English Literature Of The 19th Century:
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( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) was distinguished as both poet and critic, but especially in the latter capacity. He was the eldest son of Dr. Thomas Arnold, of Rugby, and was educated at Oxford. For most of his life he was a government inspector of schools. His first book of poems, "The Strayed Revellers" (1849) was published anonymously; his second, "Empedocles on Etna" (1853) was recalled after a few copies were sold. Then he issued a collection from these with a preface discussing poetry. He maintained that true poetry depends on the subject and its appropriate treatment, not on occasional bursts of beautiful thought. Arnold was professor of poetry at Oxford from 1857 to 1867. Though strongly influenced by Wordsworth, his high culture disposed him to go back to Greek literature for form and models. He was the poet of thought rather than of life. Hence he was the poet of the Universities, but did not reach the people. Among his longer poems the most notable are "Sohrab and Rustum," a tragic narrative from Persia; "The Sick King in Bokhara;" "The Scholar-Gipsy," which describes finely the country around Oxford; and "Thyrsis," a noble elegy on his friend Clough. Many of his short poems are full of romantic grace, expressed in a classical style.
A new era was opened in his career when he began to publish "Essays in Criticism," which were collected in 1865. They noted and satirized English lack of culture, and pointed out what the French Academy had done for common writing. The ordinary Briton, absorbed in practical and material things, indifferent to art and intellectual pleasure, was held up to scorn as a Philistine an enemy of light a term borrowed from the German universities. Criticism was declared to be "a disinterested endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world." The essays had considerable effect on the professional critics, as well as on the public. Henceforth the long reviews were more animated, the short ones less flippant.
Arnold being encouraged to go on, entered the theological field, for which he was less qualified by knowledge and training. Yet his "Literature and Dogma," "God and the Bible," "St. Paul and Protestantism" were none the less popular. With keen wit and a lordly air he attacked the crude notions and palpable inconsistencies of common beliefs. He insisted that the language of the Bible is not fixed and scientific, but fluid and literary. To interpret its phraseology as precise leads to absurdities. But the new definitions he proposed deserve little favor. He dwelt on the name God, and defined it as "the Eternal not-ourselves which makes for righteousness;" salvation is "a harmonious perfection only to be won by cultivating many sides in us." His earnest desire was for "sweetness and light." He taught that the way to gain a higher life is by self-renunciation.
After some years Arnold returned to pure literary work, varying it with political discussion. He never meddled with art. For books of selections from Byron, Shelley and Wordsworth he wrote introductions of varying value, that on Wordsworth being his best. He made two visits to the United States, lecturing in the principal cities, but offended the Bostonians by his verdict on Emerson, pronouncing him neither a poet nor a philosopher, but acknowledging him as a seer. His "Discourses in America" contained several utterances as little likely to be acceptable to his hearers. Yet he won credit by having the courage of his convictions. Hardly had he returned to England, when he died suddenly in April, 1888.