Childhood & Early Years
Mathew Arnold was born on 24 December, 1822 in Laleham, a village in Surrey located immediately downstream from Staines-upon-Thames. He was the second child and eldest son of Thomas Arnold, a noted educator and historian, and Mary Penrose Arnold, daughter of an Anglican clergyman.
From his childhood, Mathew was proud of by his father’s ethical views, his activities as educational reformer, his engagement in religious controversies, and his devotion to history. However, he was closer to his mother than to him.
It was his mother’s support, which helped him to go through those difficult days when as a child he had to wear leg braces. In her, he always saw a sympathetic, but analytically intelligent friend, with whom he could talk frankly.
Mathew was also very close to his elder sister Jane. Among his younger siblings were English literally scholar Thomas Arnold the Younger, the well-known author and colonial administrator William Delafield Arnold and the inspector of schools Edward Penrose Arnold.
Mathew spent the first few of his life at Laleham, moving to Rugby in Warwickshire in 1828, as his father was appointed the headmaster of Rugby School. It was here that Mathew began his education under private tutors.
Never a distinguished student, Mathew’s slow progressed alarmed his father. In 1831, he was sent back to Laleham, where he was enrolled in a school run by his uncle, Reverend John Buckland.
The school was very strict and Mathew missed his family. Therefore, when in 1833, he returned home to be put under private tutors once more, he was found to be more industrious. By then, he had also developed an interest in poetries.
In 1836, Mathew was enrolled at Winchester College, Hampshire, returning home in 1837, to enroll at the Rugby School in the fifth form. In 1838, as he entered the sixth form, he came under his father’s direct tutelage. But an apparent carelessness about his studies continued to persist.
Mathew, like most adolescent, enjoyed fishing and hunting. Dressed in elegant clothes, he also loved to have good time even with casual acquaintances and to play pranks. When in his last year, he was asked to stand behind his father’s desk, he utilized the time making faces at his classmates.
He also wrote fair number of poetries, winning a prize for his long poem ‘Alaric at Rome’ in 1840. This was also the time, when he first met Arthur Hugh Clough, who later became a brilliant scholar, accomplished poet and his closest friend.
In 1841, in spite of his apparent carelessness in his studies, Mathew earned a scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford; beginning his courses on October 15, 1841. Here, he continued with his old lifestyle, having a good time, at the cost of his studies.
Also in 1841, Thomas Arnold was appointed a Professor of History at Oxford. During this period, Mathew was as much influenced by John Henry Newman’s views as by his father’s opposition to it. But, when his father died in June 1842, he became a strong defender of his father’s legacies.
After his father’s death, his friendship with Arthur Hugh Clough, who was also at Oxford, became stronger. They now began to spend more time reading together, being greatly influenced by the social thoughts of Thomas Carlyle
In 1843, Mathew Arnold won the prestigious Newdigate Prize for his poem ‘Cromwell’. Receiving the award, he became aware of his potential and decided that he wanted to be a poet. Thereafter, he began writing poems seriously, leaving Oxford in 1844 with a second class degree in Literae Humaniores.
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As An Emerging Poet
In 1844, Mathew Arnold began his career as a teacher at the Rugby School. Sorely disappointed by his result, he now began working for a fellowship at Oriel College, Oxford, winning the same in 1845. Many years ago, his father was also a fellow of the same college.
At Oriel, he studied both Western and Oriental philosophy. He also read English, French and German literature extensively, especially admiring the writings of George Sand. His studies here widened his intellectual perception.
In April 1847, he was appointed Private Secretary to Lord Lansdowne, then the Lord President of the Council in the Liberal government. Matthew moved to London to take up the post. All along he continued to write poems, publishing his first collection, ‘The Strayed Reveller and Other Poems’ two years later.
The poems in ‘The Strayed Reveller’, published in 1847 under the pseudonym of “A”, were mostly of melancholic in nature. This surprised his family and friends, who had all along known him as a lighthearted young man. However, the sale was poor and the book was subsequently withdrawn.
In April 1851, Arnold secured the position of an Inspector of Schools with the assistance of Lord Lansdowne, a job he held until 1886. Although he found it dull and boring, he was aware of the benefit of holding a regular job and hence continued with it.
As Inspector of Schools, he was required to travel a lot, visiting nonconformist schools in a large area in central England. While this allowed him to see much of England, it also meant much of his time was spent in railway coaches and waiting rooms.
His job also required him to listen to the students reciting their lessons and their guardians complaining about facilities. While such a work was anything but enjoyable, it allowed him come face to face with the society in provincial England, knowing them better than many of his contemporary authors.
In 1852, Matthew Arnold published his second collection of poems, ‘Empedocles on Etna, and Other Poems’. It was also a nonstarter with only fifty copies being sold. Thereafter, the book was withdrawn.
