Skip to main content

Matthew Arnold and the Zeit-Geist

ISSUE:  Summer 1926

One winter afternoon, during my undergraduate days, when fields were dank and ways were mire, I consoled myself for the loss of a walk, “what might be won from the hard season gaining,” by reading for the first time Matthew Arnold’s “Introduction to Ward’s English Poets,” which is still the best of our anthologies. The essay was later entitled “The Study of Poetry.” No other attempt to get at the secret of poetry and to demonstrate the relative values of poets has ever seemed to me so captivating. It is captivating, because Arnold employs neither the mechanism nor the method of science, but the living organ of taste. It was his literary criticism that most thoroughly took hold of us in those years of the early eighties. He came upon our view in full panoply of learning, experience, prestige, and power. He was widely read in classical literature; and, say what they will or practice what they may, men know that this training is the most solid foundation for a career in English letters. His knowledge of modern European literature was uncommonly broad for those days; and he had done something which in a critic’s education is far more important than specializing in recondite matters, he had, namely, by submissive and sympathetic approach worked his way into the very heart of two or three great foreign writers. Look through his works and see how often and with what deference he mentions Goethe, the greatest voice, he calls him, of the century; and note how constantly he keeps his eye upon his own great forerunner and master in the art of criticism, Sainte-Beuve. Arnold’s early prose writings are pervaded with a stimulating sense that Sainte-Beuve may see them and perchance approve. It is good for a writer to have in mind one or two readers of the widest experience, the soundest judgment, the severest taste; I need not say how much better than to be thinking about the general public. Another element of his equipment was his pure and wholesome taste in English poetry. This high and sound sense of excellence was bred in him by familiarity with those of our great poets who are the most natural and at the same time the most artistic, with Milton and Wordsworth especially. Wordsworth he knew personally as his father’s honored friend and near neighbor, Rydal Mount and Fox How being less than half a mile apart and the two families living on terms of close intimacy and mutual respect. Wordsworth’s critical faculty was more constantly exercised in his old age than his imaginative faculty; in literary judgment he was independent, nice, severe; he possessed a keen sense of a poet’s responsibility for the ultimate effect of his works upon character and conduct. When the young friend of Wordsworth became the pupil of Sainte-Beuve the lesson was repeated and emphasized, that poetry is a criticism of life.

The spear with which Arnold opened his way was his peculiar method of composition. The originality of this method lay in its extreme simplicity. In every one of his early essays particularly, he uttered and reiterated a single idea, sharpening it into a striking phrase, which he struck repeatedly into the reader’s mind. It was his practice also to begin an essay with a more or less unfamiliar quotation and to come back to this again and again for a fresh start. On its ordinary level his style was limpid and swift; at its best it was such prose as only poets write, prose which is thought itself rather than a medium of thought, prose luminous at once and cadenced. Arnold’s style, I venture to say, is far more insinuating, far more subtle, than most readers are likely to perceive; by his apparent simplicity he catches us in a net and fastens his opinions upon us before we are aware.

Convinced that a critic so well equipped and possessing a method so reasonable must exercise unfailing tact, I for my part, and thousands with me, yielded too ready an assent to some of his dicta. I now think that he over-estimated Byron, and under-estimated Shelley, and failed to appreciate the strength and versatility and passion of Wordsworth, and belittled Burns. Yet so strong is Arnold’s enchantment that I can never cease to be conscious that such and such were his judgments and that if there is after all any thing like authority in literary criticism he possessed it.

One does not read far in those two precious volumes of “Essays in Criticism” before certain words and phrases begin to leap from the pages: “Disinterestedness”; “Culture”; “A disinterested endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world”; “Europe may be regarded as being, for intellectual and spiritual purposes, one great confederation, bound to a joint action and working to a common result, and whose members have, for their proper outfit, a knowledge of Greek, Roman, and Eastern antiquity and of one another”; “To have the sense of creative activity is the great happiness and the great proof of being alive, and it is not denied to criticism to have it”; “Poetry is a criticism of life”; “Poetry is the application of ideas to life.” They sound innocent enough now, these dicta, but every one of them provoked a conflict. And in all these conflicts Arnold’s broad views and his large purposes prevailed and spread. He spoke of amenity, and practiced it, when he felt so inclined; of urbanity, and was urbane himself, sometimes with mortifying effect on his opponents.

