Matthew Arnold in His Letters

WE are not to have an authoritative Life of Matthew Arnold, and it cannot be said that we need one, after we have been let into the history of his mind through his published writings, and of his heart through his letters.1 The facts of his outward life are quickly summarized. Born Christmas Eve, 1822, the eldest son of Dr. Thomas Arnold, shortly after to become famous as a schoolmaster, and noteworthy as one of the religious prophets of modern England ; a boy at Rugby, an Oxford student, and a fellow of Oriel; private secretary to Lord Lansdowne, then lord president of the Council ; appointed to an inspectorship of schools in 1851, and married the same year, continuing for thirty-five years to hold this government office, — this is Matthew Arnold’s short story. He made occasional visits to the Continent, usually in connection with his official work, and twice visited America, where he lectured, though his second visit was more especially on account of a daughter who had married an American. He died April 15, 1888, in his sixty-sixth year, leaving behind as a legacy to English literature eight volumes of essays and three of poems, besides a number of studies in educational problems, representative of his official work.

Arnold was so much in the public eye as a poet and an essayist, and the amount of his collected literary writings was so considerable, that he easily acquired from this source the reputation of an industrious man of letters, although any one who should take the trouble to divide his forty working years by his dozen volumes would not reckon the amount of writing unduly disproportionate. But when one comes to read these Letters, the vague impression that Matthew Arnold held some official position in connection with English schools gives place to a recognition of the fact that school work was his vocation, essays and poems his avocation, so far as expenditure of time and the acquisition of livelihood might be taken for a basis of discrimination. Without looking too closely into the exact nature of his daily work, we may with little hesitation add Arnold to the list of those men of letters who do their literary work more effectively because of the substantial drudgery from which it is a partial escape ; and it would not be an overnice inference from this double intellectual occupation that the constant dealing with educational problems inspired in Matthew Arnold much of the gospel of culture of which he was an evangelist. The close contact into which he came with the ordinary Englishmen and Englishwomen of his day through his regular tasks afforded him a very broad basis for his knowledge of the mass which he wished to leaven.

Matthew Arnold’s writings taken with his daily work offer a pretty full explanation of his intellectual attitude; but the judgment which men might pass upon him from such evidence would be incomplete without the corrective or corroboration of personal acquaintance, and this the two volumes of Letters partially give to such as had not the advantage of knowing the man in his lifetime. They do not contain many adequate expressions of his opinions regarding politics, literature, education, or the men of his time, though there are offhand references to current events and persons, which have some piquancy, as when, for example, he says in a letter to M. Fontanés : “ Have you seen a book by a certain Professor Henry Drummond, called Natural Law in the Spiritual World, which has had an astonishing success over here ? The best public, perhaps, does not much care for it ; but the second best, all the religious world, and even the more serious portion of the aristocratical world have accepted the book ns a godsend, and are saying to themselves that here at last is safety and scientific shelter for the orthodox supernaturalism which seemed menaced with total defeat. I should like much to know what you think of the book, though I can hardly imagine its suiting any public but that very peculiar and indirect-thinking public which we have in England. What is certain is, that the author of the book has a genuine love of religion and a genuine religions experience; and this gives his book a certain value, though his readers, in general, imagine its value to be quite of another kind.” And again, here is a bit about Tennyson: “ Is it possible for one who has himself published verses to print a criticism on Tennyson in which perfect freedom shall be used ? And without perfect freedom, what is a criticism worth ?

I do not think Tennyson a great and powerful spirit in any line, — as Goethe was in the line of modern thought, Wordsworth in that of contemplation, Byron even in that of passion ; and unless a poet, especially a poet at this time of day, is that, my interest in him is only slight, and my conviction that he will not finally stand high is firm. But is it possible or proper for me to say this about Tennyson, when my saying it would inevitably be attributed to odious motives ? Now and then he puts his working convictions into felicitous, almost epigrammatic form, as when, in a letter to a workingman, he writes : “ As to useful knowledge, a single line of poetry, working in the mind, may produce more thoughts and lead to more light, which is what man wants, than the fullest acquaintance (to take your own instance) with the processes of digestion. “ Once more, in referring to an elaborate attack made on him by Fitzjames Stephen, he remarks : “ My sinuous, easy, unpolemical mode of proceeding has been adopted by me, first, because I really think it the best way of proceeding if one wants to get at and keep with truth ; secondly, because I am convinced only by a literary form of this kind being given to them can ideas such as mine ever gain any access in a country such as ours.”

