Matthew Arnold: Biography and Literary Works

Also Read

      Matthew Arnold was the second child and the eldest son of Dr. Thomas Arnold, the great Rugby Headmaster. He was born at Laleham, Lake District, in the year 1822 and had his early education nearby, at his uncle's school. At the age of 13 he was sent to the famous Winchester School, where his father too studied. After an year he joined Rugby where by that time his father became the head. He was not very remarkable in the school for his earnestness.

      He developed a passion for fishing and spend long hours over it. Worried by his flippancy his father tried to restrain his sallies. However towards the end of his years at Rugby, Matthew showed remarkable improvement in the school work.

      Oxford University: In 1841, he joined Balliol College, Oxford, as a classical scholar. Soon he showed excellence in classics and won prizes in poetry composition. Fond of outward bound activities, he boated in Isis, and wandered in the Cumner hills in company of other Oxonians. During vacations he fished and skated in the Lake district. There he used to meet Wordsworth, his father's acquaintance. Arnold gave expression to his love for the Oxford countryside in his essays and certainly in the two Oxford elegies, Thyrsis and The Scholar Gipsy. According to some critics what he laments at is the vanishing glory of his Alma Mater and what it stood for. Arnold enjoyed a high social position at Oxford and was known as a dandy. Some of his austere friends were disturbed by his boisterous manners. While his geniality, cheerfulness and kindness were appreciated, they found fault with the "absurdities he uttered with a grave fool" and thought he was wasting his time. As many of them feared, he failed to secure a first division, However he made up his shortcoming to some extent, by winning the Newdigate Prize which enabled him to become a fellow in 1845. During the next summer he went to France and interviewed George Sand, the novelist. Both of them had an admiration for the psychological Romance Obermann and its author Senancour (1770-1846). Arnold valued the work for its philosophical inward- ness, its sincerity of treatment of nature and its melancholy. The mal du 'seicle' it expressed was the same found in England, during Arnold's time. The young Arnold went round to see the various places associated with Obermann and they fascinated him greatly. He returned without completing the grand tour.

      Passion for Stage: The performance of Elisa Rachel, the French actress who performed in London made him an admirer of her's. He went to Paris to attend all her performances during the next two months. He took French lessons, learned to dance and visited other theatres too. No other actress was able to capture his attention as much as "that divine Rachel". Returning to Oxford he tried to create the impression of a man of Olympian manners, and many of his associates thought him to be a conceited dandy.

      Private Secretary to Lord Landsdowne: In 1847 he was appointed the private secretary to Lord Landsdowne, the reputed Whig-party leader. Arnold's brother Tom thought that the job would make Matthew more worldly. The life in London, with its possibility of associating with the cream of the society may have its unwholesome influence, harming his humaneness. But his mother and sister who visited him found him unspoiled and affectionate, despite his high social position. He was very well-liked by Lord Landsdowne, but he continued to be the dandy to the disturbance of his friends. The author Charlotte Bronte found him striking and handsome outwardly, but disliked his foppery. Later, however she found a real modesty in him, along with literary ambition.

      Writers He Admired: Beranger, George Sand and Senancour were the writers he admired much during his early period. The Epicureanism of Beranger, in certain moods, was agreeing with Arnold's tastes. The cry of agony and revolt, the trust in beauty and Nature, and an aspiration to see renewed man found in George Sand's works attracted him. Senancour, perhaps, had greater influence on Arnold. The romantic melancholy in both go parallel. Wordsworth, whom he was familiar with, too had an influence on him. He admired Wordsworth's healing power and his ability to bring man back to Nature. He thought it welcome in a restless age of suffering souls. He admired Byron during his Oxford days but his admiration grew thinner as time passed. However he continued to be stirred by the passion in Byron's poetry. Goethe was considered the greatest of the moderns.

      Arnold's Poems: In 1849 The Strayed Reveller and Other Poems, appeared. Friends including his own sister was surprised to see the moral consciousness in the poems of a dandified youngster like Matthew. The Second Volume, Empedocles on Etna and Other Poems that appeared in 1852 too contained the same moral consciousness, perhaps in a more intense manner. However, Arnold withdrew both the volumes later.

      Marguerite Affair: He seems to have fallen in love with a French girl during his European holiday in 1846-47. Her identity is not known, but the poems dealing with his brief friendship with her, mention her as Marguerite. Different biographers have made different conjectures about her; one says she was a teacher or a governess or a lady's companion; another says she was a stage personality. From the poems one learns she had blue eyes, ash hair, a pale complexion and a mocking smile. Often she wore a kerchief around her head and her voice was clear and musical. She was French and her movement was graceful. It was the 'unconquered joy' in her that attracted Arnold towards her. But some unsurmountable obstacle lay between them and they had to separate. Nothing is clearly mentioned about the obstacle, but there are hints. She might have been in love with others earlier, we find Arnold writing:

Those lips have been prest,
And others ere I was
Were strain'd to those breasts.

