Renoir Young Girl Reading

Matthew Arnold

Matthew Arnold was born December 24, 1822, oldest son in a family of five sons and four daughters. His father, Dr. Thomas Arnold, was a powerful and influential figure in education and the Church of England. When Matthew was 6, his father became the headmaster at Rugby, one of the most important preparatory schools in England, and inaugurated reforms that still influence English education today.

Arnold had a mostly happy childhood. He grew up in a home filled with books, religion, and games; his father was an active and positive part of his children's lives. In 1833, Dr. Arnold built a house in Fox How, near Ambleside, and the Arnolds became friends with the Wordsworths.

Matthew Arnold received most of his education at Rugby, where his father, as headmaster, emphasized a classical education: Greek and Latin literature, rhetoric, mathematics, ethics, history, and so on. He was not a serious student, preferring to put his energy into his social life; this may have been a way of establishing his own identity and separating himself from his father's shadow.

He began writing poetry at Rugby, and did well enough at his studies to win a scholarship to Balliol College at Oxford. He entered the school in the fall of 1841. His best friend was Arthur Hugh Clough; both he and Arnold were suffering crises of faith. Arnold is known to have agonized over his own loss of orthodox religious faith, and to have read George Sand, Emerson, and Goethe in an attempt to find a new religious ground. At the same time, he was gregarious, a flashy dresser, and very popular socially. Even then, he was learning to develop a public facade to hide his private inner mind; he perfected the technique by middle age.

In April 1847, Arnold left Oxford to become the private secretary of Lord Lansdowne, a prominent political figure. He remained in this job until April 1851, during which time he travelled to Switzerland in the course of his duties. There, in 1848-49, he met the "Marguerite" who inspired "Isolation: To Marguerite" and "To Marguerite--Continued." No one knows Marguerite's real identity, although there is of course a great deal of speculation; some critics even insist that Marguerite is an imaginary figure. But in a letter to his friend, Arthur Clough, Tennyson mentions that he is going to stay a little longer at the Hotel Bellevue in Thun "for the sake of the blue eyes of one of its inmates"; about a year later, in another letter, he tells his friend he is feeling very disillusioned with the world, and says bitterly, "...more particularly is this my feeling with regard to (I hate the word) women. We know beforehand all they can teach us: yet we are obliged to learn it directly from them."

Arnold returned to England and fell in love with Lucy Wightman, whom he married in June 1851. He had taken a job the previous April as an inspector of schools; he supplemented his income by serving as a Marshal to Judge Wightman, Lucy's father. Thus, for the first seven years of his marriage, he was always travelling. As he recalled years later, "We had no home; one of our children was born in a lodging at Derby, with a workhouse, if I recollect right, behind and a penitentiary in front." In 1873, Arnold bought a house at Cobham in Surrey, where he and his growing family could finally settle down.

Arnold and Lucy were devoted to each other; in 1866, Arnold wrote to his mother, "This is our wedding day. We have been fifteen years married, and it seems as if it was only last week." They had six children: four sons and two daughters. Like his own father, Arnold loved playing with his children and spent as much time with them as he could; he enjoyed their company. Three of his sons died young, a great loss to Arnold: his oldest, Thomas, at 16, in 1868; his youngest, Basil, at 2, in 1868; his second, Trevenen, at 18, in 1872.

During the second half of his life, Arnold wrote mainly prose; his earlier poetry had mainly been born of inward conflict and distress, and now his life was more settled and he was happier. His topics were religion, literature, education--all of the subjects that made up his life. His most important prose work was Culture and Anarchy, a work of political and social criticism, published in 1869. The work was an analysis of the fundamental defects of English social and political attitudes, and a series of suggestions for long-term remedies.

Arnold died suddenly, at the age of sixty-five, on April 15, 1888, of heart trouble.

