Last reviewed: June 2018
English literary critic
December 24, 1822
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. Matthew Arnold
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.