Matthew Arnold is a distinguished twentieth century English poet and critic who brought about a revolution in the world of English literature with his critical essays, prose and poetry. His standing in the literary world rests as much as on his poetries as his narratives and essays. Although Arnold is deemed as the third great Victorian poet after Alfred Tennyson and Robert Browning, it was in prose that he found his true expression. While his poetical works have been tagged as gnomic and elegiac, his polished, didactic, and satirically witty prose works have earned him quite a big fan following. Arnold believed that poetry should be the ‘criticism of life’ and verbalize a philosophy. Then again, his narratives and descriptions were pleasant and picturesque, loaded with outstanding similes to produce a lingering effect on the readers’ mind. Apart from being a poet, he was a critic who refused to succumb to Orthodox Christianity in his youth and chose to become an agnostic instead. However, he admired people who entirely devoted themselves to religion. Explore more on Matthew Arnold profile, life and timeline in the write-up below.
Matthew Arnold Childhood
Matthew Arnold was born on 24 December 1822, in Lalhem-on-the-Thames, a place situated sixteen miles west of London. He was the eldest son of Thomas Arnold and Mary Penrose Arnold, who was the daughter of an Anglican clergyman. Matthew’s father was a historian, a strict headmaster, a liberal protestant and a leader in the Broad Church movement of the Church of England. After getting the job of headmaster in Rugby School in 1828, Thomas Arnold with his family moved to Rugby, when Matthew was just six-years-old. At the age of seven, he met the future poet Arthur Hugh Clough, who was four years older to Matthew and became his lifetime friend. Later on, in 1829, Arnold family shifted to a holiday house at Fox How in the Lake District where they lived till 1920’s. This was the place where Matthew Arnold met the legendary poet William Wordsworth for the first time.
When Matthew was nine years old, he was sent as a boarder to his uncle, Reverend John Buckland’s Preparatory School. He stayed there for a year and returned home the next year for pursuing further studies together with his younger brother Tom Arnold. In 1836, he was sent to Winchester and to Rugby School in 1837, where he successfully won prizes for English essay writing and Latin and English poetry. He then went to Balliol College, Oxford in 1841, after being honored with an Open Scholarship competing against 33 Oxford students. In 1843, he exhibited his proliferating talent in poetry for which he was honored with the Newdigate Prize. In the same year, he graduated with a second-class honors degree, which disheartened his family. When he got the Open Scholarship, his brother Tom Arnold wrote in ‘Passages in a Wandering Life’ about Matthew – “During those years, my brother was cultivating his poetic gift carefully, but his exuberant, versatile nature claimed other satisfactions. His keen bantering talk made him something of a social lion among the Oxford men, he even began to dress fashionably.”
After completing higher studies, Matthew Arnold took up a teaching job at Rugby School for some time, taking a brief break from his studies. In 1845, he was honored with a Fellowship at Oriel College, Oxford. He pursued his studies there with John Keble and John Henry Newman and enjoyed reading and travelling to Ireland, Wales and France, staying at the same time in London and writing poetic pieces. In 1847, he was appointed as a private secretary to Lord Lansdowne, Lord President of the Council. Lord conferred this position to him owing to his great respect Arnold’s father, Thomas Arnold.
Wedlock and Family
In 1851, at the age of 28, Matthew Arnold tied the knot with Frances Lucy Wightman, who was the daughter of Sir William Wightman, Justice of the Queen’s Bench. They settled at Laleham-on-the Thames and were the parents of six children of which only three outlived their father. The six children were: Thomas (1852–1868), Trevenen William (1853–1872), Richard Penrose (1855–1908), Lucy Charlotte (1858–1934), Eleanore Mary Caroline (1861–1936) and Basil Francis (1866–1868). To fulfill the needs of his family and to earn livelihood, Matthew worked as a Her Majesty’s Inspector of Schools. He served this position for the about thirty-five years.
Publication of His First Poetry
“The Strayed Reveller and Other Poems” was the first book of poetry penned by Matthew Arnold, which was published in 1849. Christina Rossetti, a famous English poet remarked on this poetry book noticing the absence of zeal, “that the verse might almost be read as prose” in the literary magazine, ‘The Germ’. Later on, in 1850, Matthew published ‘Memorial Verses’ written on the legendary poet William Wordsworth in Fraser’s Magazine, when he passed away.
