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Matthew Arnold Page
Irving Babbit on Matthew Arnold
The Buried Life
Youth and Calm
Matthew Arnold was a major Victorian poet, the principal English literary critic of his generation, an important commentator on society and culture, and an effective government official. His father was Thomas Arnold, the headmaster of Rugby School. After graduation from Oxford, Matthew Arnold went to London as a private secretary to a member of the government. In 1851 he was appointed an inspector of schools. For 35 years he visited teacher-training schools to assure that they met government standards. He also visited schools on the continent, writing several reports in which he urged the benefits of state support and centralized supervision of education.
Arnold began his literary career in 1849 with a volume of poems, The Strayed Reveller and Other Poems. The title poem of his second volume (1852), Empedocles on Etna, is a long dramatic poem about the suicide of a 5th-century BC Greek philosopher, who in a changing time no longer believes that his work is making headway against ignorance and confusion. For a time Arnold withdrew this poem because, as he wrote in a preface to his collection Poems (1853), it did not fulfill the inspirational function of poetry. Yet many of his most characteristic poems, including Dover Beach and The Scholar Gipsy, concern the difficulty of confident knowing and acting in an age when conventional ideas and institutions have lost their authority. Arnold's philosophical despair and sense of isolation are expressed in the following lines from Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse (1855):
Wandering between two worlds, one dead,Arnold wrote little poetry after 1860. His themes, however, and the quiet modulation of his verse, some of it in irregular meters and forms, have made the relatively small body of his poetry of major significance for 20th-century readers.
Arnold began to publish literary criticism after his appointment in 1857 as professor of poetry at Oxford. In his lectures On Translating Homer (1861), the two series of Essays in Criticism (1865, 1888), and other essays he argued that literature could elevate a skeptical and materialistic age. Because it expressed its time, the literature of the present could not rise above it to save it. But the literature of the past was steadier and more grand, and the task of literary criticism was to make this literature effective in the present. When Arnold turned to social criticism, especially in Culture and Anarchy (1869), he similarly argued that a knowledge of culture, "the best that has been thought and said," would provide standards to resist the errors and corruptions of contemporary life. In St. Paul and Protestantism (1870) and other books and essays, he enlisted religion in his argument by trying to separate belief in a reality higher than our own from sectarian doctrines so that religion could flourish and lift us out of our ordinary lives and selves. In his poetry Arnold often expressed the sadness of living in an age in which what one loved most was in jeopardy. In his prose he tried to reestablish the authority of institutions--schools, the state, literature, religion--in which his contemporaries could learn how to know and live up to what was best in human experience and possibility.
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