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Matthew Arnold’s work deals with the difficulty of preserving personal values in a world drastically transformed by industrialism, science, and democracy. His poetry often expresses a sense of unease with modernity. He asserted his greatest influence through his prose writings as a social critic, calling for a renewal of art and culture. His forceful literary criticism, based on his humanistic belief in the value of balance and clarity in literature, significantly shaped modern theory.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Child of the Headmaster
Arnold was the eldest son of Dr. Thomas Arnold, an influential educator who became, in 1828, headmaster of the prestigious Rugby School. His family took many pleasant holidays in England’s Lake District where they became acquainted with William Wordsworth. Much of the imagery in Arnold’s landscape poetry was inspired by the locale.
Arnold’s poetic landscapes also are indebted to the region around Oxford University, which Arnold attended after being offered a scholarship in 1840. At Oxford he met Arthur Hugh Clough, who became his close friend and correspondent. After leaving Oxford, Arnold took a temporary post as assistant master at Rugby for one term before accepting a position in London as private secretary to the politician Lord Lansdowne.
Success as a Poet
While holding this position, Arnold wrote some of his finest poems. He published them, signed with the initial A., in two separate volumes: The Strayed Reveller and Other Poems (1849) and Empedocles on Etna, and Other Poems (1852). Arnold published the bulk of his poetry, including Poems in 1853, in the eight years following the publication of The Strayed Reveller. However, his best-known poem, ”Dover Beach,” was not published until 1867. The poem, often viewed as a meditation on the importance of love, describes a locale on the coast of England that Arnold is said to have visited in 1851.
At the age of thirty-four, Arnold was elected to the poetry chair at Oxford University, an appointment that required him to deliver several lectures each year. Traditionally, the lectures had been read in Latin, but Arnold decided to present his in English. He used the occasion of his first lecture in 1857 to discuss his views about the worth of classical literature. In the first lecture, entitled ”On the Modern Element in Literature,” later published in Macmillan’s magazine (1869), Arnold advocates a liberal education that features wide-ranging knowledge and the use of the comparative method to build knowledge and to shape understanding.
Arnold’s next major prose work, On Translating Homer, was a series of three lectures given at Oxford in 1860 and 1861. In these essays, he evaluates selected translations of Homer, noting the strengths and weaknesses of each in an attempt to establish the characteristics of a well-written translation. They are lively introductions to classical poetry and urge English writers to imitate Homer’s ”grand style.”
In his prose works, Arnold pursued many of the same ideas he had introduced in his poems, especially man’s need for spiritual and intellectual fulfillment in a materialistic, provincial society. In his Oxford lectures and in his education reports, Arnold suggested a single solution to humankind’s problems—a liberal education. As an essayist, Arnold continued to address the subject of intellectual and spiritual growth.
Of the several books that Arnold wrote on politics and sociology, the most important is Culture and Anarchy (1869). He criticizes nineteenth-century English politicians for their lack of purpose and their excessive concern with the machinery of society. The English people— and the narrow-minded middle class in particular—lack ”sweetness and light,” a phrase that Arnold borrowed from Jonathan Swift. England can only be saved by the development of ”culture,” which for Arnold means the free play of critical intelligence and a willingness to question all authority and to make judgments in a leisurely and disinterested way.
The subject of four of Arnold’s books was the threat to religion posed by science and historical scholarship. The most important of these is Literature and Dogma (1873). He argues that the Bible has the importance of a supremely great literary work, and as such it cannot be discredited by charges of historical inaccuracy. And the Church, like any other time-honored social institution, must be reformed with care and with a sense of its historical importance to English culture.
Arnold focused on social and literary topics during the last ten to twelve years of his life, offering more elaborate or definitive statements of his views on matters that had long interested him. In 1883 and 1886 he toured the United States and gave lectures in which he tried to win Americans to the cause of culture. Many of Arnold’s late essays deal with literature and, more specif-ically, with sound criticism of literature. The best known of his later collections is Essays in Criticism, Second Series, which Arnold began discussing with his publisher in January of 1888, but which was not actually printed until November of that year, seven months after Arnold’s sudden death from a heart attack.
Works in Literary Context
One of the dominant themes of Arnold’s poems is that of the intellectual and spiritual void he believed to be characteristic of nineteenth-century life. Looking about him, he witnessed the weakening of traditional areas of authority, namely the dwindling power of the upper classes and the diminishing authority of the Church. He believed man had no firm base to cling to, nothing to believe in, nothing to be sustained by.
Arnold’s early poetry, such as Alaric at Rome (1840), had the brooding tone that would become characteristic of his mature work. In ”To Marguerite—Continued,” he concludes that the individual is essentially isolated. The theme of man’s alienation and longing for refuge is echoed in later poems such as ”Rugby Chapel” and ”Dover Beach.”
For Arnold, the German poet Heinrich Heine truly possessed the critical spirit. Heine cherished the French spirit of enlightenment and waged ”a life and death battle with Philistinism,” the narrowness Arnold saw typified in the British. Arnold felt that the English romantics had failed to reinstitute the critical spirit. The German romantic Heine, however, he believed, was able to accomplish what the English romantics could not.
Despite his criticism, however, the two romantics Arnold held in highest esteem were Lord Byron and William Wordsworth. He praised Byron at length for his stand on social injustice, and ranked Wordsworth only after William Shakespeare, Moliere, John Milton, and Johann von Goethe in his list of the premier poets of ”the last two or three centuries.”
