Laying Claim: George Saintsbury's Assessment of Matthew Arnold

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Among those prominent in assessing Matthew Arnold's significance soon after his death in 1888, George Saintsbury was without doubt the most persistent. As he declared in one of his contributions to the subject, though he could not claim to be an exact contemporary of Arnold, since Arnold had graduated before he was even born, he could

   lay claim to having seen the birth of his popularity, its whole
   course till his death, the stationary state which preceded and
   succeeded that death, and something like a commencement of the
   usual depreciation and spoliation which so surely follows. (1)

Many others of course could say as much, but Saintsbury, as he showed by his various commentaries on Arnold in, for instance, Corrected Impressions (1895), A History of Nineteenth Century Literature (1896), A Short History of English Literature (1898), Matthew Arnold (1899), A History of English Criticism (1911), and A Last Scrapbook (1924) clearly intended to provide the definitive account of the figure who loomed more importantly than any other in the minds of late Victorian literary critics. Most of these critics agreed that, in H. D. Traill's words, Arnold deserved "a permanent place in the history of English letters," (2) but the question was what place? Saintsbury determined to be the one to decide this. By avoiding both undue adulation and outright "spoliation," he aimed to show Arnold as he really was, present him in a way future generations of critics would find authoritative, and in the process of course enhance his own reputation as literary historian and critic. In doing this, he was clearly aware of the mass of critical opinion on Arnold already in existence by the 1890s but makes virtually no reference to any of it. The Arnold to be remembered was to be the one shaped by Saintsbury, not least of all in his book-length biographical and critical study of him in 1899, the first such study to appear.

Before we come to Saintsbury on Arnold, however, some reminders about his qualifications for the task may be helpful. By the 1890s, Saintsbury was already a well-established and influential figure on the literary scene. Born in 1845 and educated at Oxford, where he took a second-class degree in Classics, Saintsbury spent some time in school teaching before launching himself into a career in literary journalism. With his insatiable appetite for reading, and his talent for turning what he had read into more or less instant copy, Saintsbury was soon a familiar presence in the major journals of the day producing scores of articles, reviews, and books on English and French literature (including a pioneering essay on Baudelaire in 1875) and cultivating the friendship of editors like John Morley and Mowbray Morris and of fellow-journalists like Andrew Lang and Edmund Gosse. He consolidated this position by joining the staff of the leading conservative weekly, the Saturday Review in 1880, becoming one of its editors from 1883 to 1894. There he spent his time attacking various liberal targets, including Gladstone and Home Rule on the political front, and quickly gaining a reputation for assiduous log-rolling and dictatorial management of what got reviewed and how on the literary front: during his time with the Saturday he ensured that all his own books and those of his friends received favorable reviews. (3) Saintsbury's illiberal political views, however, rarely interfered with his enjoyment of literature whatever the subject matter: the revolutionary poetry of Shelley or Swinburne or even the prose of William Godwin gave him continuing pleasure irrespective of the rebarbative ideas being expressed.

Saintsbury left the Saturday in 1894 when it was taken over by Frank Harris but was soon in another position of authority and influence when he was appointed to the Chair of Rhetoric and English Literature at Edinburgh University in 1895. Though many were surprised that Saintsbury the literary journalist had got the Chair, in his inaugural address he pointed out that his predecessor, David Masson, had also been a literary journalist before becoming a professor and that this had proved no bar to his achievement, through his work on Milton, of a place from which he was "never likely to be ousted in English literary history. …