Matthew Arnold


Matthew Arnold : biography

24 December 1822 – 15 April 1888

Social criticism

He was led on from literary criticism to a more general critique of the spirit of his age. Between 1867 and 1869 he wrote Culture and Anarchy, famous for the term he popularised for the middle class of the English Victorian era population: "Philistines", a word which derives its modern cultural meaning (in English – the German-language usage was well established) from him. Culture and Anarchy is also famous for its popularization of the phrase "sweetness and light," first coined by Jonathan Swift.The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition. . Houghton Mifflin Company.

Arnold’s "want of logic and thoroughness of thought" as noted by John M. Robertson in Modern Humanists was an aspect of the inconsistency of which Arnold was accused. Few of his ideas were his own, and he failed to reconcile the conflicting influences which moved him so strongly. "There are four people, in especial," he once wrote to Cardinal Newman, "from whom I am conscious of having learnt — a very different thing from merely receiving a strong impression — learnt habits, methods, ruling ideas, which are constantly with me; and the four are — Goethe, Wordsworth, Sainte-Beuve, and yourself." Dr. Arnold must be added; the son’s fundamental likeness to the father was early pointed out by Swinburne, and was later attested by Matthew Arnold’s grandson, Mr. Arnold Whitridge. Brought up in the tenets of the Philistinism which, as a professed cosmopolitan and the Apostle of Culture he attacked, he remained something of a Philistine to the end.

Journalistic criticism

In 1887, Arnold was credited with coining the phrase "New Journalism", a term that went on to define an entire genre of newspaper history, particularly Lord Northcliffe’s turn-of-the-century press empire. However, at the time, the target of Arnold’s irritation was not Northcliffe, but the sensational journalism of Pall Mall Gazette editor, W.T. Stead."We have had opportunities of observing a new journalism which a clever and energetic man has lately invented. It has much to recommend it; it is full of ability, novelty, variety, sensation, sympathy, generous instincts; its one great fault is that it is feather-brained." Mathew Arnold, The Nineteenth century No. CXXIII. (May, 1887) pp. 629–643. Available online at Arnold had enjoyed a long and mutually beneficial association with the Pall Mall Gazette since its inception in 1865. As an occasional contributor, he had formed a particular friendship with its first editor, Frederick Greenwood and a close acquaintance with its second, John Morley. But he strongly disapproved of the muck-raking Stead, and declared that, under Stead, "the P.M.G., whatever may be its merits, is fast ceasing to be literature."Quoted in Harold Begbie, , (2 vols., New York, 1920). Available [online]

Religious criticism

His religious views were unusual for his time. Scholars of Arnold’s works disagree on the nature of Arnold’s personal religious beliefs. Under the influence of Baruch Spinoza and his father, Dr. Thomas Arnold, he rejected the supernatural elements in religion, even while retaining a fascination for church rituals. Arnold seems to belong to a pragmatic middle ground that is more concerned with the poetry of religion and its virtues and values for society than with the existence of God.

He wrote in the preface of God and the Bible in 1875 “The personages of the Christian heaven and their conversations are no more matter of fact than the personages of the Greek Olympus and their conversations.”Super, CPW, VII, p. 384. He also wrote in Literature and Dogma: "The word ‘God’ is used in most cases as by no means a term of science or exact knowledge, but a term of poetry and eloquence, a term thrown out, so to speak, as a not fully grasped object of the speaker’s consciousness — a literary term, in short; and mankind mean different things by it as their consciousness differs."Super, CPW, VI, p. 171. He defined religion as "morality touched with emotion".Super, CPW, VI, p. 176.