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The Glory Of English Prose|
30. Matthew Arnold
by Coleridge, Stephen
|My Dear Antony,
Though I do not myself rank Matthew Arnold among the great prose
writers of England, yet, like all true poets—and he indeed
was one of them,—he wrote excellent English prose.
It is true that he turned to poetry to express his finest
emotions and thoughts, and he himself alludes to his prose writings
thus: "I am a mere solitary wanderer in search of the light, and I
talk an artless, unstudied, everyday familiar language. But, after
all, this is the language of the mass of the world."
The chief note of all his teaching was urbanity. "The pursuit of
perfection," he said, "is the pursuit of sweetness and light."
"Culture hates hatred: culture has one great passion—the
passion for sweetness and light."
This teaching, no doubt, leads to fields of pleasantness and
charm, and not at all to the high places of self-sacrifice, or the
austere peaks of martyrdom. Burning indignation against intolerable
things, fierce denunciation of the cruelties and abominations of
the world find no encouragement or sympathy from this serene,
detached, and therefore somewhat ineffectual, teaching.
Sweetness and light would never have interfered with the slave
trade, or fiercely fought beside Plimsoll for the load-line on the
sides of ships.
We did not fight the Germans under the doctrine of sweetness and
It was a beautiful and edifying adornment for the drawing-room
in times of Victorian self-satisfied peace, but was a tinsel armour
for the battle of life, and entirely futile as a sword for
I am not sure that Matthew Arnold would not have called those
who wrathfully slash about them at abominable evils,
After all, the great men of action and the great writers of the
world have been capable of harbouring great enthusiasms and deep
indignations in their hearts; and these emotions do not emerge from
a "passion for sweetness and light."
A better doctrine, Antony, is, I think, to try to push things
along cheerfully but strenuously in the right direction wherever
and whenever you can.
As a writer I think Matthew Arnold's best passage is to be found
in the Preface to his Essays in Criticism:—
"Oxford. Beautiful city! So venerable, so lovely, so unravaged
by the fierce intellectual life of our century, so serene!
As a man and a companion,  if you expected nothing but
delightful humour, brilliant discourse, and urbane outlook upon
everything, few could rival his personal charm; but he would never
really join you in a last ditch to defend the right, or actually
charge with you against the wrong, although in his poem "The Last
Word," while not participating himself in such strenuous doings, he
seems to yield a reluctant admiration to him who does so charge,
and who leaves his "body by the wall."
"There are our young barbarians, all at play!
"And yet steeped in sentiment as she lies, spreading her gardens
to the moonlight, and whispering from her towers the last
enchantments of the Middle Age, who will deny that Oxford, by her
ineffable charm, keeps ever calling us to the true goal of all of
us, to the ideal, to perfection,—to beauty, in a word, which
is only truth seen from another side?—nearer perhaps than all
the science of Tübingen. Adorable dreamer, whose heart has
been so romantic! who hast given thyself so prodigally, given
thyself to sides and heroes not mine, only never to the
Philistines! home of lost causes, and forsaken beliefs, and
unpopular names, and impossible loyalties!... Apparitions of a day,
what is our puny warfare against the Philistines, compared with the
warfare which this Queen of Romance has been waging against them
for centuries, and will wage after we are gone?"
Much has happened since Matthew Arnold poured his scorn upon the
unregenerate Philistines; but let us remember, Antony, that
thousands and thousands of these contemned neglecters of sweetness
and light stood unflinchingly and died upon the plains of France
that our country and its freedom should survive.
Your loving old
See my Memories, pp. 46-52 and 55.