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Arnold and Clough

ISSUE:  Summer 1933

The Letters of Matthezv Arnold to Arthur Hugh Clough. Edited with an introduction by Howard F. Lowry. New York: Oxford University Press. $2.50.

Few friendships as significant as that between Matthew Arnold and Arthur Hugh Clough are so little known to us. Indeed, Clough himself has appeared but dimly on the literary horizon as a sort of frustrate genius, wandering lost in a world of Victorian doubt, and is known to a great many people only as a Thyrsis whose piping “learnt a stormy note of men contention-tost” and faded away. The publication, by Professor Howard F. Lowry, of fifty-seven hitherto unknown letters from Arnold to Clough therefore throws important light on a comradeship whose memory could draw from Arnold one of the noblest elegies in our language. And even more significant, perhaps, than the revelation of the powerful intellectual and spiritual impact that Clough and Arnold had upon each other is the added light the letters give towards an understanding of the mind of Arnold himself.

The correspondence covers a period of sixteen years, beginning with the Oxford days in 1845 and closing with Clough’s death in 1861. The earlier letters, particularly, show a side of Arnold frequently forgotten by those who think of him only as the oracular interpreter of Culture to the British Philistine. The extravagance and banter of these letters is that of the young Matt Arnold of French airs and Olympian manner, of whose next absurdity his friends stood ever in uncertain expectation. For the most part, however, the letters deal seriously with matters of deep import to their author, There is early apparent the effort the youthful Arnold was making to achieve the spiritual oneness that he considered essential to the successful life. He fears “the sick hurry, the divided aim,” and strives for the poise and self-discipline which seemed to him so difficult to obtain in an age so barren. His natural craving, he tells Clough, “is not for profound thoughts, mighty spiritual workings, etc., etc., but a distinct seeing of my way as far as my own nature is concerned.”

From the first, too, there appears a force and freedom of idea that show how freely Arnold opened his mind to his friend. The two held a common interest in poetry, art, religion, and social progress, and to an unusual extent Clough seemed to fertilize Arnold’s inquiring mind and to evoke from him a wealth of idea. “I am for ever linked with you by intellectual bonds—the strongest of all,” declared Arnold.

The evidence of the closeness of spiritual kinship between the two is implicit on every page.

There has persisted a thesis, most recently expressed by Mr. Humbert Wolfe in his essay on Clough, that the Arnolds, father and son, had an unfortunate effect upon Clough. Unquestionably Clough, while at Rugby, came deeply under Dr. Arnold’s influence, and it may be believed safely that the Doctor’s emphasis on conscience and religion did more harm than good to a lad who, like Clough, had already an excess of religious sensitiveness. But the letters reveal that Matthew Arnold’s conscious effort was always to free his friend from what he declares openly to Clough is a conscientiousness almost morbid. When Clough, intellectually perplexed in the hot confusion of Oxford Tractarianism, was resigning his fellowship because he could not in honesty subscribe to the Thirty-nine Articles, Arnold, visibly disturbed, was attempting to stir his friend to positive intellectual activity. In his criticism, too, of Clough’s poems— a criticism always unflinchingly frank—Arnold urges more than anything else an attention to form and beauty rather than to what he calls an irritating attempt “to solve the Universe.” In 1848 he writes of his “growing sense of the deficiency of the beautiful in your poems, and of this alone being properly poetical as distinguished from rhetorical, devotional, or metaphysical.” It is no longer possible to hold Matthew Arnold responsible for the defects of Clough’s verse.

Indeed one of the most important contributions of the letters, for the student of Arnold, is their stress on the necessity of form and beauty of expression in poetry. In passages that emphasize an absolute propriety of form as “the sole necessary of Poetry as such; whereas the greatest wealth and depth of matter is merely a superfluity in the Poet as such” he complements his later definition of poetry as “a criticism of life,” which has seemed to many of his readers too simple.

Much fruitless critical speculation has been spent in the effort to determine why Arnold turned from poetry to prose. Professor Lowry holds, with a good deal of justice, that his efforts in the two fields are inseparable. And he draws the conclusion that Arnold forsook the poetic form, not because his poetic talent was constrained by the critical instinct, but because “his output was sharply curtailed by the high standard he set himself.” Arnold’s own words, however, show his growing belief that his studies and habits of mind were bending him steadily away from the poetic vocation. His transition to criticism was not made without some candid heart-searching and a few regrets. “I feel immensely—more and more clearly—” he writes in 1853, “what I want—what I have (I believe) lost and choked by my treatment of myself and the studies to which I have addicted myself.”

The letters to Clough will be searched eagerly by some intent on learning more about the ephemeral Marguerite of the Switzerland poems. There are, to be sure, two references in this connection. As late as September, 1848, Arnold writes from Switzerland to tell Clough that on the morrow he will go to Thun and there “linger one day at the Hotel Bellevue for the sake of the blue eyes of one of its inmates.” A year later he writes again from Thun, this time without mentioning the occasion for his presence there. Professor Lowry has, with profound wisdom, refrained from building on this reference to a pair of blue eyes any biographical superstructure. Certainly it is to be hoped that some day complete evidence may be found about the Marguerite episode in Arnold’s life. Such a discovery would give those honestly interested in Arnold information which might well be theirs, but above all it would finally permit us to turn our attention more completely to the more significant aspects of Arnold’s life and thought.

Professor Lowry has edited the letters in masterly fashion. From his access to all of Arnold’s notebooks and to Clough’s complete correspondence (each of which he will edit in the near future) he has been able to supply a running commentary that explains, without clogging, the text. His two introductory chapters give a picture of Arnold and Clough, and the background of their association together, that is clear-sighted as well as sympathetic. Admitting freely Arnold’s errors of judgment, he yet places him securely as the one who “more than any of his contemporaries , . . comes to us as the symbol of that quality which he himself believed would some day save the world—the quality that arises from the union of reason with imagination.”


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