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All About Arnold

ISSUE:  Summer 1997
The Letters of Matthew Arnold, Volume 1, 1829—1859. Edited by Cecil Y. Lang. The University Press of Virginia.$60.00.

In Britain, the Arnolds, father and son, are still names to conjure with, their ideas still thought to be relevant. Just last fall, Peregrine Worsthorne told the readers of the conservative Sunday Telegraph (Oct.27, 1996) that “Our underclass needs a Dr. Arnold.” He asserted that while politicians were talking “full blast” about “remoralizing Britain” they were failing to see the obvious: that Dr. Arnold’s scholastic blueprint, first put into practice in the 1820’s, should be adapted for use in Britain’s inner cities.”Initially Dr. Arnold’s Rugby was an experiment which turned out so well that it was soon copied all over the (British) Empire, producing the least corrupt and most public-spirited ruling class ever.”

An underclass into a ruling class in one generation? Never mind; it shows Dr. Arnold is still worth mentioning.

Several weeks later, the leading Welsh literary periodical carried an article entitled “Celtophobia: An Arnold to the rescue?” In it, the distinguished Welsh scholar, Hywel Teifi Edwards, warned his readers against “praying for a latter-day Matthew Arnold to deliver us (the Welsh) from the recent wave of virulent attacks by English gadflies.”

Nor was this all. In the Christmas books selection in The Guardian, the paper’s theatre critic (Michael Billington) said that for him “The most topical re-reading of the year was Matthew Arnold’s Selected Prose (Penguin) which reminded one that heedless individualism still prevails and that the Barbarians and Philistines are as present in Britain in the 1990s as they were in the 1860s.”

The most surprising recent homage to Matthew Arnold was made by the one-time deputy leader of the British Labour Party, Roy Hattersley. He mentioned Arnold, Tawney, and Crosland as the three British thinkers who had helped form his ideas about socialism.

Finally, maybe only days before the present volume was published, an English writer, Nicholas Murray published a Life of Matthew Arnold, an absorbing and judicious account of Arnold’s life and works. Arnold is introduced to the readers as a “surprisingly modern figure” whose criticism “has much relevance to contemporary debates about the value of literature and the extent to which the canon of great works remains a useful concept.”?

More relevant to the work in hand, Murray welcomes the publication of Arnold’s collected letters and quotes one from Arnold to his sister Fan, which could have been used as an epigraph for any work concerned with Arnold’s correspondence: “I never write a journal, but I tell my story in letters, which is the better and pleasanter way.”

Murray adds, “For Arnold’s copious letters—scattered and uncollected as they are—posterity may be properly grateful for they are the only personal writings we have, his diaries consisting merely of reading-lists, uplifting quotations, and the occasional note of an engagement.”

So, here we are then, with the first massive volume of this projected six-volume enterprise, and it has to be stated at once that the fact that an American scholar, Cecil Lang, and an American university press (Virginia) are responsible for this undertaking is a tribute to the vitality of Arnold studies in the United States and to the generosity, not to say opulence, of the American response.

In a long essay on Arnold, Henry James wrote that it was often “the fortune of English writers to find mitigation of sentence in the United States.” There is no hint of mitigation here; it is much more like an apotheosis.

James wrote his essay while Arnold was making his first visit to the United States in 1883 (moved by the need to refill the family coffers drained dry in paying off the gambling debts his son, Dick, had run up at Oxford). Arnold was sufficiently a celebrity to have been wished Bon Voyage by The Times (a paper, incidentally, he despised): “In sending our foremost critic to America we are sending one who is no stranger to the American public, for there are few Englishmen who are more read in the United States or about whose personality more curiosity is felt.”

The full extent of the American appreciation of Arnold and the debt which all of his admirers owe to American scholars and institutions are stressed in Lang’s introduction.

Arnold, Lang writes, has always had an enormous appeal for the academic world since he has seemed like an idealized “one of us.” What is more, the American academy has “adopted him, as foster son, with the passion and veneration reserved today for literary theorists, as, in the world at large, for rock stars and professional athletes.”

