Matthew Arnold

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Matthew Arnold : biography

24 December 1822 – 15 April 1888

George Watson follows George Saintsbury in dividing Arnold’s career as a prose writer into three phases: 1) early literary criticism that begins with his preface to the 1853 edition of his poems and ends with the first series of Essays in Criticism (1865); 2) a prolonged middle period (overlapping the first and third phases) characterized by social, political and religious writing (roughly 1860–1875); 3) a return to literary criticism with the selecting and editing of collections of Wordsworth’s and Byron’s poetry and the second series of Essays in Criticism.Watson, 1962, pp. 150–160. Saintsbury, 1899, p. 78 passim. Both Watson and Saintsbury declare their preference for Arnold’s literary criticism over his social or religious criticism. More recent writers, such as Collini, have shown a greater interest in his social writing,Collini, 1988. Also see the introduction to Culture and Anarchy and other writings, Collini, 1993. while over the years a significant second tier of criticism has focused on Arnold’s religious writing.See "The Critical Reception of Arnold’s Religious Writings" in Mazzeno, 1999. His writing on education has not drawn a significant critical endeavor separable from the criticism of his social writings.Mazzeno, 1999.

Selections from the Prose Work of Matthew Arnold

Literary criticism

Arnold’s work as a literary critic began with the 1853 "Preface to the Poems". In it, he attempted to explain his extreme act of self-censorship in excluding the dramatic poem "Empedocles on Etna". With its emphasis on the importance of subject in poetry, on "clearness of arrangement, rigor of development, simplicity of style" learned from the Greeks, and in the strong imprint of Goethe and Wordsworth, may be observed nearly all the essential elements in his critical theory. George Watson described the preface, written by the thirty-one-year-old Arnold, as "oddly stiff and graceless when we think of the elegance of his later prose."Watson, 1962, p. 147.

Criticism began to take first place in Arnold’s writing with his appointment in 1857 to the professorship of poetry at Oxford, which he held for two successive terms of five years. In 1861 his lectures On Translating Homer were published, to be followed in 1862 by Last Words on Translating Homer, both volumes admirable in style and full of striking judgments and suggestive remarks, but built on rather arbitrary assumptions and reaching no well-established conclusions. Especially characteristic, both of his defects and his qualities, are on the one hand, Arnold’s unconvincing advocacy of English hexameters and his creation of a kind of literary absolute in the "grand style," and, on the other, his keen feeling of the need for a disinterested and intelligent criticism in England.

Although Arnold’s poetry received only mixed reviews and attention during his lifetime, his forays into literary criticism were more successful. Arnold is famous for introducing a methodology of literary criticism somewhere between the historicist approach common to many critics at the time and the personal essay; he often moved quickly and easily from literary subjects to political and social issues. His Essays in Criticism (1865, 1888), remains a significant influence on critics to this day. In one of his most famous essays on the topic, “The Study of Poetry”, Arnold wrote that, “Without poetry, our science will appear incomplete; and most of what now passes with us for religion and philosophy will be replaced by poetry”. He considered the most important criteria used to judge the value of a poem were “high truth” and “high seriousness”. By this standard, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales did not merit Arnold’s approval. Further, Arnold thought the works that had been proven to possess both “high truth” and “high seriousness”, such as those of Shakespeare and Milton, could be used as a basis of comparison to determine the merit of other works of poetry. He also sought for literary criticism to remain disinterested, and said that the appreciation should be of “the object as in itself it really is."