Works in Critical Context
As E. D. H. Johnson has pointed out, Arnold tried ”to reaffirm the traditional sovereignty ofpoetry as a civilizing agent.” Arnold believed that great art, functioning as a civilizing agent to enrich the intellectual and spiritual life of man, had universal application. But his views were not the same as those of his contemporaries, who felt that art should have immediate, practical application to everyday experience.
Arnold’s first collection, The Strayed Reveller (1849) was a failure; sales were poor and the book was withdrawn. Empedocles on Etna, and Other Poems (1852), after a sale of only fifty copies, also was withdrawn. Critics charged that Arnold’s first two volumes of poems did not consistently deal with contemporary life. Charles Kingsley’s comments in 1849 are representative: ”The man who cannot… sing the present age, and transfigure it into melody, or who cannot, in writing of past ages, draw from them some eternal lesson about this one, has no right to be versifying at all.”
Poems (1853) included works from the two earlier collections as well as new ones, notably ”Sohrab and Rustum” and ”The Scholar Gypsy.” That volume contains his famous preface outlining why he did not include the title poem from Empedocles on Etna, and Other Poems. Arnold declared that it did not fulfill the requirements of a good poem and therefore did not qualify as meaningful art. Alba Warren explains that ”great poetry for Arnold is not lyric, subjective, personal; it is above all objective and impersonal.” H. F. Lowry says of Arnold that ”[t]he deepest passion of his life was for what is permanent in the human mind and the human heart,” and that he found this in classical literature.
Because, perhaps, of the mournful tone of his verse, Arnold was not a popular poet in his day. However, many of his poems—most notably ”The Scholar-Gypsy,” ”Empedocles on Etna,” ”Thyrsis,” and ”Dover Beach”— are still studied and respected as some of the best verse of the Victorian period. T. S. Eliot stated that ”the valuation of the Romantic poets, in academic circles, is still very largely that which Arnold made.”
“Culture and Its Enemies”
In ”Culture and Its Enemies,” published in the Cornhill Magazine in 1867 and later included in Culture and Anarchy, Arnold continues to wage war against complacency. But his views were met with considerable scorn. Readers claimed that he was an elitist, a snob, and they labeled his ideas inadequately developed and impractical. Henry Sidgwick found the essay ”over-ambitious, because it treats of the most profound and difficult problems of individual and social life with an airy dogmatism that ignores their depth and difficulty.”
Arnold responded to his critics in a series of five essays published in 1868, entitled ”Anarchy and Authority.” In the essay series Arnold continues his championship of culture by stressing the present need for it.
Essays on Religion
Arnold also championed religion as a profound cultural force. However, Ruth Roberts shows that Arnold is guilty of ”over ingenuity” in his religious works. His argument is not as disinterested as he claims, and he often glosses over biblical passages inconsistent with his position. For Arnold, the Bible was literature and must be read as such. J. C. Shairp, a contemporary of Arnold’s, argued, ”They who seek religion for culture-sake are aesthetic, not religious.” The same charge was later echoed by T. S. Eliot, who found that Arnold had confused ”poetry and morals in the attempt to find a substitute for religious faith.”
Basil Willey summarized Arnold’s view in Literature and Dogma as being a ”false approach to the Bible which seeks to extract dogma from poetry.” Unsurprisingly, Literature and Dogma stirred even more controversy than his previous religious works. Many of Arnold’s critics were clergymen, such as John Tulloch, who was not alone in accusing Arnold of dabbling in ”amateur theology.
”The Study of Poetry”
One of Arnold’s most important later essays, ”The Study of Poetry,” first appeared in 1880 as the introduction to The English Poets, an anthology edited by T. Humphry Ward. R. H. Super reminds that the essay was intended ”to give some guidance to a middle-class public not sophisticated in the reading of poetry. ”The Study of Poetry no more remained unchallenged than had any of Arnold s other works. Many, including contemporary critics, have disagreed with Arnold s choice of touchstone passages, and many have taken offense at Arnold s pronouncements about the merits of individual authors. Despite such objections, the essay remains an historically important piece of criticism and an important guide to Arnold s own tastes.
As John Holloway observes, in Arnold s prose, it is ”his handling of problems that is more important than his solutions to them. One of Arnold s contemporaries, John Burroughs, writing two months after Arnold’s death, claimed that Matthew Arnold deserved to be read extensively, for only then could he be fully appreciated. In Arnold’s prose, Burroughs wrote, ”his effect is cumulative; he hits a good many times in the same place, and his work as a whole makes a deeper impression than any single essay of his would seem to warrant.
- Culler, A. Dwight. The Imaginative Reason: The Poetry of Matthew Arnold. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1966.
- Eliot, T. S. ”Matthew Arnold.” In The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism. London: Faber & Faber, 1933.
- Lowry, H. F., ed. The Letters of Matthew Arnold to Arthur Hugh Clough. London: Oxford University Press, 1932.
- Madden, William A. Matthew Arnold: A Study of the Aesthetic Temperament in Victorian England. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1967.
- Russell, G. W. E., ed. Letters of Matthew Arnold, 1848-1888. London: Macmillan, 1895.
- Trilling, Lionel. Matthew Arnold. New York: Meridian, 1939.
- Buckler, William. ”Studies in Three Arnold Problems. PMLA 73 (1958): 260-69.
- Donovan, Robert. ”The Method of Arnold’s Essays in Criticism” PMLA 71 (1956): 922-31.
- Goodheart, Eugene, George Levine, Morris Dickstein, and Stuart M. Tave. ”The Function of Matthew Arnold at the Present Time.” Critical Inquiry 9 (March 1983).
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