He performed a distinct service in the last two decades of the nineteenth century by helping many persons to resist a tendency to underestimate all values in poetry except purely sensuous effects. The so-called “{esthetic craze,” in the eighties, of which Oscar Wilde was the showman, and the so-called “art for art’s sake” movement, which derived impetus from the circle of Theophile Gautier in France and was aided so splendidly by Swinburne in England, broke and fell before the higher sense of people who had read Arnold.

I was once asked by his sister, the late Miss Arnold of Fox How, what part of her brother’s work I esteemed most, and replied: “His critical writings, his literary and especially his religious criticism.” She gave me a sharp glance of disapproval and said: “You are mistaken. He is at his best in his poetry, and by his poetry he will live.”

By his poetry he will live, no doubt, and probably longer than by his prose; for it is in the nature of poetry to outlast prose. Except for some Oxford prize verses, his first volume of poetry appeared in 1849. Let us ask ourselves who were the chief English poets between 1848 and 1888, the year of his death. I suppose we should most of us name Tennyson first, and then with considerable agreement though not all in the same order nor with the same emphasis, we should perhaps name Robert Browning and Longfellow and Emerson and Poe and Whitman and Swinburne and Arnold. Among these there are two upon whom the natural gifts of a divine singer were much more sparingly bestowed than upon the rest. In Emerson and Arnold the natural gift for telling a story is not abundant, the natural gift of musical speech is not rich. They are poets by second intention. That they are poets at all is due in large measure to the habitual elevation of their thoughts, their intellectual passion, and their literary culture. Yet they are poets indispensable, we think, in the full chorus, and would be as much missed if they were absent from it as Longfellow or Swinburne. Their place in the entire long roll of English poets is high and peculiar. They are poets of the inner life, of spiritual and elevated inner life. And they present a remarkable contrast to each other: Emerson a poet of spiritual confidence and joy, Arnold a poet of spiritual questioning and resignation; Emerson speaking for puissant and not yet disillusioned young America, Arnold for experienced and somewhat discouraged England.

Strive as he might, Arnold could produce not much poetry that is objective, not much poetry that is other than expressive of his personal experience; and this experience was intellectual. It is none the less emotional, of course; and it is intellectual emotion passionately felt and poignantly uttered that makes his poetry valuable. The one notable exception is “Sohrab and Rustum,” and we may set this noble fragment of epical narrative aside as a tour de force, a highly successful, but solitary tour de force. His efforts in the dramatic form, “Empedocles” and “Merope,” are not so fortunate. He lives, as a poet, rather in “Dover Beach,” “The Scholar Gipsy,” “Thyrsis,” “The Forsaken Merman,” “Tristram and Iseult,” “Rugby Chapel,” which, behind and through whatever sensuous medium or narrative mechanism is employed in presenting them to us, are in reality reverberations of the modern soul and statements of the modern soul’s peculiar problems. This is even more plainly the case with his best shorter pieces, like “The Better Part,” “Self-dependence,” “Morality,” and “The Future.”

After the music and the constructive art of Tennyson, the vivid dramatic power of Browning, and the joyous universality of Whitman, Arnold’s poetry appears limited, hobbled, constrained. But it is nevertheless the genuine voice of a great and earnest soul, whose problems are the concern of all those who think seriously and desire to see the thought of their age expressed with candor.

I shall only mention in passing the immense labor of Matthew Arnold as an educational reformer, his study of French and German schools, his efforts to secure for the middle and lower classes of England a rational and national school-system, supported and controlled by the state, and by the state guaranteed against private cupidity, local insignificance, sectarian narrowness, and popular vulgarity. In his desire to extend the functions of the state, to dignify the state, to give organic vitality to the state, to establish organic unity between the state and the people, his aims might be called socialistic, though the instrument of the actions he proposed, the instrument upon which he relied, was aristocracy; not an aristocracy dependent for its power upon landed or funded wealth, so much as on character and intellect, an aristocracy recruited freely and copiously from the middle class of society. He not only made these suggestions in books and articles and official reports, but for many years he slaved as an inspector of schools, setting examinations and reading examination papers, one of the most grinding forms of intellectual labor. He devoted thousands of hours to this toil, as is painfully recorded in his published letters, which give us the picture of a grimly dutiful public servant catching a train in the muggy dawn of a winter day and eating a bun at noon at a railway junction between two school inspections, his poetic aura laden with particles of scholastic chalk-dust and his critical perception struggling to escape being distorted by the random guesses of bewildered school-children.

