Matthew Arnold was both a distinguished poet and prose writer of the Victorian era. He wrote on varied topics such as literature, education, politics, and religion. But whatever topic he handled, his approach was always critical and more often than not, constructive. The same critical attitude is discernible in much of his poetry also.
As lago said of himself Arnold, too. is “nothing if not critical.” All of his critical work, it may be pointed out. is of a piece. Criticism, whether literary or social or political or educational, performs, according to Arnold, the same function and demands the same qualities of intelligence, discrimination, knowledge, and disinterestedness. Criticism is nothing if it is not related to life. Life is the main thing. So Arnold’s criticism of literature, society, politics, and religion all tends towards being a criticism of life. So does his poetic activity. Thus criticism with Arnold denotes a comprehensive activity which embraces all the departments of life. He himself defines criticism as “the endeavour, in all branches of knowledge, theology, philosophy, history, art, science, to see the object as in itself it really is.” Thus criticism with Arnold is a definite kind of approach to life. J. D. Jump observes: “Writing on literature, education, politics and religion, he tries to encourage a free play of the mind upon the material before it and so to help its readers to get rid of any stock notions and pieces of mental petrifaction which may be hampering their thought.” In other words. Arnold stood for the annihilation of all tyrannical dogmas, prejudices, and orthodox notions. That there was a pressing need for such a campaign in England cannot be gainsaid. “Matthew Arnold,” to quote Hugh Walker, ‘inherited the teacher’s instinct, and he was profoundly influenced by his sense of what his country needed. To be useful to England was always one of his greatest ambitions; and he knew that England was always one of his greatest ambitions; and he knew that the way to be useful was to supply that wherein England was deficient.’ Obviously it was the rational and dispassionate appraisal of the life “wherein England was deficient.” And that explains his donning of the mantle of a critic
The Bearing of Arnold’s Literary Criticism on Life and Society:
As a critic Arnold is best known as a literary critic. But his literary criticism has a close bearing on society and life in general. He was extremely impatient of the slogan “Art for Art’s Sake” which was raised by the Pre-Raphaelites, aesthetes, and some other nondescript groups. Consequently, his literary criticism is submerged in the criticism of society. According to him, “poetry is a criticism of life under the conditions fixed for such a criticism.” Criticism, according to him, should be “sincere, simple, flexible, ardent, ever widening its knowledge.” In his own literary and critical essays he is often led to specifically social criticism. In his lectures on Homer, for instance, he expatiates upon the frailty of intellectual conscience among his countrymen. Likewise, in “The Function of Criticism at the Present Times” he points out the absurdity of numerous false notions which have a free play in England owing to the absence or weakness of such intellectual conscience. In a word, Arnold is a critic of his age even while he is engaged, apparently, in literary criticism.
Social Criticism in Arnold’s Poetry:
Arnold’s oft-quoted remark that poetry is, or should be, “a criticism of life” has provided a juicy bone for numerous critics to gnaw at. Most critics have, however, spurned it as a frivolous truism. Thus George Saintsbury dismisses it as such, because as he observes in A History of English Criticism, “all literature is the application of ideas to life: and to say that poetry is the application of ideas to life, under the conditions fixed for poetry is simply a vain repetition.” Likewise, T. S. Eliot (in The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism) observes that Arnold’s dictum about poetry makes no sense. He holds that life is an awful mystery and we cannot criticise it properly; it can only be done just vaguely. However, J. D. Jump makes bold attempts to defend Arnold. “A good deal of nonsense,” observes he, “has been written about this phrase (“a criticism of life”) by commentators who were so impatient to reject it that they could not wait to understand it…It would be difficult to find fault with this as an account of the ideal attitude of a poet, or other creative artist, towards his experience.”
How far and in what way is Arnold’s own poetry “a criticism of life”? Hugh Walker answers this question in the following words:
“His much-condemned definition of poetry as ‘a criticism of life’ is at least true of his own poetry. Even in the literary sense, there is a surprising quantity of wise criticism in his verse…But Arnold’s verse is critical in a far deeper sense than this. In all his deepest poems, in Thyrsis and The Scholar Gipsy, in Resignation, in the Obermann poems, in^4 Southern Night, Arnold is passing judgment on the life of his age, the life of his country, the lives of individual men. In the last-named poem the fate of his brother, dying in exile in the attempt to return to the country of his birth, becomes the text for a sermon on the restless energy of the English and on the ‘strange irony of fate’ which preserves for the members of such a race graves so peaceful as theirs by ‘those hoary Indian hills’ and ‘this gracious Midland sea.’
“In all this Arnold is quite consistent with himself. Holding that what Europe in this generation principally needed was criticism he gave this criticism in verse as well as in prose…”
Quite often Arnold’s criticism of life in his poetry does not go beyond the expression of a sense of resignation. Such a criticism is definitely negative. If Keats escapes from life, Arnold resigns himself to it. Life with him is not something to be enjoyed, but something to be suffered. Resignation to life is also of two kinds: one escapist, and the other Stoic. In the Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse the resignation is of the first kind. Sick of the fury, fret, and fever of life, the poet appeals to the monastic cloister to take him into its fold.
On, hide me in your gloom profound,
Ye solemn seats of holy pain!
Take me, cowl forms, and fence me round,
Till I possess my soul again.
