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Outlines of English and American Literature
Matthew Arnold
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 matter.

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 illuminating ideas.

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.


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