If one were to take these Letters and compare them with the formal literary work on which Arnold was engaged during the same period, one might naturally come to look upon their writer as having a somewhat frugal mind, and as not disposed to waste much thought on his correspondents; in this respect the Letters suffer in comparison with the spontaneous flow of Lowell ’s. But a slight analysis will show that Arnold was governed much by the relation in which he stood to his correspondent. Many of his more careful judgments are contained in his letters to M. Fontanés, and now and then other friends outside of his family received letters which had more or less of a general, public character. The greater part of the two volumes, however, is occupied with letters written to his mother, his sisters, his wife, and his daughters, and the disclosure they make is most interesting; for to these he writes with an affectionate frankness which gives one a most agreeable impression of the sweetness of his nature. His letters to his mother have an undercurrent of feeling which conveys some notion of Mrs. Arnold ’s fine nature as well as of the deep loyalty of the son, — a loyalty not concerned with the possibility of any misunderstanding between them. Dr. Arnold died in 1842, shortly after Matthew had left Rugby for Oxford, and Mrs. Arnold survived him about thirty years, during which time she saw her son rise to distinction chiefly through a course which seemed to lead him away from his father’s position, although in a more significant sense Matthew Arnold’s attitude was not illogically connected with his father’s contentions. Yet there was not silence between mother and son upon religious themes. On the contrary, the son repeatedly wrote to his mother in a vein which was neither apologetic nor protesting, but frank and genuine. There is a fine respect shown by the son, and notably an unbounded admiration for his father, and eagerness to establish a community of judgment with him.

Something of Dr. Arnold’s nature reappears in Matthew’s lively interest during his travels, especially in Italy. Dr. Arnold, like his son, was keenly observant, but his observation was directed rather toward historical features and indications of political society; Matthew Arnold was on the lookout for those characteristics of people which offered points of comparison with the English whom he knew so well. Both were most animated in their description of scenery, and the reader receives a very pleasant impression of Matthew Arnold’s delight in flowers, for which he was all the while searching, whether in America or on the Continent. But a closer spiritual likeness may be noted in the serious view which each took of himself. The keynote of Dr. Arnold’s character was his earnestness, — an earnestness which appeared to make him quite responsible for the church and the state of England. Matthew Arnold never lost sight of his mission as the apostle of culture, and though by no means deficient in humor, and not at all arrogant in private expression, he shows a calm, serious regard of the work which he is accomplishing that tempts one sometimes to smile behind his hand.

Yet the reader comes easily to form some notion of the world which Arnold wished to create; and though he may be amused at some of the outbursts of a nature which was constantly readjusting human life on a little more delicate scale, he recognizes, if he is open-minded, the simplicity and the largeness of the ideals which Arnold sets before himself. Truth, genuineness, good taste, — the cultivation of these is not ignoble, and the fact that one may go through life in the pursuit of them with a near-sighted sort of gaze may give opportunity for good-natured raillery, but does not lessen one’s respect. Nor can the student of contemporary literature and society and religious faith fail to esteem the service of a man with such ideals, who employs some of the most refined weapons of rhetoric for slaying the dull dragons that block the way. Indeed, though Arnold’s modes are somewhat ill adapted to the demands of a better America, Arnold’s spirit is one greatly to be desired in the discussion of the same problems of life that confront us ; and after one has entertained himself with some of the amusingly characteristic expressions in these Letters, — and the American portion offers some entertaining trifles, —there remains as a deposit in one’s mind the impression of a generous nature, fastidious in a high degree, yet overflowing with true affection and wearing no mask. It is a genuine service which his family and the editor of these volumes have done to literature in permitting those who knew Matthew Arnold as a critic to know him also in his simple affectionateness.

Mr. Russell has shown almost unfailing tact in his editorial supervision ; his notes are pertinent and reserved. He might have been a little more accurate in some trivial matters concerning Arnold’s American experience, but the only serious charge to be brought against him is the unpardonable sin of neglecting to provide an index.

  1. Letters of Matthew Arnold. 1848-1888. Collected and arranged by GEORGE W. E. RUSSEEL. In two volumes. New York: Macmillan & Co. 1895.