This is, indeed, high praise and Lang’s enthusiasm and affection for “his man,” the phrase Arnold used to describe his first employer, Lord Lansdowne, and for his works and his period, must make this edition a very special achievement. In this first volume we are given not only the letters that Arnold wrote from 1832—when a ten-year-old schoolboy—up to 1859, but a selection of other people’s letters which fill out or buttress what we know from Arnold himself. Thus, in a long note, we are given the attempts of fellow-writers such as Charlotte Bronte and Mrs. Gaskell to evaluate Arnold’s arresting personality; and others make more vivid the Arnoldian home life, of special charm when the clan gathered at Fox How, the stone house in the Lake District built by Dr. Arnold in 1834 with the benevolent guidance of Wordsworth, a family friend. These are important for the house became the spiritual home of the Arnolds however far they traveled (even though Matthew, in a rare moment of disloyalty, told his wife that he would have liked to live peacefully in Switzerland with her and the children).

Nor is this all: reflected through Arnold’s professional concerns, his literary projects, his travels, opinions, and even his antipathies, we are also given a vision of an age with Lang, like a family friend, lifting up the lamp to better reveal the portraits on the stairs, and offering explanations of the unclear passages and filling out, for the uninitiated, the personalities mentioned in the letters. The reader gets the benefit of Lang’s lifetime love affair with the Victorian period and his earlier work on editing the letters of Swinburne and Tennyson (the latter in cooperation with fellow Victorian scholar Edgar F.Shannon).

Other editions of Arnold’s letters have appeared before. The most notable were the two-volume set of 1895 and the 1923 edition of Arnold’s letters to his friend and fellow-poet Arthur Hugh Clough. The first covered the period from 1848 to Arnold’s death in 1888 and had been censored by the family for a variety of reasons, none scandalous. G.W.E.Russell’s editing was slack, especially about dates, thus confusing later scholars. Lang has reordered and redated these letters and has, as far as possible, restored the mutilated texts. To the letters from these two main sources, he has added many never before published after tracing them to private and public collections.

The biggest aid in his task was the record of all known Arnold letters, published or unpublished, institutionally or privately owned, established over many years, with incredible devotion, by Arthur Kyle Davis Jr., a member of the English Department at Virginia. In 1968, four years before his death, Davis brought out a descriptive checklist of Arnold’s letters and offered the editor’s task to Lang, who believes that the 1600 letters in photographic or facsimile copy at the Alderman Library of Virginia, as much as any other single archive, revived scholarly work on Arnold.

It must be supposed that the division of Arnold’s letters into six volumes was as much dictated by the bulk of the texts of letters and notes as by the events in Arnold’s life; but ending the first volume with a letter written on the last day of 1859 has a certain symbolic force, for the 1850’s were the years when Arnold established his reputation as a poet and in the decade to come he emerged as a social and cultural critic. The changeover from poetry to prose was not clear-cut, but throughout these letters the reader feels Arnold’s grief at the amount of energy he had to spend on his work as a schools inspector and his fear that time was running out and his poetic gift waning.

In January 1859 he wrote, “Tell my dearest Mother I have written so little of late because I am overwhelmed by grammar papers to be looked over—and not choosing as I grow older and my time shortens, to give up my own work entirely for any routine business.” It is, of course, fatuous to be schematic in these matters particularly when it is recalled that Arnold’s best-known poem “Dover Beach,” written in his annus mirabilis 1851 when he was appointed to his lifetime’s task and thus enabled to get married, was not published until 1867.

While we feel the anguish of the poet, never really free from the pressure of public duties and not-entirely-justified concerns about money, it is also clear that Arnold was engaged in an endless project of personal renewal and change. Like his father before him, he was an educator first and foremost and the essays on public and cultural issues which would start to appear in the 1860’s were the result of this self-education. The privileged and facetious young man of the 1840’s transformed himself into the prophetic radical and reformer of his later years.

In view of the testimonies to Arnold’s present-day relevance in the first part of this essay, it has to be asked just how much is he, in fact, our contemporary? This first collection of letters, covering his years from precocious schoolboy to professor of poetry at Oxford and educational eminence grise, offers much that is sympathetic and echoes topical concerns.