In 1853, he had his third book, ‘Poems: A New Edition’ published. Although it mostly contained a selection from the two earlier volumes, two new poems, ‘Sohrab and Rustum’ and ‘The Scholar Gipsy’ were added.
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In 1854, he had his second selection, ‘Poems: Second Series’ published. Along with previously published poems, it included ‘Balder Dead’ a new narrative poem, drawn upon Norse mythology. Very soon, Arnold was famous enough to merit a position at Oxford.
Professor of Poetry
In 1857, while working as the Inspector of Schools, Arnold was elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford, a part time position, requiring the appointee to give only three lectures per year. While traditionally the professors gave the lectures in Latin, Arnold spoke in English, setting up a new precedence.
While he continued to publish poems such as ‘Merope. A Tragedy’ (1858), he now began to steer towards prose. ‘On Translating Homer’, published in January 1861, was one such work. It was based on a series of lectures he gave at Oxford from 3 November 1860 to 18 December 1860.
’The Popular Education of France’, also published in 1861, was another important work of this period. In 1859, he had conducted a trip to the continent at the request of the parliament to study the European educational system and the work was an outcome of it.
In 1862, he was reelected as Professor of Poetry at Oxford for another five-year term. In the same year, he published ‘Last Words on Translating Homer’, a sequel to his 1861 publication, ‘On Translating Homer’ entitled.
Continuing to write both poems and prose, he published ‘Essays in Criticism: First Series’ in 1865, and ’Thyrsis’, an elegy to his old friend Clough, in 1866. He also wanted to publish ‘Essays in Criticism: Second Series’; but that did not happen until after his death.
In 1867, he had his last book of poems, ‘New Poems’, published. Among many other well-known works, the collection contained his famous poem, ‘Dover’ Beach’, which he wrote while on his honeymoon. Within the following year, the book sold 1000 copies. Thereafter, he mainly concentrated on essays.
As An Essayist
In 1868, Mathew Arnold began a new phase of his life with the publication of ‘Essay on the Study of Celtic Literature’. It was stimulating exercise in philosophy and anthropology in imitation of Renan and Gobineau.
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In 1869, he had one of his most important works, ‘Culture and Anarchy’, published in book form. It was a collection of essays published in1867-1868 in the Cornhill Magazine. After this, he turned to religion, writing four books on the subject.
'St. Paul and Protestantism’ his first book on religion, was published in 1870. It was followed by, ‘Literature and Dogma’, published 1873, ‘God and the Bible’ published in 1875, and ‘Last Essays on Church and Religion’ published in 1877.
By then, Matthew Arnold had made his name as an esteemed lecturer. ’Last Essays on Church and Religion’ contained his famous lecture, ‘The Church of England’, delivered at the London Clergy at Sion College. In it, he rebuked them for their deference to the landed gentry because such attitude was not in conformity with Christianity.
In 1883, William Gladstone, Prime Minister of England, offered him a yearly pension of £250. In the same year, he was invited to the United States of America, touring both the USA and Canada until 1884, delivering lectures on democracy and education.
In 1886, he retired from his job as Inspector of Schools and traveled to the USA once more. He continued to work, writing essays almost until his sudden and untimely death two years later.
Arnold is best remembered for his essay, 'Culture and Anarchy’. In it, he defined culture as “a study of perfection” and said that England could only be saved if critical intelligence capable of questioning the authority was allowed to develop. He also criticized the contemporary politicians for their lack of purpose.
In 'Literature and Dogma’, his other major work, he argued that the Church was a time-honored social institution that must be reformed; but without undermining its position in English history and culture. It also said that Bible, with its great literally value, should not be discredited because of historical inaccuracy.
‘Dover Beach’, written in 1851 and published in his ‘New Poems’ in 1867, is one of his most notable poems. It is also the most difficult poem to analyze and different critics have analyzed it differently. It also finds mention in number of novels, plays, poems and films.
Personal Life & Legacy
In June 1851, Mathew Arnold married Frances Lucy Wightman, daughter of Sir William Wightman, Justice of the Queen's Bench. They had six children; Thomas, Trevenen William, Richard Penrose, Lucy Charlotte, Eleanore Mary Caroline and Basil Francis.
On 15 April, 1888, Arnold died of heart failure in Liverpool, where he had gone to meet his daughter Lucy Charlotte, on a visit from the USA. He now lies buried at the graveyard of All Saints Church, Laleham.
Many consider Mathew Arnold to be the third great Victorian poet after Alfred Tennyson and Robert Browning while others consider him to be a bridge between Romanticism and Modernism.
Today, he has a local country supported comprehensive school in Laleham, a primary school in Liverpool and secondary schools in Oxford and Staines named after him.
A London County Council blue plaque marks his residence at 2 Chester Square, Belgravia in London.