Matthew Arnold

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Matthew Arnold : biography

24 December 1822 – 15 April 1888

The mood of Arnold’s poetry tends to be of plaintive reflection, and he is restrained in expressing emotion. He felt that poetry should be the ‘criticism of life’ and express a philosophy. Arnold’s philosophy is that true happiness comes from within, and that people should seek within themselves for good, while being resigned in acceptance of outward things and avoiding the pointless turmoil of the world. However, he argues that we should not live in the belief that we shall one day inherit eternal bliss. If we are not happy on earth, we should moderate our desires rather than live in dreams of something that may never be attained. This philosophy is clearly expressed in such poems as "Dover Beach" and in these lines from "Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse":

Wandering between two worlds, one dead
The other powerless to be born,
With nowhere yet to rest my head
Like these, on earth I wait forlorn.

Arnold valued natural scenery for its peace and permanence in contrast with the ceaseless change of human things. His descriptions are often picturesque, and marked by striking similes. However, at the same time he liked subdued colours, mist and moonlight. He seems to prefer the ‘spent lights’ of the sea-depths in "The Forsaken Merman" to the village life preferred by the merman’s lost wife.

In his poetry he derived not only the subject matter of his narrative poems from various traditional or literary sources but even much of the romantic melancholy of his earlier poems from Senancour’s "Obermann".

Early years

The Reverend John Keble, who would become one of the leaders of the Oxford Movement, stood as godfather to Matthew. "Thomas Arnold admired Keble’s ‘hymns’ in The Christian Year, only reversing himself with exasperation when this old friend became a Romeward-tending ‘High Church’ reactionary in the 1830s."Honan, 1981, p. 5. In 1828, Arnold’s father was appointed Headmaster of Rugby School and his young family took up residence, that year, in the Headmaster’s house. In 1831, Arnold was tutored by his uncle, the Reverend John Buckland, at Laleham, Middlesex. In 1834, the Arnolds occupied a holiday home, Fox How, in the Lake District. William Wordsworth was a neighbour and close friend. In 1836, Arnold was sent to Winchester College, but in 1837 he returned to Rugby School where he was enrolled in the fifth form. He moved to the sixth form in 1838 and thus came under the direct tutelage of his father. He wrote verse for the manuscript Fox How Magazine produced by Matthew and his brother Tom for the family’s enjoyment from 1838 to 1843. During his years as a Rugby student, he won school prizes for English essay writing, and Latin and English poetry. His prize poem, "Alaric at Rome," was printed at Rugby.

In 1841, he won an open scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford. During his residence at Oxford, his friendship ripened with Arthur Hugh Clough, another Rugby old boy who had been one of his father’s favourites. Arnold attended John Henry Newman’s sermons at St. Mary’s, but did not join the Oxford Movement. His father died suddenly of heart disease in 1842, and Fox How became the family’s permanent residence. Arnold’s poem "Cromwell" won the 1843 Newdigate prize. He graduated in the following year with a 2nd Class Honours degree in "Greats."

In 1845, after a short interlude of teaching at Rugby, he was elected Fellow of Oriel College, Oxford. In 1847, he became Private Secretary to Lord Lansdowne, Lord President of the Council. In 1849, he published his first book of poetry, The Strayed Reveller. In 1850 Wordsworth died; Arnold published his "Memorial Verses" on the older poet in Fraser’s Magazine.

Prose

Assessing the importance of Arnold’s prose work in 1988, Stefan Collini stated, "for reasons to do with our own cultural preoccupations as much as with the merits of his writing, the best of his prose has a claim on us today that cannot be matched by his poetry."Collini, 1988, p. vii. "Certainly there may still be some readers who, vaguely recalling ‘Dover Beach’ or ‘The Scholar Gipsy’ from school anthologies, are surprised to find he ‘also’ wrote prose."Collini, 1988, p. 25.