His ideas on the creative process, strongly influenced by SainteBeuve, still make sense, are still valid although the odd remark such as his notion that Keats’s poetry had had a bad effect on English poetry seems overstated. In a period of political sleaze we can admire the conscientious public servant, who gives the reader a fresh and unforeseen vision of mid-19th century England and Wales as he reports on his travels. As an inspector detailed to examine the schools run by dissenters, mostly Wesleyan, he was brought into contact with unprivileged people. He understood their aspirations and saw early on that the limitations of the English and Welsh education system were mostly due to the absence of a national framework. In report after report he pressed the state to accept its responsibilities.(In Britain, the same appeals are heard today.) In this he was inspired by the examples of other European countries, notably France, where education was properly organized. This volume ends with his first fact-finding tour of continental Europe.

Then, of course, we warm to the man with an almost sacred sense of duty to his family. We feel his pleasure in writing about his children and in sharing his experiences with his wife. He was a letter-writer able to rise effortlessly, even in hastily written notes, to real eloquence, real tenderness.

In a letter to his mother on her birthday we get “The more I see of the world, the more I feel thankful for the bringing up we had, so unworldly, so sound and so pure.” To his sister K., after the publication of one of his books of poems, “There is no one and never will be any one who enters into what I have done as you have entered into it, dearest K.”

We are also impressed by the letters in French to luminaries such as Sainte-Beuve, George Sand, and Jules Michelet. We admire his familiarity with the great classical authors and his willingness to enter into religious controversy although some of the arguments have lost force for, as Charlotte Bronte observed, Arnold’s theological opinions as a young man “were very vague and unsettled.”

The letters to Clough are, in some respects, the most perplexing although they have been compared to Keats’s in their importance in forming English aesthetics. Clough was four years older than Arnold and had known him since he arrived at Rugby School from Charleston, South Carolina, where his family, in the cotton trade, had moved from Liverpool. Clough was the man who received the letter referring to a visit to Thun, in Switzerland where Arnold intended, he wrote, to “linger one day at the Hotel Bellevue for the sake of the blue eyes of one of its inmates.” This, of course, is the young woman who inspired the Marguerite poems and, later on, what Lang calls a “cotton industry” of surmise and speculation.

But the perplexity lies elsewhere. Clough was also a poet who turned to Arnold for advice. It is the supercilious and sarcastic tone in which this is often given that rasps. We do not know Clough’s reaction for the simple reason that Arnold never kept any letters and Clough’s were no exception. Was Arnold jealous of Clough? Impossible to say but some of these letters suggest a darker side to Arnold than we like to admit.

The Clough letters also lead to a wider question: was professional jealousy the reason why in this volume—and later—Arnold shows so little enthusiasm for Tennyson or Ruskin? Arnold’s contempt for John Ruskin (who also settled in the Lake District) is the more troubling since both men were fighting on the same side against the commercial spirit of the age and for greater opportunities for the ordinary human being.

Whatever the contemporary reader chooses to find and stress in Arnold’s protean activities one thing is sure: Lang will have foreseen the doubt and will not have missed the ambiguities. And since Lange’s endless good humor enlivens the critical apparatus of this volume we might end with a couple of instances of his style.

Who but Lang could have summed up a clergyman called William Henry Lucas as the man for whom the Epicurean admonition “Hide thy life” might have been made: “He lived next door to no great man, edited no forgotten classical text, composed no little volume of verses on nature or death, published no commemorative sermons, he merely lived 98 years with four chronicled accomplishments: he attended Oxford, was ordained and held curacies and a vicariate, voted for Arnold (in the professor of poetry ballot) instead of a nonentity, and played whist.”?

Who else but Lang would have used this quotation from R. K. Webb’s biography of Harriet Martineau to bring that formidable and erudite sobersides before us: “From 1835 she was expecting death at any moment. She survived for another twenty one years. . . she managed to keep going with, at one time or another, oysters, game, champagne, turtle, brandy, and laudanum—and she got a fantastic amount of work done”?


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