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Arnold, Matthew

Category: Poet

Matthew Arnold (1822 – 1888) was a British poet and cultural critic.

In 1841, he won an open scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford and 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 1849, he published his first book of poetry, The Strayed Reveller.

Arnold was elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford in 1857. He was the first to deliver his lectures in English rather than Latin. He was re-elected in 1862. On Translating Homer (1861) and the initial thoughts that Arnold would transform into Culture and Anarchy were among the fruits of the Oxford lectures. In 1859, he conducted the first of three trips to the continent at the behest of parliament to study European educational practices. He self-published The Popular Education of France (1861), the introduction to which was later published under the title Democracy (1879).

Arnold was keenly aware of his place in poetry. In an 1869 letter to his mother, he wrote:

My poems represent, on the whole, the main movement of mind of the last quarter of a century, and thus they will probably have their day as people become conscious to themselves of what that movement of mind is, and interested in the literary productions which reflect it. It might be fairly urged that I have less poetical sentiment than Tennyson and less intellectual vigour and abundance than Browning; yet because I have perhaps more of a fusion of the two than either of them, and have more regularly applied that fusion to the main line of modern development, I am likely enough to have my turn as they have had theirs."


Read a description of Arnold in something like Wikipedia and you get the impression of a clever dedicated commentator on social ills, a gifted poet and a writer of compelling prose.  But it doesn't all add up.

His poems employ liberal doses of symbolism and his subject matter is anything but ordinary -  Arnold's most purely poetical poem "The Forsaken Merman"; Empedocles on EtnaTristram and Iseult, and the  tragedy of "Merope," calculated, he wrote to a friend, "rather to inaugurate my Professorship with dignity than to move deeply the present race of humans,"   The present race of humanity?  So he obviously viewed himself outside humanity at large.

There is no obvious tragedy in his life as there so often is with the artistic – no depression, angst, lost love, no trauma or grief, but a little like Olaf Stapledon, one gets the feeling that something happened to him of which he told no one, which changed him from a run of the mill poet to a great poet.  His views are pure spirituality and mysticism.

Arnold's philosophy was 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 argued 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 is  Pierre Teilhard de Chardin or any other spiritually aware person expressing a universal set of truths.

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.

Aaah yes, he had been to the other side and he too saw the realm of the earth as the realm of the dead.  The shadow world.  He longed to go home.

For those who seemed convinced he was 'religious' there is this quote from 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.”

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."

He defined religion as "morality touched with emotion".

So Matthew Arnold was naturally gifted, but there seems to have been an unknown event that created the turning point.  His heart was clearly failing and this may have been it.

Arnold died suddenly in 1888 aged 47, of heart failure, when running to meet a tram that would have taken him to the Liverpool Landing Stage to see his daughter, who was visiting from the United States where she had moved after marrying an American.


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