We are only reading a few of Arnold's poems for this class, but over the body of his work, Arnold was concerned with the problem of how to decide which religious, social, and artistic traditions to maintain in an increasingly commercial and industrialized world. He tried, as David J. DeLaura says, "to sketch out the essential elements of a 'transformed' human society." Like the Romantics, he yearned for an innocence he felt had been lost, but he prefigured the Moderns of the early twentieth century in his sense that society was fragmenting, and along with it the human soul. Yet he is not a true Modern, because he still felt it was possible to recover "our true, original course." Arnold is the personification of the "divided man" of Victorian times: his culture is telling him that the material and the commercial are the most important concerns in life. But he mourns for the innocence and unity with Nature that he imagines must have existed at an earlier, simpler time. He is advocating a model of life "valuing being as much as doing, inwardness as much as action, reverence as much as control of nature," as David J. DeLaura puts it.

In "Isolation: To Marguerite" (1849), "To Marguerite--Continued" (1849), and "Dover Beach" (1851), Arnold is exploring these themes, among others. The "Marguerite" poems are, at their simplest reading, laments for lost love; "Dover Beach" is a lament for lost faith. But in all three poems, Arnold is also equating his own feeling of loss with the loss of faith and innocence in his culture in general. Lionel Trilling argues that Marguerite is a symbol of a past and more genuine way of feeling: "...her indifference brings home to Arnold, sharply and dramatically, what he believes to be the emotional situation of the modern man--his insufficiency, his uncertainty, his dilution of spirit...Marguerite, then, is the past as a romantic modern conceives it." Arnold blames his failure with her "upon himself and upon the modern race of men." In "To Marguerite--Continued," Arnold uses the metaphor of islands in the sea to imply that we humans, once "Parts of a single continent," are now "in the sea of life enisled...We mortal millions live alone."

This theme and imagery are taken up again in "Dover Beach." In this poem, Arnold again emphasizes isolation as the central human condition and mourns the loss of a unifying faith; but in "Dover Beach," the poet turns to human love as the only frail substitute: "Ah, love, let us be true / To one another!" It seems significant that this poem was written after the end of his affair with Marguerite, and in the same year in which he married Lucy.

J. Hillis Miller sees Marguerite as belonging to a pastoral age, when people were not yet isolated from one another:

Marguerite is able to love because she contains her own springs of life and joy. She rejects disdainfully the modern sort of love, in which two people, as in "Dover Beach," need one another to fill up the void in their hearts. Such modern lovers plight their troth in the face of an awareness that there is no universal Love to guarantee particular acts of love. Aloneess is now man's real condition, and love is founded on its own despair.

Matthew Arnold is not universally loved by the critics of the 20th century, especially those of the early part of the century. T. S. Eliot was especially hard on him (you'll see some of Eliot's quotes in DQ 7), but others (such as Harold Bloom and Lionel Trilling) also found Arnold's poems seriously flawed. "Dover Beach" inspired a well-known parody, The Dover Bitch. But as always, the generation immediately following Arnold's was the most unforgiving in its rejection of its predecessors, and in the latter part of the 20th century, the critical tone towards Arnold became more positive.

Gerard Manley Hopkins and Walter Pater

The introductions in your Norton Anthology to Hopkins and Pater give sufficient information on them to help you understand their poems. Please be sure to read them.

If you'd like more information on any of the topics covered in this lecture, go to the Links page. Enjoy!

Some of the information in this lecture derives from:
1. Matthew Arnold, Lionel Trilling
2. Matthew Arnold: A Study of His Poetry and Prose, Douglas Bush
3. Matthew Arnold: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. David J. DeLaura
4. "Matthew Arnold," T. S. Eliot, in Matthew Arnold: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. David J. DeLaura
5. "Matthew Arnold," J. Hillis Miller, in Matthew Arnold: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. David J. DeLaura
6. The Oxford Anthology of English Literature: Victorian Prose and Poetry, eds. Lionel Trilling and Harold Bloom