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MATTHEW ARNOLD (1822-1888)

From his father, Dr. Thomas Arnold, afterward headmaster of Rugby, Matthew Arnold may well have inherited the academic tastes that dominated his life. After a schooling at Winchester and Rugby, Arnold won a classical scholarship, in 1841, at Balliol College, Oxford. During his second year at the university, he gained the Newdigate prize by a poem on Cromwell, and in 1845 he was elected to a fellowship at Oriel College. Arnold abandoned Oxford presently, however, in order to become private secretary to the Marquis of Lansdowne, who procured for him, in 1851, an appointment as inspector of schools, from which he was released only a short time before his death. In 1848 he became known to a small circle of readers by his first volume of poems, The Strayed Reveller and other Poems, and during the next few years his poetical influence greatly increased, especially through the poems contained in Poems by Matthew Arnold (1853), a volume to which he prefaced a notable critical essay on poetry. In 1857 Arnold was elected to the professorship of poetry at Oxford, which he held for ten years, and which provided him the stimulus for writing certain of his best critical essays. The substantial classic On Translating Homer: Three Lectures given at Oxford (1861) was followed by Essays in Criticism (1865), which promptly fascinated and influenced English readers, as did also the published lectures, On the Study of Celtic Literature (1867). From pure literary criticism Arnold passed, for a time, to studies in religion, ethics, and politics, such as Culture and Anarchy (1869), Friendship's Garland (1871), Literature and Dogma (1873), and Last Essays on Church and Religion (1877). He returned subsequently, however, to literary criticism, occupying himself largely in editing, in making selections from poets, and in writing prefaces. In 1883 Arnold received a civil service pension of £250, which enabled him to retire from his duties as inspector of schools. In the winter of 1883-84, he lectured in America, as he did also in 1886. The lectures delivered during his first American tour were published in 1885 as Discourses in America.

Arnold's poetry, small in volume, is of almost invariable excellence. Although it makes no strong popular appeal, it has always held a large audience through its grace, gravity, and melody. As a critic, Arnold is preeminent. For a generation or two his canons of poetry, securely expressed in a poised, gentle, and precise style, have dominated English literary criticism.

THE STUDY OF POETRY 'The future of poetry is immense, because in poetry, where it is worthy of its high destinies, our race, as time goes on, will find an ever surer and surer stay. There is not a creed which is not shaken, not an accredited dogma which is not shown to be questionable, not a received tradition which does not threaten to dissolve. Our religion has 10 materialized itself in the fact, in the supposed fact; it has attached its emotion to the fact, and now the fact is failing it. But for poetry the idea is everything; the rest is a world of illusion, 15 of divine illusion. Poetry attaches its emotion to the idea; the idea is the fact. The strongest part of our religion to-day is its unconscious poetry.'

Let me be permitted to quote these words of my own, as uttering the thought which should, in my opinion, go with us and govern us in all our study of poetry. 5 In the present work it is the course of one great contributory stream to the world-river of poetry that we are invited to follow. We are here invited to trace the stream of English poetry. But whether we set ourselves, as here, to follow only one of the several streams that make the mighty river of poetry, or whether we seek to know them all, our governing thought should be the same. We should conceive of poetry worthily, and more highly than it has been the custom to conceive of it. We should conceive of it as capable of higher uses and called to higher destinies, than

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those which in general men have as-
signed to it hitherto. More and more
mankind will discover that we have to
turn to poetry to interpret life for us,
to console us, to sustain us. Without
poetry, our science will appear incom-
plete; and most of what now passes with
us for religion and philosophy will be
replaced by poetry. Science, I say, will
appear incomplete without it. For finely to
and truly does Wordsworth call poetry
'the impassioned expression which is in
the countenance of all science;' and what
is a countenance without its expression?
Again, Wordsworth finely and truly calls 15
poetry the breath and finer spirit of all
knowledge:' our religion, parading evi-
dences such as those on which the popu-
lar mind relies now; our philosophy,
pluming itself on its reasonings about 20
causation and finite and infinite being;
what are they but the shadows and
dreams and false shows of knowledge?
The day will come when we shall won-
der at ourselves for having trusted to 25
them, for having taken them seriously;
and the more we perceive their hollow-
ness, the more we shall prize the breath
and finer spirit of knowledge' offered to
us by poetry.

sound and unsound or only half-sound, true and untrue or only half-true. It is charlatanism, conscious or unconscious, whenever we confuse or obliterate these. And in poetry, more than anywhere else, it is unpermissible to confuse or obliterate them. For in poetry the distinction between excellent and inferior, sound and unsound or only half-sound, true and untrue or only half-true, is of paramount importance. It is of paramount importance because of the high destinies of poetry. In poetry, as a criticism of life under the conditions fixed for such a criticism by the laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty, the spirit of our race will find, we have said, as time goes on and as other helps fail, its consolation and stay. But the consolation and stay will be of power in proportion to the power of the criticism of life. And the criticism of life will be of power in proportion as the poetry conveying it is excellent rather than inferior, sound rather than unsound or half-sound, true rather than untrue or half-true.

