Find schools and get information on the program that’s right for you.
Powered by Campus Explorer
All Rights Reserved.
Site last updated
26 June, 2013
Outlines of English and American Literature|
by Long, William J.
| The work of this poet (a son of Dr. Arnold of
Rugby, made famous by Tom Brown's Schooldays) is in strong contrast
to that of the Brownings, to the robust optimism of the one and to the
emotionalism of the other. He was a man of two distinct moods: in his
poetry he reflected the doubt or despair of those whose faith had been
shaken by the alleged discoveries of science; in prose he became almost
light-hearted as he bantered middle-class Englishmen for their old-fogy
prejudices, or tried to awaken them to the joys of culture. In both moods
he was coldly intellectual, appealing to the head rather than to the heart
of his readers; and it is still a question whether his poetry or his
criticism will be longest remembered.
The Poet of Oxford
Arnold is called the poet of Oxford, as Holmes is of Harvard, and those who
know the beautiful old college town will best appreciate certain verses in
which he reflects the quiet loveliness of a scene that has impressed so
many students, century after century. To general readers one may safely
recommend Arnold's elegies written in memory of the poet Clough, such as
"Thyrsis" and "The Scholar Gypsy"; certain poems reflecting the religious
doubts of the age, such as "Dover Beach," "Morality" and "The Future"; the
love lyrics entitled "Switzerland"; and a few miscellaneous poems, such as
"Resignation," "The Forsaken Merman," "The Last Word," and "Geist's Grave."
To these some critics would add the long narrative poem "Sohrab and
Rustum," which is one of the models set before students of "college
English." The reasons for the choice are not quite obvious; for the story,
which is taken from the Persian Shah Namah, or Book of Kings, is
rather coldly told, and the blank verse is far from melodious.
In reading these poems of Arnold his own motives should be borne in mind.
He tried to write on classic lines, repressing the emotions, holding to a
severe, unimpassioned style; and he proceeded on the assumption that poetry
is "a criticism of life." It is not quite clear what he meant by his
definition, but he was certainly on the wrong trail. Poetry is the natural
language of man in moments of strong or deep feeling; it is the expression
of life, of life at high tide or low tide; when it turns to criticism it
loses its chief charm, as a flower loses its beauty and fragrance in the
hands of a botanist. Some poets, however (Lucretius among the ancients,
Pope among the moderns, for example), have taken a different view of the
The Literary Critic
Arnold's chief prose works were written, curiously enough, after he was
appointed professor of poetry at Oxford. There he proceeded, in a sincere
but somewhat toplofty way to enlighten the British public on the subject of
culture. For years he was a kind of dictator of literary taste, and he is
still known as a master of criticism; but to examine his prose is to
discover that it is notable for its even style and occasional good
expressions, such as "sweetness and light," rather than for its
For example, in Literature and Dogma and other books in which Arnold
attempted to solve the problems of the age, he was apt to make large
theories from a small knowledge of his subject. So in his Study of
Celtic Literature (an interesting book, by the way) he wrote with
surprising confidence for one who had no first-hand acquaintance with his
material, and led his readers pleasantly astray in the flowery fields of
Celtic poetry. Moreover, he had one favorite method of criticism, which was
to take the bad lines of one poet and compare them with the good lines of
another,--a method which would make Shakespeare a sorry figure if he
happened to be on the wrong side of the comparison.
What to Read
In brief, Arnold is always a stimulating and at times a provoking critic;
he stirs our thought, disturbs our pet prejudices, challenges our
opposition; but he is not a very reliable guide in any field. What one
should read of his prose depends largely on one's personal taste. The essay
On Translating Homer is perhaps his most famous work, but few
readers are really interested in the question of hexameters. Culture and
Anarchy is his best plea for a combination of the moral and
intellectual or, as he calls them, the Hebrew and Greek elements in our
human education. Among the best of the shorter works are "Emerson" in
Discourses in America, and "Wordsworth," "Byron" and "The Study of
Poetry" in Essays in Criticism.