The difficulty he foresaw and experienced in attempting to unify and dignify public instruction was that English society as a whole, the English people, lacked unity, and that such dignity as the nation possessed, and it possessed much dignity no doubt, was inherent almost altogether in the upper class. The country was moving rapidly towards democracy; but for a sound and true democracy the necessary condition is an essential equality. Instead of equality Arnold saw in England an upper class devoted to sport and other forms of selfish, stupid, and expensive pleasure, whom he called the Barbarians, a middle class unenlightened, whom he called the Philistines, and a lower class consigned to brutality. A nation so composed would, he thought, in following its course towards democracy, end in nothing short of anarchy; in fact England was already suffering from anarchy or the negation of rational arrangement. It possessed good qualities and good things, however, this chaotic nation: the upper class had a certain sweetness of manner, had “worldly splendor, security, power, and pleasure,” had health and wealth and vigor; the middle class had a sense for conduct; but none of these alone, nor all together, could save the nation. Knowledge too was needed, knowledge which gives vision to a people and direction to a state, knowledge of the best that has been said and thought in the world—in one word, light. As to the effect of this light upon the Populace, the portion of the English people who had been consigned to mere darkness and brutality, Arnold opened an inspiring prospect: “Culture,” he said, “culture does not try to teach down to the level of inferior classes; it does not try to win them for this or that sect of its own, with ready-made judgments and watchwords. It seeks to do away with classes; to make the best that has been thought and known in the world current everywhere; to make all men live in an atmosphere of sweetness and light, where they may use ideas, as it uses them itself, freely—nourished and not bound by them. This is the social ideal; and the men of culture are the true apostles of equality.”

These ideas about society Arnold expressed in “Culture and Anarchy,” which was published in 1869. He illustrated them further in a volume of lively irony called “Friendship’s Garland.” His purpose being to excite interest, he carried to an extreme his old method of giving currency to his opinions by inventing and reiterating queer catch-words, so as to engage the attention of his readers by novelty and hold it by sheer annoyance. He went sometimes to the brink of the ridiculous; yet even while sacrificing his dignity and the beauty of his style he is always quite manifestly in earnest. The result of these experiments in angling for attention fully justified his audacity; for the public, whether understanding his general purpose or not, became thoroughly familiar with such expressions as Sweetness and Light, Barbarians, Philistines, Populace, The Best that has been said and thought in the world, Culture, and Conduct.

We must pass quickly over Arnold’s labors as a social and political reformer, his labor as a publicist. Suffice it to say that he pleaded constantly for the centralization of the government and the extension of state action, for a sympathetic, a really understanding attitude towards the Irish, for the maintenance of the Church of England as a national organ by which to give dignified and beautiful expression to religious feeling, and for the enlightenment of the middle class, by whose emancipation from the bondage of self-satisfied smugness and unimaginative pettiness he hoped that the regeneration of England would be brought about.

Of Arnold’s political papers, I value most highly his great essay “Democracy,” which should be read by all who are discouraged by the many and obvious and disappointing shortcomings of democratic institutions, and in their discouragement are tempted to accept a reactionary view. I would also mention his great essay “Equality,” which is even bolder and more reassuring to wavering spirits. Whoever may have faltered—and many of my acquaintances are faltering in their faith that humanity is essentially sound and is capable, through liberty and equality, of accomplishing the ends of justice and civilization—whoever have faltered or are faltering—Matthew Arnold stood firm in his democratic faith. And furthermore I would quote with approval the judgment of one of our soundest American critics, Mr. W. C. Brownell, who calls “Friendship’s Garland” “a perfect piece of writing, full of the most delicate irony, by turns playful and mordant, and enough in itself to establish his eminence both as a wit and as a satirist.” And speaking for myself I would add that the gaiety, the semblance of youthful impetuosity, in “Friendship’s Garland,” were a delightful surprise to me, coming to it with my ear accustomed to the slower and more winding style in most of Arnold’s other prose works.

It would not be fair to quote without extensive qualifications some of the hard things Arnold says about his own country. He was English to the core; and an Englishman, if he feels impelled by the reformer’s zeal, will criticize England more severely than a Frenchman would venture to criticize France or an American would venture to criticize America. And not only will his remarks be received by his countrymen as the faithful wounds of a friend; they will be praised as public benefits. In England speech is free and prophets are not stoned, though they may be laughed at. How far soever she may be from equality, England is the true land of liberty. This tribute from the land of the Ku Klux and compulsory one-hundred-per-cent patriotism, I lay on England’s doorstep.

