Matthew Arnold. Life and Literary Works

Published: 2021-09-16 03:00:09
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One cannot understand Matthew Arnold without first understanding his family and the weighty influence they had over his life and works. His father, Dr. Thomas Arnold, was educated at Winchester, where Matthew Arnold soon attended. Because of his father, Matthew rejected the Christian tradition while adhering to some of its observations and principles. One must bear in mind the Victorian spirit of religious skepticism and atheism which undermined and challenged Christianity’s hegemony. Victorians remained in awe of religion but detested its dogmatic control. Dr. Thomas Arnold was a life-long educator and likewise, Matthew Arnold spent his life in the field of education. They both shared a Rugby School connection although in different capacities: his father, Dr. Thomas Arnold served as a school master for Rugby while Matthew Arnold was an alumnus. Matthew Arnold also went on to become a tutor at Rugby school and emerged a renowned professor of history, poetry and literature at Oxford University. Dr. Thomas Arnold was also an historian and honoured fellow of Oxford University. They both wrote prolifically and authored acclaimed books. Politically, they share the same view, for they both are against the High Church Party. Dr. Thomas Arnold died suddenly of angina pectoris while his son, Matthew Arnold, also died suddenly of heart failure. Matthew Arnold’s brothers are a moulding influence in his life. Tom Arnold was a literary professor and William Arnold was a novelist and colonial administrator. Other influences include, William Wordsworth, illustrious Victorian poet, was a neighbour and close friend of the Arnolds. In a famous preface to a selection of poems by William Wordsworth, Arnold identified himself, as a “Wordsworthian.” The influence of Wordsworth, both in ideology and form, is most evident in Arnold’s best poetry.
Matthew Arnold was a proponent of Victorian High Culture. High Culture and he represented his view in his book, Culture and Anarchy (1868), the work from which he received the most recognition. High Culture encompasses the fine arts or liberal arts of a distinguished group which are tokens of its civilisation. Arnold’s definition of culture was “the disinterested endeavour after man’s perfection” and that having culture meant to “know the best that has been said and thought in the world.” Matthew Arnold believes that high culture was a great moral and political tool which when wielded in the right way can be an instrument for good. His espousal of Victorian High Culture is a reactionary movement against Philistinism which defines an attitude opposing art, beauty, intellectual content and spiritual values. Philistinism also is the ready acceptance and observation of conventional social values without critical reason hence one can see the reasons for the prevailing questioning and disbelief peculiar to the Victorian period in England. The well-known children’s novel, Tom Brown’s Schooldays, was written in tribute to Dr. Thomas Arnold who reformed the education system at Rugby School, a male public school, making it an eminent and prestigious institute of learning. The Victorian period is characterized by an interest in children. Due to this concern, children’s literature is born as a genre. Tom Brown’s Schooldays is authored by Thomas Hughes published in 1857. It was first called By An Old Boy of Rugby. Dr. Thomas Arnold is depicted as the teacher and school master par excellence who deftly administers.
Matthew Arnold’s works reflect influence of both Romanticism and Modernism. He illustrates in his poems the pastoral landscape, and the simple, bucolic life and the tone echoes sentiments of longing, nostalgia and meditation. At the same time, Arnold betrays pessimism and scepticism concerning certain subjects. Poems such as Dover Beach, Consolation, The Scholar Gypsy, Growing Old, The Last Word, A Wish and The Voice all express Romanticism while … convey the principles of Modernism.
When Matthew Arnold was 20, his father, Dr. Thomas Arnold died. In 1850, when he was 28 he met and fell in love with Frances Lucy Wightman, the daughter of Sir William Wightman, Justice of the Queen’s Bench. A year later, At age 29, they got married. Born of their union were six children: Thomas, born 1852, died in 1868 at age sixteen; Trevenen William, born 1853, died 1872 at age eighteen; Richard Penrose, born 1855, died 1908, an inspector of factories (he befriended composer Edward Elgar who dedicated one of the Enigma Variations to Richard); Lucy Charlotte born 1858, died 1934, who married Frederick W. Whitridge of New York, whom she had met during Arnold’s American lecture tour; Eleanore Mary Caroline, born 1861, died 1936, married (1) Hon. Armine Wodehouse in 1889, (2) William Masefield, Baron Sandhurst, in 1909 and Basil Francis, born 1866 who was not quite two years old when he died in 1868.
During his later life, Arnold made a noteworthy shift from writing poetry to prose. His scholarly lectures and treatises were written in England rather than the traditional Latin. As a school inspector, he travelled widely to France, and Sweden, reporting on the state of public education and while seeking to improve Britain’s own. He retired from his public labours in education in 1883. From that point on, with a much more flexible schedule, Arnold travelled to America where he wrote Discourses on America. His daughter ended up marrying an American. When she left America to visit him in 1888, he went to Liverpool to meet her. While running to catch a tramcar, he suddenly died. The cause was heart failure. He was aged 60.

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