Matthew Arnold as a Poet and Critic
Matthew Arnold published ‘Empedocles on Etna and Other Poems’ (1852) and ‘Poems: A New Edition’ (1853), a collection from the earlier works together with “Sohrab and Rustum” and “The Scholar Gypsy”, but knowingly skipping ‘Empedocles on Etna and Other Poems’, under his name which successfully made him famous as a poet. In 1854, “Poems: Second Series” got published with a new poetic work “Balder Dead”. In 1857, Matthew Arnold was appointed as ‘Professor of Poetry’ at Oxford and served this position for two consecutive terms of five years. He was the first professor to deliver lectures in English instead of Latin. His speeches ‘On Translating Homer’ were published in 1861, followed by ‘Last Words on Translating Homer’ (1862), which are commendable for the style, remarkable judgments and revelatory comments. On one side, these lectures depict the merits and demerits of Arnold’s unimpressive protagonism of English verses and on the other; his strong emotion of the requirement for an unbiased and intellectual criticism in England. Apart from the poetry, Arnold penned many prominent critical works, which includes ‘Essays in Criticism’ (1865), and ‘Culture and Anarchy’ (1869). In these works, he had focused on the concepts, which mainly imitate the leading values of the Victorian era. His critical theories show demand of development, clarity of arrangement and simplicity of style that shows how deeply Arnold was inspired by the Greeks as well as Goethe and William Wordsworth. His ‘New Poems’ written in 1867 sold thousand copies and was very much admired by Algernon Charles Swinburne and Robert Browning. His works are influenced by culture, high determination, authenticity, and a style of prodigious peculiarity.
Theology and Social Theory
Soon after, in 1873, he started taking interest in theological and social subjects and the prose work written by him, ‘Literature and Dogma’ focused on the vast market of spiritual publications and dealt with the existing matters of religious beliefs and the apparent crisis of Christianity. His ‘Last Essays on Church and Religion’ (1877) included the essay “The Church of England”, which was first conveyed as a lecture to the London Clergy at Sion College, where he went on the invitation of Henry Milman. In this, he criticized them for their subservience to the affluent and propertied classes, explaining that such things had no place in Christianity. He completed his writings with the remark that according to him, Christian religion would persist due to the principles and teachings of Jesus Christ concentrated on the matters significant to the understanding of mankind.
His Famous Works
Most of his celebrated poetic works were penned before his early forties. His main poetries include “Poems”, comprising "Sohrab and Rustum," and "The Scholar Gypsy". “Poems: 2nd Series” enclosing "Balder Dead", his masterpiece, "Dover Beach" and "Thyrsis," (1861), an elegy written in the memory of Arthur Hugh Clough (42), who was a poet and his childhood friend. Other poetic works include “Immortality”, “To a Friend”, “To Marguerite’, “Growing Old” and “Alaric at Rome: A Prize Poem”. After this, he entered the world of literary and cultural critic and theology.
His prose works include 'On Translating Homer’, ‘On the Study of Celtic Literature’, ‘Essays in Celtic Literature’, ‘Essays in Criticism’, ‘2nd Series: Culture and Anarchy’, ‘Friendship's Garland’, ‘Literature and Dogma’, ‘God and the Bible’, ‘Last Essays on Church and Religion’, ‘Mixed Essays’, ‘Irish Essays’, ‘The Hundred Greatest Men: Portraits of the One Hundred Greatest Men of History’, ‘Schools and Universities on the Continent’, ‘St. Paul and Protestantism; with an Introduction on Puritanism’, ‘On the Modern Element in Literature’ and ‘Letters of an Old Playgoer and the Church of England and Discourses in America’. Apart from this, he also wrote some works on the condition of education in Europe.
Matthew Arnold died on 15 April 1888, at the age of sixty-five, in Liverpool, England. He passed away at the time, when he was walking with his wife to take a tram to meet his daughter, who was coming from U.S.A.
Literary Works on Matthew Arnold
Two of the important collections of Matthew Arnold’s letters including ‘Letters of Matthew Arnold’ (1848-1888) and (1895-1896) were edited by George W.E. Russell. Apart from this, ‘The Letters of Matthew Arnold to Arthur Hugh Clough’ was edited by Howard Foster Lowry (1932). Two outstanding works dedicated to Arnold's poetry are ‘The Voices of Matthew Arnold: An Essay in Criticism’ (1961) written by Wendell Stacy Johnson and ‘Imaginative Reason: The Poetry of Matthew Arnold’ (1966) by A. Dwight Culler. Apart from this, there is also a book written on the complementary approach to the poems called ‘Matthew Arnold: The Poet as Humanist’ (1967) by G. Robert Stange. Some of the other dedicated works on Matthew Arnold are ‘The Ethical Idealism of Matthew Arnold’ (1959) written by William Robbins, ‘Matthew Arnold and the Three Classes’ (1964) by Patrick McCarthy and ‘Matthew Arnold and the Classical Tradition’ (1965) by Warren D. Anderson.