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Arnold “at Full Stretch”


ISSUE:  Spring 2002

The Letters of Matthew Arnold, Volume V, 1879—1884. Edited by Cecil Y. Lang. Virginia. $60.00.


This penultimate volume of the Virginia edition of Matthew Arnold’s letters covers the years 1879—1884.1879 was his 57th year and the 30th anniversary of the publication of The Strayed Reveller and Other Poems, his debut as a poet. Since that first volume Arnold had followed two vocations as poet and literary and social commentator and as leading figure in the British government’s reforms of state education.

The man who comes over to us in the first letters of 1879 is aware that his public life has crowded out his poetic vocation (“But we accomplish what we can, not what we will”), and his renown had produced its own obligations and harassments. This is a man at full stretch; fulfilling an arduous timetable as a schools inspector, keeping his publishers on their toes, and deeply involved in his social role as devoted family man and loyal friend.

Many of the letters in this volume are notes of apology for not being able to accept invitations because of the pressure of work, and there are letters of thanks to authors who had sent their latest books to him, even though (one often feels) the last thing Arnold needed was more reading matter.

To E. Lloyd Jones, the author of Satan’s Guile and Satan’s Wiles; or The Battlefield of the Two Worlds he wrote in January 1883, “Many thanks for your “Examples” which I have just received and in which the merits of clear type, and of a common-sense character in the problems, are evident even at the hasty glance which is all that I have yet been able to give to your little volume.”

Then there are the letters of condolence; after all, Arnold’s generation was aging, and he expressed his sympathy eloquently. It is a mark of the high esteem in which Arnold was held by his contemporaries that so many people kept these bread-and-butter notes.

Arnold had his own family problems. Readers of Volume IV will recall his concern about his son Richard Penrose Arnold (Dick or Dear Old Dick) whose charm won over almost everyone but who lacked application as a scholar. This slackness, as may be imagined, produced an irksome situation for a leading figure in national education and the son of the great Dr. Arnold, but Arnold shows extraordinary restraint. He wrote anxious letters to friends and sympathetic public figures for advice on what it was best for the much-loved Dick to do.

When Dick finished his time at Oxford without any sort of marketable academic qualification and truly enormous debts, he decided it would be best to emigrate to Australia and his father agreed with him. Australia, it was thought, would help him grow up. So Arnold knocked on the appropriate doors and found him a post in a bank in Melbourne.

Near the end of the fourth volume is the affecting letter describing the family holding back tears on the dockside in Plymouth as the young man sailed away to the other side of the world. From time to time Dick haunts the letters in the present volume : Arnold is pleased to report that he is doing well in Melbourne, he is much liked, he had impressed so-an-so and then came the moment of truth when, after a few years doing his best, Dick decided he was in a dead-end situation and wanted to come home. Arnold’s support for his son never wavered, and in the last of the two letters to Dick in this volume he signs off: “Now I must stop—I am always, my darling boy, your own most loving papa.”

All these responsibilities and duties did not curtail his literary activity, and during this period Arnold published Mixed Essays, Irish Essays, Discourses in America as well as several contributions to learned journals later published as Essays in Criticism, Second Series plus The Poetry of Wordsworth and The Poetry of Byron.

He was also avidly seeking new sources of inspiration: “If ever anything makes me produce a new volume of poems it will be the inspiration of books of travel in countries which interest me—and the Atlas country has always interested me particularly.”

This was written to his publisher, Alexander Macmillan, in 1879, and it must have been about this time that his curiosity about America, always lively and sympathetic, began to quicken. In August of the same year he wrote to Henry James, who had settled in London three years earlier, for “confirmation or dissuasion” before he put down on paper the ideas “which I have it in my head to write about America.” Arnold recognized his problem: he had never been there so was “extremely shy” of putting his ideas forward.(In the meantime he and his wife were reading the recently published Roderick Hudson which, he told James, they liked “extremely”.)

It’s not clear how relevant James’s advice was, but we do know that Arnold had to wait another couple of years before he was in a position to make the journey to North America, and the four months he spent there inspired some of the best letters he ever wrote. Taken together they form, as the publishers say, the emotional and moral center of the volume.

The journey westward began in mid-October 1883, and in the months before departure there are many letters in which Arnold shows his anxiety about the logistics of the journey and the lectures he had to deliver.

There were also financial considerations. Arnold had been given extended leave from his post as a schools inspector, and that summer the Prime Minister, Mr. Gladstone, awarded Arnold an annual pension of 250 pounds for his services to literature. Despite this, he was worried about the cost of travel in North America and the fact that because his wife and elder daughter, Lucy Charlotte, had decided to accompany him, his manager, Richard d’Oyley Carte, would not be able to give him the usual cut from the fees he earned as a lecturer.

Arnold worked as a schools inspector up to the last minute and then sailed on the Cunard Royal Mail Steamship Servia from Liverpool. There was a fourth member of the party: Dick, back from Australia, accompanied his family as far as Queenstown (the present-day Cobh) before returning to England.

Although Arnold knew he had a large and influential following in the United States, nothing had prepared him for the warmth of the reception from the press and ordinary people. In his early letters from New York he mentions the endless round of interviews, the people with autograph books, the absence of time to himself.

