Victorian Culture Wars: Alexander Smith, Arthur Hugh Clough, and Matthew Arnold in 1853

By Harrison, Antony H. | Victorian Poetry, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Victorian Culture Wars: Alexander Smith, Arthur Hugh Clough, and Matthew Arnold in 1853


Harrison, Antony H., Victorian Poetry


EVEN AS MATTHEW ARNOLD WAS PUBLISHING HIS FIRST TWO VOLUMES of poetry (anonymously, in 1849 and 1852), he appears to have been fighting what we might well perceive, early in the twenty-first century, as a culture war. Arnold's famous "Preface" to his 1853 Poems suggests that the most powerful enemies of the poetic principles he formulates there, and (as I hope to demonstrate) of his foundational philosophical, moral, and spiritual values, are the phenomenally popular Spasmodic poets, or, as Arnold terms them in his "Preface," "the school of Keats." In fact, Arnold's "Preface," which has traditionally been read as a poetic and aesthetic manifesto, is, in addition, a political manifesto.

As the generally negative reviews of Arnold's work that appeared between 1849 and 1853 make clear, Arnold's literary and aesthetic values, his "taste," opposed that of most middle-class readers of poetry and fiction. As has been frequently discussed, most of those reviews damn Arnold's work with faint praise; the poetry, although (as Clough himself characterized it) that of "a scholar and a gentleman," (1) is described as out of tune with the modern world, self-absorbed, uselessly erudite. About the 1849 volume, Charles Kingsley asked, "To what purpose [is] all the self-culture through which the author must have passed," given that the poems present only "dreamy, transcendental excuses for laziness" in their domination by "hungry abstractions ... stolen from the dregs of German philosophy"? (2) And William Edmonstoune Aytoun, who two years after the publication of Empedocles was to explode the Spasmodic fad through his Blackwood's parody of their work, attacked Arnold's volume as a "perversion of a taste which, with so much culture, should have been capable of better things." (3) One reviewer was distressed that a fellow Oxonian, "a man of high culture," should be so alienated from his generation and should through his verse propound an "indolent, selfish quietism." (4) Clough himself questioned Arnold's "ascetic and timid self-culture" (Armstrong, Scrutinies, p. 167). Such comments are typical of the reviews of Arnold's work from 1849 and 1852 and present a remarkable contrast, as we shall see, with the tone and content of responses to Alexander Smith's Poems, published on the heels of Arnold's volume.

The responses to Smith's work were effusive. By March of 1853 Arnold had, it seems, read many of the reviews and appears at first to take a "quietist" stance in response to them. In a letter to his intimate friend, Arthur Hugh Clough, of March 21, Arnold espouses a kind of aesthetic relativism that is powerfully belied by the direction and force of his later prose writings on such matters, including the "Preface" to his 1853 volume (the first book he published under his own name). Of Clough, just several months before writing the "Preface," Arnold queried, "What is to be said when a thing does not suit you--suiting and not suiting is a subjective affair and only time determines, by the colour a thing takes with years, whether it ought to have suited or no." (5) Such a view may have eased Arnold's displeasure, not to say bafflement, at the reviews of both The Strayed Reveller (in 1849) and Empedocles on Etna and Other Poems. But he had not yet seen Clough's, which appeared in the July issue of the North American Review.

Reading Clough's review as in itself a text for ideological analysis instructs us in the highly significant cultural conflict embedded in the reception history of Arnold's and Smith's works in 1853 and reified in Arnold's 1853 "Preface." While reviews of Arnold's Empedocles were somewhat slow to appear, Smith's Poems was immediately and widely reviewed. A sensation of the winter season, it was rushed into a second edition soon after the first printing. William Michael Rossetti, in fact, insisted that, during the spring of 1853, "nothing [was] talked of ... but Alexander Smith." (6) Dante Rossetti called A Life-Drama "wonderful" and compared it to Goethe's Wilhelm Meister. …

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