Matthew Arnold: Achievements as Writer

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      Matthew Arnold like Carlyle and Ruskin undertook the task of inculcating the virtues neglected in the Victorian society. Arnold made his mark both as a poet and as a prose-writer. His poetry is entirely reflective. His greatest poems are The Scholar Gipsy, Dover Beach, The Forsaken Merman, Trisram and Iseult, Obermann. The classic spirit reveals itself in the lucid style, the absence of violent effects, and abandonment of those decorative graces for which Arnold blamed Tennyson. Arnold's prose falls into two divisions: in the one he deals with literature, in the other with life. His writings on literature are to be found chiefly in his two volumes of Essays in Criticism (1865-1888), Mixed Essays (1879), Oxford Lectures Poetry (1861-1862), The Study of Celtic Literature (1867) and on Translating Homer (1861-1862).

Matthew Arnold like Carlyle and Ruskin undertook the task of inculcating the virtues neglected in the Victorian society.
Matthew Arnold

      His literary criticism as a whole is wonderfully suggestive and illuminating. His three guiding principles are: (a) design, proportion and wholeness in the total work, (b) grand style, (c) literature as acriticism of life'. Arnold's fundamental premise is that literature is a criticism of life and that literary criticism is a discovery and analysis of the best ideas advanced by literature. The success of Arnold's contentions in his age arose from his recognition and attempted reconciliation of faith with rationalism, poetic imagination with objective fact. The Function of Criticism at the Present Time is considered Arnold's most important pronouncement. True criticism, according to him, seeks to "know the best that is known and thought in the world". The Study of Poetry in his Essays in Criticism, Second Series (1888) states that the supreme power of poetry is "consolation and stay", and that poetry eventually will replace religion. According to him, the greatest poetry resides in the high seriousness of content and the architectonic skill. Milton is the master of grand style.

      As a critic of life, Arnold engaged himself in the task of breaking down the hard intelligence and enlarging the mental and moral horizon of the great English public in his Culture and Anarchy (1862), Mixed Essays (1879), Friendship's Garland (1871) Literature and Dogma (1873). In Culture and Anarchy, he declared that "culture is the minister of sweetness and light essential to the perfect character". In Mixed Essays he insists on literature as the means of cultural elevation to the same and ordered society. In Friendship's Garland Arnold points out that the irrationality of English institutions and the smug narrow mindedness of the middle class would bring England low. Literature and Dogma examines the history of the religious idea to interpret religion as a developmental process. He defines religion as "not simply morality, but morality touched by emotion". He tried to reconstruct Christianity on the basis of pure naturalism.

      In prose, Arnold was fundamentally a teacher, the apostle of culture, seeking to enlighten and direct the middle class (Philistines). Social and cultural criticism representea merely an expansion of Arnold's position as a literary critic. Ruskin wanted good art and therefore proceeded to demand the good society from whence such art would spring. Arnold wanted disinterested literature and therefore proceeded to demand the disinterested society which would produce that literature.

      Arnold's prose is elegant and lucid, relieved by a delicate irony, combining polish with veiled satire. He had an extraordinary gift of expressing his ideas in attractive and memorable phrases. But his prose sometimes irritates by mannerisms and a trick of repetition. However, he proved a master of English prose style writing a calm, elegant language of perfect grace and clarity.

      The poetry and prose of Matthew Arnold represent in time, tone and subject matter two separate and distinct creative efforts. The poetry of Arnold occupied only his earlier years upto 1867. His poetry is characterised by doubt and melancholy It has been said that Browning never lost faith, Tennyson struggled from doubt to faith, and Arnold always doubted. He did not rebel against Victorianism, but his intellectual and sensitive nature could not reconcile itself to the Victorian milieu. As a poet Arnold felt the collapse of traditional faith from the assaults of science, "higher criticism" of the Bible and Utilitarianism, pervading his poetry is a profound sense of loneliness and sadness. The bonds between man and God and between man and Nature have been shattered and man lives in an indifferent world of mechanical laws.

      The Strayed Reveller and Other Poems (1849) is dominated by the contrast between the life of strained action and the life of detached serenity. Quiet Work, The Forsaken Mermon, Resignation are some of the remarkable poems included in the series. Enipedocles on Etna and Other Poems (1852) shows Arnold's increasing tendency towards religion and philosophy. In Isolation the poet abandons all hope of fulfilment through shared experience. To Marguerite laments that there is no longer any channel for communication on the level of the deeper sensibilities. Self-deception is a mood of despairing bewilderment as the man asks why man is gifted with potentialities and then is thwarted in any attempt to make constructive use of them. Tristram and Iseult is Arnold's first attempt at an extended verse narrative. Poems, A New Edition (1853) for the first time bore the author's name upon the title page.

      Sohrub and Rustum, the most popular Arnold poem derives its tale of ancient Persian heroes from Sir John Malcolm's History of Persia. The Scholar Gipsy makes a passionate denunciation of contemporary intellectual confusion and frustration and gives an idealised vision of youthful integrity of spirit, victorious over division and change. In the Poems, Third Edition (1857) is included the second To Marguerite (we were apart) wherein the poet laments the horrifying loneliness of the age. Merope: A Tragedy (1858) Arnold's longest attempt at verse was a cold failure. Thyrsis in the same stanza as The Scholar Gipsy echoes much of the earlier poem, in a pastoral elegy to Clougn. In the New Poems (1867) are included Dover Beach, Rugby Chapel and Obermann Once More. Dover Beach expresses: poet's sadness at the loss of faith in the modern age. In this poem, melodic lyric and sharp visual symbols' are moulded into a gripping sorrowful depiction of what he deems to be the modern predicament.

      Arnold's poetry is entirely reflective and intellectual. A great humanist and nurtured in the ancient literatures and a lover of Greek art, Arnold had a classic moderation and exactness of thought. The classic spirit reveals itself in the lucia style, the absence of violent effects and those decorative graces for which Arnold blamed Tennyson. But his romantic spirit manifests itself in his disillusion and discontent with the present.

      Arnold received the least popular recognition in his own age, but in the twentieth century he enjoyed the best reception. The troubled and unresolved spirit of the twenth century finds greater kinship with him than, with, the more complacent Browning and Tennyson.

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