In addition, the Arnolds were overwhelmed with invitations from the leading New York families whose mansions along the Hudson reminded him of the ones owned by the Rothschilds back in England. In due course he was to meet local luminaries wherever he went, not forgetting the president and the former president of the United States.

The lectures he gave were well attended—sell-outs, in the modern term—but Arnold discovered, as did his audiences, his limitations as a lecturer: he could not project his voice in sufficient volume so that he could be heard clearly in the large halls where he spoke. Lang, the ever vigilant editor, puts in a telling note describing Arnold as being “so depressed at failing to make himself heard” at a lecture in Cambridge that when he returned to the house of the Harvard president “he sat on a sofa . . .with his head in his hands, rubbing his hands back over his hair and obviously feeling so badly that Eliot sent away those faculty members whom he had invited to meet Arnold.” President Eliot also advised some training in elocution.

Despite these setbacks, Arnold continued his stately progress through the United States and Canada. Among the places where he lectured or read his poetry were Madison, Chicago, Richmond, several cities in New England, Baltimore, Washington, Toronto, Montreal, and Quebec.

These journeys gave Arnold the opportunity to observe the life of ordinary Americans and writing from Hartford in November he commented favorably on the “buoyancy, enjoyment and freedom from constraint” that marked middle class life and which “confirmed in me all I have said about the the way in which the aristocratic class acts as an incubus upon the middle class at home.”

Although he admired “the universal enjoyment and good nature” of the Americans he met, he was less impressed by the apparent American need for “constant publicity and to be on the go all the day long.”

In the week before Christmas, against the advice of his agents, Arnold went south to Richmond and was given a royal reception by the city’s leading families who still referred to England as “the Mother Country.” Richmond had not recovered from the war but was blessed, in Arnold’s view, with a much more pleasant climate than the frozen cities he had visited to the north.

He was astonished by the “line of demarcation between the white and the negro” and insisted on being taken to some “coloured schools.” At one of them the children sang “Dare to be a Daniel” with what he called “negro energy.” Arnold returned to Washington wishing “I could have gone deeper into the south” and vowing that if ever he returned to America, he would make a point of doing so.

The visit to Chicago was a success, but the newspapers, Arnold wrote, “are more rowdy” than those in the Eastern states. He quoted with relish from one: “We have just seen him arrive. He has harsh features, supercilious manners, a single eye-glass, hair parted down the middle, and ill-fitting clothes.” Arnold quoted this harsh portrait more than once, and it did nothing to lessen his appreciation of the beauty of Lake Michigan with waters “as blue as ever I saw the Mediterranean.”

Madison, St. Louis, and Milwaukee were the furthest points west and then Arnold returned to the East Coast for the journey home in the Servia. In a last interview with the New York Daily Tribune (March 8, 1884) he said his visit to America had been “a delightful one in every way” and he had learned much and hoped to return.

Lang thoughtfully quotes the same paper’s account of Arnold’s departure: the Arnolds’ cabins were filled with flowers and “a box of Florida oranges from the Clark Grove, at Enterprise.” A host of people braved the harsh weather to say farewell, and we must assume that among them was Frederick Whitridge who was to marry Lucy Charlotte later that year. It is assumed they had met at a reception in New York. In due course they produced what the publishers call “a flourishing branch of Arnold descendants in the United States.”

Back in England, Arnold told a great friend of the financial success of his visit. This had enabled him to clear off the money he had borrowed to pay Dear Old Dick’s Oxford debts and pay his passage to Australia. He had also picked up tips on how to earn more money if he went to America again.

This volume ends on an upbeat note: his son had become a factory inspector in Manchester and had found an “exceedingly nice person” to be his wife and in early December Lucy Charlotte became Mrs. Whitridge at the Arnolds’ local church in Cobham in Surrey. Arnold is eloquent about this. He wrote of the local satisfaction and went on: “If the weather is fine, the wedding will be a pretty sight on Tuesday; it is the first time “a lady” as the people say has been married in Cobham for 20 years and the excitement and triumphant arching are great.”

The local people showed in all kinds of agreeable ways their pleasure at having so eminent a man in their community and Arnold commented, “I think this shows the merit of education: would this have been possible from village trades-people to a man of letters in Pope’s time, or Johnson’s?” Here was proof for Arnold that he had not worn himself out for the public good in vain.

Arnold himself, although he does not express the sentiment, must have realized that his daughter had married well. How Jane Austen would have approved of Lang’s assiduity in giving the general reader the essential information about the groom’s background and prospects. Not only was he a lecturer on administrative law at Columbia University, he was also president or director of several railroad companies and would later become eminent in the legal profession and would write several books. What’s more, his favorite sport was grouse-shooting in Scotland.

This marriage paved the way for the Arnolds’ second visit to the United States in 1886 and for those of us who found the letters from the first trip of absorbing interest the publication of the sixth and final volume of Aenold’s correspondence, brought magically into perspective by Lang’s knowledge of and enthusiasm for the Victorian age, cannot come too soon.

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