, a future leader of the Oxford Movement. In 1828, Arnold's father became the headmaster of Rugby School. At Rugby, Dr. Arnold brought about important changes in English education, not by spectacular reforms but rather through the force of his character and example, both of which affected his son profoundly. Instilling in his students religious and moral principles, gentlemanly conduct, and intellectual competence, Dr. Arnold transformed Rugby into a place of Christian education and into a celebrated public school. In a sense, Matthew became his father’s successor. {$I[AN]9810000652} {$I[A]Arnold, Matthew} {$I[geo]ENGLAND;Arnold, Matthew} {$I[tim]1822;Arnold, Matthew}

Matthew Arnold

(Library of Congress)

After spending a year at Winchester, his father’s old school, Matthew Arnold went on to Rugby (1837–40) and was a student there during his father’s headmastership. At Rugby, he won the poetry prize for his poem Alaric at Rome and won an open scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford. There, he attended from 1841 to 1844. At the same time, his father started teaching at Oxford; in 1841, his father was appointed Regius Professor of Modern History. While at Oxford, Arnold studied classical literature, tied for second place for the Hertford Latin Scholarship, and won the Newdigate Prize for his poem Cromwell, an undertaking that convinced him that poetry would be his vocation. He was a member of the Decade, Oxford’s undergraduate debating society, and was a close friend of Arthur Hugh Clough, whose death (in Florence in 1861) he mourned in the pastoral elegy “Thyrsis” (1866).

Nevertheless, Arnold was an idle and aloof student at Oxford. Typical of his unspectacular undergraduate career was his limited interest in the Oxford Movement, the religious revival then occurring at Balliol. In 1842, Arnold’s father died suddenly of heart trouble at the age of forty-seven. Arnold graduated from Oxford with second-class honors two years later. Afterward, he taught classics briefly at Rugby and was then elected to a fellowship at Oriel College, Oxford, in March of 1845.

Pursuing what became a lifelong enthusiasm for travel, Arnold toured France and Switzerland in 1846. The following year, he became private secretary to Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice, Lord Lansdowne. Arnold’s first volume of poems, The Strayed Reveller, and Other Poems, was published in 1849. “Memorial Verses” appeared in Fraser’s Magazine in 1850. In April 1851 Lord Lansdowne appointed Arnold inspector of schools, a position he held until nearly the end of his life and one that provided him an income sufficient to relieve him of financial worries. Arnold was sent to the Continent several times to investigate public secondary education in France and Germany. In June 1851, Arnold married Frances Lucy Wightman, daughter of Sir William Wightman, judge of the Court of the Queen’s Bench. On their honeymoon to the Continent, the couple visited the monastery of the Grande Chartreuse in the French Alps, the subject of Arnold’s “Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse” (1855).

During the 1850s Arnold published more poetry. Empedocles on Etna, and Other Poems was published in 1852. Poems appeared a year later. In 1855, Poems, Second Series was printed. In 1857, Arnold was elected professor of poetry at Oxford at the age of thirty-four. He retained this position for ten years. His inaugural lecture was titled “On the Modern Element in Literature.” Within a decade, Arnold was the leading critic of his age. In 1858, he settled in London at 2 Chester Square.

Arnold’s poetry was all written during his early years. He wrote very little verse after 1867. In his own time, his poetry never attained the popularity of that of his contemporaries Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and with a few exceptions it is not especially well known today. It has been said that his range was very narrow and that the “gray elegiac mood” was too pervasive for him ever to be a popular favorite. He has generally been classed as a poet of the second rank. Yet in “Dover Beach” (1867), he wrote one of the finest poems of the Victorian era, for in it he faced squarely a major problem of the time, the ebb of faith. In “The Scholar Gipsy” (1853), he foreshadowed much of his later criticism of the modern world, “with its sick hurry, its divided aims.”

Arnold’s literary criticism, on the other hand, to which he turned in the early 1860s, represents some of the most influential writing of the second half of the nineteenth century. He claimed for criticism an important function: Its aim is “to know the best that is known and thought in the world” and to “create a current of true and fresh ideas”—both of which phrases became literary bywords.

His masters were Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve; indeed, Arnold was always much interested in continental literature. In evaluating poetry, he advanced his theory of the “touchstone”: Readers should have in their memories certain great passages from Homer, Dante, William Shakespeare, and John Milton, against which other poems could be measured. Literature, he believed, was fundamentally a “criticism of life” and must possess “high seriousness.” Arnold’s criticism had an enormous effect on the serious reading public of both England and the United States. Gradually, his writing turned toward social criticism and the consideration of the complex problem created by the “ebb of faith” during his time. Hating Victorian England’s materialism, he believed that the upper class was materialized; the middle, vulgarized; and the lower, brutalized. The middle-class “Philistines” he believed to be the dominant group.

In 1864, the National Review published Arnold’s essay “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time.” The essay served as the introduction to his volume of Essays in Criticism. After moving to Byron House, Harrow, Arnold published Culture and Anarchy, his chief work in social criticism, in 1869. The following year, he received the honorary degree of D.C.L. from Oxford. Literature and Dogma, the most important of his writings on religion, was published in 1873. That year, he moved to Pains Hill Cottage, Cobham, Surrey. In August 1883, William Gladstone awarded Arnold a Civil List pension of 250 pounds a year in “public recognition of service to the poetry and literature of England.” That October, Arnold went on a lecture tour of the United States that furnished the material for his last important books. On April 15, 1888, he died suddenly of a heart attack in Liverpool.

