Matthew Arnold. (Guide to the Year's Work)

By Machann, Clinton | Victorian Poetry, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Matthew Arnold. (Guide to the Year's Work)

Machann, Clinton, Victorian Poetry

The most significant publication in the field of Arnold scholarship for the year 2000 was the fourth volume of Cecil Y. Lang's Letters of Matthew Arnold (Univ. Press of Virginia, 1996-). As I begin to write this essay, I see that volume five, the penultimate one, has just been published, as well, so the end of Lang's massive project is in sight. The fifth volume will be covered in next year's essay, of course, but I will defer a discussion of the edition as a whole--including a return to some of the more controversial issues involving Lang's editorial practices that I touched upon in my comments about the first three volumes--until the sixth and final volume has made its appearance.

Volume four covers the years 1871-78, a period during which Arnold wrote and published his most important religious criticism, while his reputation as a poet--based primarily on poems he had written much earlier in his life--continued to grow. In February of 1871 he published Friendship's Garland, a collection of letters written and published in The Pall Mall Gazette over the previous five years and featuring the fictional German character Arminius; the book contains the most outrageous and funniest satire that Arnold ever wrote. At the same time, Arnold was reflecting on the response to his book St. Paul and Protestantism (May 1870) and discovering that he had more to say about the Bible and Bible-reading. At first Arnold conceived the idea of writing a pair of essays on "literature as it regards dogma" as part of a larger project which included essays on literature and science, but, instead, the essays on dogma grew into a new book with his old publisher George Smith: Literature and Dogma: An Essay Towards a Better Appreciation of the Bible (February 1873). Reaching a wider audience than any of his other books, Arnold's last substantial, original book of any kind was a "best seller" in an age of religious controversy. Literature and Dogma reached a fourth edition within a year, and in small editions it eventually sold as many as 100,000 copies. It was the first of Arnold's books to be translated, appearing as La Crise Religieuse in France (1876). Coverage by the periodical press--in England, America, and Europe--was correspondingly substantial, the most extensive that Arnold had ever received. The book's success may be partially attributed to the fact that it was Arnold's only major prose work composed primarily as a book manuscript rather than a series of articles. Although it did not make him a wealthy man, it brought him his greatest fame among his contemporaries. And as one might have expected, it made him an even more controversial figure than before, because in Literature and Dogma Arnold attempts to resc ue Christianity from anthropomorphism and other vulgar errors of popular theology. Following Spinoza, he assumes that miracles must be discounted. The language of the Bible is the poetry of old Israel, "thrown out" to express experience that otherwise could not be expressed. Arnold uses the German term Aberglaube, "extra belief," to describe much Biblical language. Acknowledging the possibility that future Biblical critics may find him wrong, Arnold asks his readers to accept only what can be demonstrated to be valid in a modern, skeptical age. For Arnold, the greatest human achievements have been derived from an attempt to know an unknowable ultimate reality. Always speaking as a literary and cultural critic rather than a theologian, Arnold does not attempt a precise or fixed definition of religion, but he does describe it as "morality touched by emotion."

Because Literature and Dogma was so successful despite the controversy it generated, Arnold had high expectations for its sequel, God arid the Bible (November 1875). Of the two thousand copies printed, five hundred were sold to Macmillan for publication in New York. At first sales were brisk, but they faded as the months passed, and there was no second printing. An inexpensive "popular edition," like that of Literature and Dogma, was issued in 1834. …

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