This desire to “possess my soul again” is a recurring feature of Arnold’s poetic expression. His most insistent counsel to the people is to “possess their souls.” He felt that with the relentless and catastrophic advance of the materialistic values in his age human beings had lost contact with their inner spirit which is the abode of all the higher values of life.
The other kind of Arnoldian resignation is more assertive and valiant and much less negative. It arises from a pessimistic insight into the arcanum of life. It is an acceptance of the human predicament, arecognition and an adjustment to the fact that duty is not usually attended by a meet reward. Duty is still to be performed and the event left to God. We are ordained to spend life
In beating where we must not pass
And seeking what we shall not find.
Nature herself is resigned to the pain of existence:
Yet, Fausta, the mute turf we tread,
The solemn hills around us spread,
This stream which falls incessantly,
The strange, scrawl ‘d rocks; the lonely sky,
If I might lend their life a voice,
Seem to bear rather than rejoice.
Science and Faith:
Like most other Victorian writers, Arnold expresses in his work the conflict between science and faith which his age witnessed. The unprecedented development of experimental science had come to shake the very foundations of Christianity by calling into question Genesis and much else besides. Arnold felt that he was breathing in a kind of spiritual vacuum. Like Janus he looked both ways. Neither like T. H. Huxley could he align himself completely with the new mode of thinking (by turning an agnostic) nor could he cling to the ruins of a crumbling order. Spiritual disturbance often manifesting itself in despair was the natural outcome of such a predicament. Arnold found himself shuttlecocking
between two worlds, one dead,
The other powerless to be born.
This desperate groping for something like a firm moral stance finds expression in much of his most typical poetry. As Moody and Lovett maintain, Arnold’s “prevailing tone is one of doubt and half-despairing stoicism.” Dover Beach is the finest embodiment of Arnold’s dominant mood. He refers to the crumbling of the religious edifice:
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d;
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
He is keenly aware of the terrible confusion caused by the conflict between science and faith, between advancing materialism and retreating Christianity:
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new.
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight. Where ignorant armies clash by night.
He compares modern civilization to Rachel:
Ah, not the radiant spirit of Greece alone
She had—one power, which made her breast its home!
In her, like us, there clash ‘d contending powers,
Germany, France, Christ, Moses, Athens, Rome
The strife, the mixture in her soul are ours.
Her genius and her glory are her own.
What is, after all, the way out of his confusion!” In Arnold’s opinion, “says Hugh Walker, “that which the time demands above all things is the discovery of some shore, not false or impossible, towards which to steer. We need some Columbus to guide us over a trackless ocean to a new continent which he discerns, though we cannot. Our misfortune is that we can find no such pilot. Goethe, the ‘physician’ of Europe’s ‘iron age,’ had laid his finger on the seat of the disease, but he failed to find a cure. Arnold never conceived himself to be capable of succeeding where Goethe had failed. On the contrary, he rather teaches that the problem had grown so complex that scarcely any intellect could suffice for its solution. This feeling of almost insuperable difficulty is the secret of Arnold’s melancholy. It gives a sense of brooding pause, almost of the paralysis of action, to his verse. It is the secret of his attraction for some minds, and of an alienation amounting almost to repulsion between him and many others. It makes him, in verse as well as in prose, critical rather than constructive.”
“Culture and Anarchy”:
Among Arnold‘s works dealing with social and political questions, the pride of place must go to Culture and Anarchy (1869) which was obviously occasioned by the mass agitations preceding the passage of the Reform Bill of 1869 which granted voting rights to the working classes of towns and thus almost doubled the electorate. The Victorian age is generally known to us as an age of peace and prosperity and most of all, political stability (in spite of the numerous unsuccessful attempts made on the life of Queen Victoria). But behind the imposing facade of order, Arnold perceived some anarchic forces at work. Anarchy, according to him is essentially antonymous to culture. When everybody is bent upon “doing as one likes”, culture is in danger. What: makes for culture? It is, in his words, a “view in which the love of our neighbours, the impulses towards action, help, and beneficence, the desire for removing human error, clearing human confusion and diminishing human misery, the noble aspiration to leave the world better and happier than we found it-motives eminently such as are called social-come in as parts of the ground of culture and the main and preeminent parts.” Culture is thus a social passion of doing good. And anarchy is its very negation. Arnold was convinced of the progress of democracy, but he desired that the transition to democracy should not be allowed to destroy the social edifice. He was against unchartered freedom which allowed all to have their own ways. “The moment,” writes he, “it is plainly put before us that a man is asserting his personal liberty, we are half disarmed; because we are believers in freedom and not in some dream of a right reason to which the assertion of our freedom is to be subordinated.” He supports a “firm state-power” to hold such anarchic tendencies in check. The state should not be representative of any single class, because all individual classes have been depraved by the contagion of materialism-the higher classes have been materialised, the middle classes desensitised, and the lower classes brutalised. Along with Culture and Anarchy may be mentioned here Friendship’s Garland (1871) in which is contained, according to Hugh Walker, “the very best of Arnold‘s criticism on the social rather than the political side.”
A word in the end about Arnold‘s educational criticism. Arnold was an Inspector of Schools and then the Professor of Poetry of Oxford. He was, naturally, interested in educational reforms and wrote quite a few tracts in this connexion. Many of the reforms which he advocated have since been implemented. Compton Rickett observes: “There were no more liberal-minded, clear-sighted educational reformers in the Victorian era than he and Thomas Henry Huxley.”