Matthew Arnold

By Machann, Clinton | Victorian Poetry, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

Matthew Arnold


Machann, Clinton, Victorian Poetry


There are no new monographs on Arnold to discuss this year, but a variety of substantial new articles and book chapters deal with his life, career, and individual works in interesting ways. I will begin with Christopher M. Keirstead's treatment of Arnold in his book Victorian Poetry, Europe, and the Challenge of Cosmopolitanism (Ohio State Univ. Press, 2011) because it is in fundamental ways representative of Arnold's place in the study of Victorian poetry today. Keirstead's focus on Victorian poets' "cosmopolitanism" in the context of their "unique and vital" encounter with Europe is a legitimate and interesting approach that literary scholars should find helpful. The choice of texts by Arthur Hugh Clough, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Robert Browning, Algernon Charles Swinburne, William Morris, and Thomas Hardy is appropriate, and the references to Arnold's influence in the Introduction-"Arnold, Europe, and the (Future) Destinations of Victorian Poetry"-and throughout the text makes sense, because indeed his career "forms a microcosm of the broader movement" (p. 10). Keirstead refers to some of Arnold's best-known poems such as "Dover Beach" and "Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse" but the emphasis is on the ideas he developed in his critical essays after he turned away from the writing of poetry. Throughout the book, major poems by the other poets are in a sense "read against" Arnold, so he is a central figure whose key ideas tie together the book as a whole: "from the critical sidelines, Arnold would continue to press poets as he had pressed himself to fashion a more open intellectual engagement with the Continent and to sustain the genre's relevance to other kinds of border-crossing, whether social, economic, or political" (p. 20). As Keirstead acknowledges, his new study of cosmopolitanism in Victorian poetry in some ways follows up on the work of Amanda Anderson in The Powers of Distance: Cosmopolitanism and the Cultivation of Detachment (2001). Significantly, that book contains a chapter on Arnold that discusses his key concept of "disinterestedness" and places him in the context of works by Charlotte Bronte, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and Oscar Wilde.

Nevertheless, Arnold's critical approach has been controversial through the years. In the 1980s British critics influenced by Marxist ideology intensified what had already been a mid-century questioning of Arnold's position as a defender of liberal culture-and politics. Terry Eagleton in Literary Theory (1983) argued that Arnold had played a key role in the displacement of religion by "English literature" as a dominant instrument of "social control." Arnold's supposed patronizing or outright hostile attitude toward the working class was seen to be related to his paternalistic, authoritarian stance. Chris Baldick, in The Social Mission of English Criticism, 1848-1932 (1983), also argued that Arnold's culture, so closely associated with the "humanities" discipline of literary studies, functioned as a means of ideological control. At the same time, other well-known developments in academia worked against the significance of Arnold as a "traditional" Victorian writer and thinker. One was the rise of postmodernist theory, including Michel Foucault's ideas about "power" and its shifting patterns and his depiction of history as underlying layers of suppressed and unconscious knowledge, and Jacques Derrida's deconstruction of literary texts and philosophical skepticism. From these theoretical perspectives, Arnold's assumptions about literature and culture and human nature were hopelessly naive and for some he was a paradigmatic antitheorist. At the same time, for many feminist critics, Arnold was one of the "dead white males." More recently, Francis Mulhern in his book Culture/Metaculture (2000) and in a subsequent series of exchanges with Stephan Collini in New Left Review attacked Arnold's critical ideal of culture, which supposedly is intended to dissolve the political as a "locus of arbitration" in social relations. …

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