Matthew Arnold, Our Contemporary

Article excerpt

Ian Hamilton, A Gift Imprisoned: The Poetic Life of Matthew Arnold (Basic Books, 1999), 250 pp., $24.00 cloth; Clinton Machann, Matthew Arnold: A Literary Life (St. Martin's Press, 1998), 224 pp., $35.00 cloth; Nicholas Murray, A Life of Matthew Arnold (St. Martin's Press, 1997), 400 pp., $27.95 cloth; Donald D. Stone, Communications with the Future: Matthew Arnold in Dialogue (U of Michigan P, 1997), 232 pp., $42.50 cloth.

Matthew Arnold's bewhiskered face looks at you from each of these volumes. Interest in Arnold's work has been flourishing of late; Arnold's writings on education and culture are still central to any debate on these subjects, even if his views are decried. No fewer than three new biographies of him have come out in the last three years which is strange for a life as empty of scandal as Arnold's.

The general outlines of Arnold's life are well known. The eldest son in the singular family of Dr. Thomas Arnold, he was immersed from a very young age in his father's particular tincture of intellectual and moral improvement. Ian Hamilton, who has not a little of Lytton Strachey's tart disdain for the doctor, gives us this picture of the Arnold family:

   By the age of five, all three [children] were expected to be
   tackling a program of studies covering Latin grammar, French verbs
   and exercises, arithmetical tables and sums, history, geography and
   scripture--this last requiring them to memorize a hymn and a short
   passage from the Bible every day. When the children were
   older--that is to say, when they were six--Greek, German and
   Italian were attached to the curriculum. (18)

Arnold was sent to Winchester and then to Rugby and Oxford. But the young Arnold reacted against this system with a famous detachment, a languid dandyism that resulted in the humiliation of a second-class degree, made up the following year by the win of an Oriel fellowship. From there he took a sinecure as private secretary to the Whig magnate Lord Lansdowne, leading the life of the partially idle poet until his determination to marry forced him to get a real job (Lansdowne found him one as a school inspector). Arnold's relationship to his poetry was ambivalent at best, culminating in the self-renouncing Preface to his Poems of 1853. Arnold gradually directed himself, in turn, to educational, literary, social, and religious criticism. Elected to the chair of poetry at Oxford in 1857, he became something of a sage-celebrity, and lectured in the United States in a tour underwritten by Richard D'Oyly Carte, of operetta fame.

Arnold's life has fewer events than it does quandaries: the equivocal relationship with Arthur Hugh Clough is one--Clough, a fellow-Rugby scholar and poet, at first exemplified the conscientious gentleman Dr. Arnold wished to form, then seemed to be done in by just that conscientiousness (ending, in Harold Bloom's words, a "glorified errand-boy" for Florence Nightingale, and dying in his forties). Another riddle is Arnold's retreat from poetry into prose criticism. The poet of "Dover Beach" publicly renounced his "subjective" verse in the Preface to his 1853 volume in favor of a restored neo-classicism that he himself could not keep up. Arnold's politics also puzzle. He argued for the inclusion of foreign and minority literatures--French, German, and Celtic--in English letters, yet also claimed that only a single culture could keep a society from anarchy. He argued cogently for reform of the English treatment of Ireland, and at the same time against Home Rule. And finally, the young man who posed so efficiently against his father's traditions of personal industry and scrupulous conscience ended up continuing his father's legacies of hard work and of educational reform.

One might wonder why so many biographies have come out so quickly and, more to the point, whether they should have. Until recently two standard biographies of Arnold Trilling's still valuable intellectual biography of 1939 and Park Honan's full-length examination of 1981--sufficed. …