Poet Profile: Matthew Arnold (1822-1888)

Then, when the clouds are off the soul,
When thou dost bask in Nature’s eye,
Ask, how she view’d thy self-control,
Thy struggling task’d morality…

…‘Ah child,’ she cries, ‘that strife divine –
Whence was it, for it is not mine?’…

…’I saw it in some other place.
– T’was when the heavenly house I trod.
And lay upon the breast of God.’

– Matthew Arnold, Morality

Largely forgotten today, Matthew Arnold was once hailed with Tennyson and Browning as one of the great Victorian poets.

Matthew Arnold c1883
Matthew Arnold, c.1883

He was born in Laleham, England, on the 24th of December 1822, the son of Thomas Arnold, who would become headmaster of the famous Rugby School just a few years later. Matthew himself was well-educated, completing his secondary schooling at Rugby before going on to Oxford. He became a private secretary in 1847, but the wages were inadequate to support a family, so in 1851 he became an Inspector of Schools, marrying Frances Lucy Wightman, daughter of a Justice of the Queen’s Bench, just a few months later.

His career enabled him to travel extensively throughout England on the newly-established railway network, and while he did not particularly enjoy his career he took advantage of the time it provided for the composition of poetry.

Unlike his contemporaries, Arnold leaned less towards the Romantic style and towards are more critical examination of concepts and ideas, as well as the retelling of several Classical tales (which, having a very limited background in Classics, I find rather difficult to follow). He was at times particularly critical of the popular idea of humans as no more (or less) than a part of nature: while he evidently loved nature and appreciated its beauty he recognised certain traits as being unique and, in his view, precious to humanity. These included the capacity for morality and moral accountability, and an awareness of our own individuality and mortality. Morality, mortality, and the contrast (although not necessarily conflict) between nature and humanity are recurring themes in Arnold’s poetry.

Arnold died on the 15th of April 1888 in Liverpool, England.

But often, in the world’s most crowded streets,
But often, in the din of strife,
There rises an unspeakable desire
After the knowledge of our buried life,
A thirst to spend our fire and restless force
In tracking out our true, original course;
A longing to inquire
Into the mystery of this heart that beats
So wild and deep in us, to know
Whence our thoughts come and where they go.

– Matthew Arnold, The Buried Life

Have you encountered the works of Matthew Arnold before? What did you make of them?


3 thoughts on “Poet Profile: Matthew Arnold (1822-1888)

  1. My great old copy of A Pageant of English Verse has five poems by Arnold included, right between Walt Whitman and Coventry Patmore. I particularly like “Dover Beach”:
    “Listen! you hear the grating roar
    Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and flind,
    At their return, up the high strand,
    Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
    With tremulous cadence slow, and bring,
    The eternal note of sadness in.”


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