      Marriage and New Job: Later he fell in love with Frances Lucy Wightman, daughter of the judge Sir William Wightman. Sir William refused to give consent to the marriage of his daughter to a man whose salary as Lord Landsdowne's private secretary was not enough to start a married life. Arnold had to search for a more lucrative job and through the influence of Lord Landsdowne got appointed the Inspector of Schools. Sir William gave the consent for marriage and Matthew and Frances Lucy became man and wife in June 1851. They had their honey-moon in France, Switzerland and Italy. The married life was a very happy one and was said to be an extended honeymoon. He was a devoted husband and an affectionate father. Both the husband and wife were very well sociable and had a wide circle of friends. One of his daughters had the father's passion for travel and was found indispensable during his fairly frequent travels. Arnold's brother, Tom, remarked once, that Matthew would never be a happy husband. But it turned out that "he was happily married, loved his home and especially his children, was free from all bitterness and envy and notwithstanding his cold manners, was at heart sincere, generous and true",

      Inspector of Schools: Arnold held the post of Inspector of Schools from 1851 to 1883. The post, according to some people, is not compatible with Arnold's Olympian manners and superb culture. He found the Inspector's life both interesting and tedious. It was his official duty to travel around the country incessantly, examining teachers and marking endless examination papers. Thrice he went to the continent to study the educational system of the various European countries and to suggest improvements in English education. He led a busy and Laborious life and the time to compose poetry was late at night when he had completed his day's tedious toil. After the official duties which he performed patiently and cheerfully he hurried away to the Elysian Plain of Literature. Though he disliked the tedium of routine inspection of schools he realized the importance of the educational work entrusted to him. He understood that it was the duty of the teachers to civilize the next generation of the lower classes. He prophetically saw that the lower classes were rising up to gain tremendous social and political power. According to him the aim of true education is but "humanization of man in Society".

      Oxford Professor of Poetry: In 1857 Arnold was elected professor of poetry at Oxford for 5 years and later the term was extended by another 5 years. His job was very light. The three or four annual lectures, expected at the university, could be given while continuing his job as an inspector. He was the first to give his lectures in English instead of the traditional Latin. Though he was not outstanding in his Oxford chair he had some successes to his credit. He became widely known as an accepted man of letters and even after his relinquishing the chair he continued to address a wider public through his prose criticism.

      Sainte Beuve's Influence: Arnold has acknowledged the French critic Sainte Beuve, as his master and mentioned him as the first of the living critics". The disinterested curiosity, the delicacy and the flexibility in the works of the French-man attracted Arnold. Later he declared that Sainte Beuve along with Goethe, Wordsworth and Newman had taught him "habits, methods, ruling ideas". At the death of Sainte Beuve, Arnold wrote an obituary in an English journal praising the poetry and the lone novel he wrote as a young man, where "his preference, his dream, his ideal" are to be found. But despite those achievements Sainte Beuve, according to Arnold, is to be considered greater as a critic, whose "first rate criticism has a permanent value greater than that of any but first rate works of poetry and art".

      Later Life and Death: Another volume of his poems with the now famous preface appeared in 1853. The literary criticism found in the preface is splendid. During his tenure as professor of poetry at Oxford he published On Translating Homer, Essays in Criticism, On the Study of Celtic Literature, and Culture and Anarchy Friendship s Guard and Mixed Essays that followed are social criticism. He wrote a few books on religion too. St. Paul and Protestantism, Literature and Dogma, God and the Bible and Last Essays on Church and Religion, are some of them.

      Arnold became a celebrity as a prophet, sharing honours with Carlyle. His works were much neglected in the early years but they captured publics' imagination later. He was a lone fighter against cant and hypocrisy and he was a declared enemy of philistinism. As Englishmen started admiring him, his phrases and words like "sweetness and light" and "philistinism" became popular cliches. Oxford conferred on him the honorary D.C.L. in 1870, and the Chancellor addressed him as the "most sweet and enlightened man." His daughter Lucy married an American and at the birth of a grandchild he visited the United States. Prime Minister Gladstone had vested a pension upon him as a token of the public recognition of his service to English Literature.

      He developed a pain across his chest in 1886 and withdrew from all public life, still enjoying his social and domestic life. He had a number of pet cats and dogs as companions. In 1888 he went to Liverpool to receive his daughter and grand-daughter, who were coming from America. On 15 April, while straining to catch a tram, he told of a severe pain and abruptly fell down dead.

Previous Post Next Post