The best poetry is what we want; the best poetry will be found to have a power of forming, sustaining, and delighting us, 30 as nothing else can. A clearer, deeper sense of the best in poetry, and of the strength and joy to be drawn from it, is the most precious benefit which we can gather from a poetical collection such as the present. And yet in the very nature and conduct of such a collection there is inevitably something which tends to obscure in us the consciousness of what our benefit should be, and to distract

therefore steadily set it before our minds at the outset, and should compel ourselves to revert constantly to the thought of it as we proceed.

But if we conceive thus highly of the destinies of poetry, we must also set our standard for poetry high, since poetry, to be capable of fulfilling such high destinies, must be poetry of a high order 35 of excellence. We must accustom ourselves to a high standard and to a strict judgment. Sainte-Beuve relates that Napoleon one day said, when somebody was spoken of in his presence as a 40 us from the pursuit of it. We should charlatan: Charlatan as much as you please; but where is there not charlatanism?' 'Yes,' answers Sainte-Beuve, 'in politics, in the art of governing mankind, that is perhaps true. But in the order of 45 But in the order of 45 thought, in art, the glory, the eternal honor is that charlatanism shall find no entrance; herein lies the inviolableness of that noble portion of man's being.' It is admirably said, and let us hold fast 50 to it. In poetry, which is thought and art in one, it is the glory, the eternal honor, that charlatanism shall find no entrance; that this noble sphere be kept inviolate and inviolable. Charlatanism is 55 lacious. A poet or a poem may count for confusing or obliterating the distinctions between excellent and inferior,

Yes; constantly, in reading poetry, a sense for the best, the really excellent, and of the strength and joy to be drawn from it, should be present in our minds and should govern our estimate of what we read. But this real estimate, the only true one, is liable to be superseded, if we are not watchful, by two other kinds of estimate, the historic estimate and the personal estimate, both of which are fal

to us historically, they may count to us on grounds personal to ourselves, and

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they may count to us really. They may count to us historically. The course of development of a nation's language, thought, and poetry, is profoundly interesting; and by regarding a poet's work as a stage in this course of development we may easily bring ourselves to make it of more importance as poetry than in itself it really is, we may come to use a language of quite exaggerated praise in 10 criticizing it; in short, to overrate it. So arises in our poetic judgments the fallacy caused by the estimate which we may call historic. Then, again, a poet or a poem may count to us on grounds 15 personal to ourselves. Our personal affinities, likings, and circumstances, have great power to sway our estimate of this or that poet's work, and to make us attach more importance to it as poetry than in 20 itself it really possesses, because to us it is, or has been, of high importance. Here also we overrate the object of our interest, and apply to it a language of praise which is quite exaggerated. And 25 thus we get the source of a second fallacy in our poetic judgments, the fallacy caused by an estimate which we may call personal.

Both fallacies are natural. It is evi- 30 dent how naturally the study of the history and development of a poetry may incline a man to pause over reputations and works once conspicuous but now obscure, and to quarrel with a careless 35 public for skipping, in obedience to mere tradition and habit, from one famous name or work in its national poetry to another, ignorant of what it misses, and of the reason for keeping what it keeps, 40 and of the whole process of growth in its poetry. The French have become diligent students of their own early poetry, which they long neglected; the study makes many of them dissatisfied 45 with this so-called classical poetry, the court-tragedy of the seventeenth century, a poetry which Pellisson long ago reproached with its want of the true poetic stamp, with its politesse stérile et rampante [sterile and servile politeness], but which nevertheless has reigned in France as absolutely as if it had been the perfection of classical poetry indeed. The dissatisfaction is natural; yet a lively 55 and accomplished critic, M. Charles d'Héricault, the editor of Clément Marot,


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goes too far when he says that the cloud of glory playing round a classic is a mist as dangerous to the future of a literature as it is intolerable for the purposes of history.' 'It hinders,' he goes on, it hinders us from seeing more than one single point, the culminating and exceptional point; the summary, fictitious and arbitrary, of a thought and of a work. It substitutes a halo for a physiognomy, it puts a statue where there was once a man, and hiding from us all trace of the labor, the attempts, the weaknesses, the failures, it claims not study but veneration; it does not show us how the thing is done, it imposes upon us a model. Above all, for the historian this creation of classic personages is inadmissible; for it withdraws the poet from his time, from his proper life, it breaks historical relationships, it blinds criticism by conventional admiration, and renders the investigation of literary origins unacceptable. It gives us a human personage no longer, but a God seated immovable amidst his perfect work, like Jupiter on Olympus; and hardly will it be possible for the young student, to whom such work is exhibited at such a distance from him, to believe that it did not issue ready made from that divine head.'

All this is brilliantly and tellingly said, but we must plead for a distinction. Everything depends on the reality of a poet's classic character. If he is a dubious classic, let us sift him; if he is a false classic, let us explode him. But if he is a real classic, if his work belongs to the class of the very best (for this is the true and right meaning of the word classic, classical), then the great thing for us is to feel and enjoy his work as deeply as ever we can, and to appreciate the wide difference between it and all work which has not the same high character. This is what is salutary, this is what is formative; this is the great benefit to be got from the study of poetry. Everything which interferes with which hinders it, is injurious. True, we must read our classic with open eyes, and not with eyes blinded with superstition; we must perceive when his work comes short, when it drops out of the class of the very best, and we must rate it, in such cases, at its proper value. But the use of this negative criticism is not in


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