Author Works Nonfiction: Preface to Poems, 1853 On Translating Homer, 1861 Essays in Criticism, 1865 On the Study of Celtic Literature, 1867 Culture and Anarchy, 1869 St. Paul and Protestantism, with an Introduction on Puritanism and the Church of England, 1870 Friendship’s Garland, 1871 Literature and Dogma, 1873 God and the Bible, 1875 Last Essays on Church and Religion, 1877 Discourses in America, 1885 Civilization in the United States, 1888 Essays in Criticism, Second Series, 1888 The Complete Prose Works of Matthew Arnold, 1960–76 (R. H. Super, editor) Poetry: The Strayed Reveller, and Other Poems, 1849 Empedocles on Etna, and Other Poems, 1852 Poems, 1853 Poems, Second Series, 1855 New Poems, 1867 Poems, Collected Edition, 1869 Poetical Works of Matthew Arnold, 1890 Drama: Merope: A Tragedy, pb. 1858 Miscellaneous: The Works of Matthew Arnold, 1903–4 (15 volumes) Bibliography Arnold, Matthew. The Complete Prose Works of Matthew Arnold. Edited by R. H. Super. 11 vols. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1960–77. The standard edition of Arnold’s prose. Includes comprehensive critical and explanatory notes. Arnold, Matthew. Letters of Matthew Arnold, 1848-1888. Edited by G. W. E. Russell. 2 vols. New York: Macmillan, 1895. The standard edition of Arnold’s letters. It is not complete, however, and many of the letters are abridged. Arnold, Matthew. The Letters of Matthew Arnold to Arthur Hugh Clough. Edited by Howard F. Lowry. London: Oxford University Press, 1932. These letters are an important record of Arnold’s friendship with Clough; in them Arnold develops many of his ideas about poetry and life in the nineteenth century. Arnold, Matthew. The Poems of Matthew Arnold. Edited by Kenneth Allott. London: Longman, 1965, 2d ed. 1979. The second edition is the first fully annotated edition of Arnold’s poems. Includes previously unpublished material. The poems are arranged by order of composition, and the editor includes informative headnotes about the composition, publication, and historical and biographical backgrounds of each poem. Bloom, Harold. Matthew Arnold: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Gathers together ten critical articles written between 1940 and 1986, representing a variety of critical approaches and analyzing the poetry and prose works of Matthew Arnold. Contains chronology, bibliography, and index. Bush, Douglas. Matthew Arnold: A Survey of His Poetry and Prose. New York: Macmillan, 1971. A very good introduction to Arnold’s life and works. Culler, A. Dwight. Imaginative Reason: The Poetry of Matthew Arnold. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1966. The best study of Arnold’s poetry. Dawson, Carl, ed. Matthew Arnold, the Poetry: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973. Collects more than sixty reviews and essays written between 1849 and 1898. Gives a fascinating view of how Arnold was received and understood by his contemporaries. Presents some of the contexts to which his writing was responding. Contains an extensive bibliography and index. Hamilton, Ian. A Gift Imprisoned: The Poetic Life of Matthew Arnold. New York: Basic Books, 1999. The simple, fablelike structure of this account relies on the notion that Arnold wrote almost all his best poems before he wrote his best prose—an assumption that is a matter of scholarly dispute. Hamilton’s achievement in this book is to have shifted attention away from Arnold’s prose and back to his poetry. Honan, Park. Matthew Arnold: A Life. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981. A definitive biography of Arnold, accessible to the general reader and illuminating to the scholar. Most of this biographical information had never before appeared in print. The biography is lively as well as thoroughly researched and documented. Includes a generous index. Machann, Clinton. Matthew Arnold: A Literary Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. This study is a succinct and well-articulated exposition of Arnold’s intellectual and literary concerns, spanning his career in chronological chapters. Emphasizes Arnold’s achievement as an essayist: His ethical, interpretive, and instructional concerns are given full play, and due allowance is made for both the scope and limitations of his vision. Mazzeno, Laurence W. Matthew Arnold: The Critical Legacy. Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 1999. Mazzeno surveys the critical response to Arnold. Resembling an annotated bibliography in that it treats its material item by item, this is a book for those interested in the scholarship on Arnold. Murray, Nicholas. A Life of Matthew Arnold. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. A biographical study that critically examines Arnold’s work. Neiman, Fraser. Matthew Arnold. New York: Twayne, 1968. This fine introduction to Arnold’s wide-ranging work presents only enough biographical information to give shape and meaning to the analysis of Arnold’s writing. Presents the study of Arnold’s thought as a way into the study of mid-Victorian thought. Includes a chronology and a brief annotated bibliography. Tinker, C. B., and H. F. Lowry. The Poetry of Matthew Arnold: A Commentary. New York: Russell and Russell, 1940. A useful companion to Arnold’s poems, including interpretation and information on sources and backgrounds. Trilling, Lionel. Matthew Arnold. Rev. ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1949. This “intellectual biography” is an early but still unsurpassed study of Arnold’s thought. Clear and insightful, it is a standard critical work on Arnold. Includes an extensive bibliography of early studies.

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