Miss Arnold made a wry face when I ventured to tell her of the high esteem in which I held her brother’s religious writings. Hers was one of the most intelligent and speaking countenances I have ever seen, and there was no possibility of mistaking the meaning of that look. It expressed a feeling which no doubt many of her brother’s readers entertain. The feeling is based probably upon one of two opinions. It may be based on an opinion that a mere man of letters had better not have meddled with theology. Or it may be based on an opinion that Arnold’s religious writings are on the whole destructive. Both of these opinions are mistaken. Matthew Arnold was much better equipped to treat of theological questions than many professional theologians: his knowledge of the Bible was extraordinary; his reading in the early Christian fathers was wide; he was far better acquainted than most of his clerical and academic contemporaries with the works of the great English divines, with Hooker, with Stillingfleet, with Jeremy Taylor, with Bishop Butler of the Analogy, with William Paley, with Bishop Wilson; and furthermore he was familiar with the processes and results of comparative historical study as practiced on the Continent of Europe. No doubt he would himself have disclaimed being well equipped, for he appreciated what heights and depths and especially what vast breadth of learning a fully prepared theologian should compass. He would, however, have disclaimed being a theologian. Indeed, he would have declared that theology was precisely what he was not dealing with, that his subject was religion. Few will deny that religion is a matter of universal concern, a matter upon which the voice of no man, woman, or child should be denied a hearing, a matter upon which even a mere man of letters may at times have something worth saying.

In regard to the second opinion, namely that Arnold’s religious writings are on the whole destructive, one may say that it was clearly not his purpose to impede the work of Christianity. Nothing, however, is so likely to impede Christianity, to hamper and narrow its operation, to divert it from its true aims, to pervert its methods, to limit its application, and retard its triumphant progress in the individual souls of men and in society at large, as a misconception of the Bible. It seemed evident to Matthew Arnold, and to many of his contemporaries between 1870 and 1880, that Christianity was in danger not only of being diminished and distorted everywhere, but of being actually rejected by thousands of serious people who wished to follow its teachings but were repelled by false claims put forward by its defenders. The truth of Christianity was supposed by its defenders to rest upon a number of metaphysical statements about God, and upon certain miracles. To support these metaphysical statements, which were put forward as definitions of God, and upon which the whole structure of theology was built, to support these attempts to define the indefinable, the Bible was used as men accustomed to much reading would never think of using any other body of literature, no effort being made, that is, to distinguish statements of fact from statements of imagination. To support miracles the Biblical accounts were read without historical perspective. But, Arnold thought, it was becoming more and more impossible for educated people to continue misusing the Bible in either of these ways. Serious and educated people, knowing what kind of proof is required to produce conviction in other fields, in history, for example, or in physical science, were feeling more and more that the influence of Christianity was too precious to be made dependent upon a series of metaphysical statements which could not be verified or upon accounts of miracles which could not be tested. Hence there came from him between 1870 and 1877 that remarkable succession of books, “St. Paul and Protestantism,” “Literature and Dogma,” “God and the Bible,” “Last Essays on Church and Religion.” They have certain chief and distinguishing motives.

The first of these motives is an endeavor to find a verifiable basis for religion. What do we know of God? How do we know anything of God? Where is the source of knowledge? Or since knowledge of the truth is authoritative, where is the seat of authority in religion ? The Oxford movement, which welled up in Arnold’s youth and was already, by 1870, subsiding in a dismal ebb towards Rome, the Oxford movement was an effort to determine whether the seat of authority was Reason or the Bible or the Church. For what is universal in Christianity, for what Christianity has in cornmon with all moral goodness, we must seek a foundation broader than the Bible, older than the Church, and less liable to error than human Reason, and this was what Matthew Arnold sought. It must be something as old as the human race, it must be present everywhere, it must be capable of being tested at any time. These requirements are expressed in one word, Experience. “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” By experience I do not mean only what is called “the Christian consciousness,” but the simple sense of right and wrong that is common to all mankind and has grown with the human race, increasing in strength and delicacy. To love righteousness is to know God, is to know that the Lord he is good. To know that righteousness will in the end prevail is to know that the Lord God omnipotent reigneth, that the Lord our God is eternal. To know and love righteousness is to know God. It is experience by which the reality of God and the nature of God are being daily and everywhere tested and verified. Our only verifiable knowledge about God is that he is the Eternal that makes for righteousness. This is the idea that holds the foremost place in Arnold’s defense of Christianity. He states the need of experience when he says: “The license of affirmation about God and his proceedings, in which the religious world indulge, is more and more met by a demand for verification.” Experience is the only thing in the world that can be verified. No mere metaphysical proposition can be verified. The very essence and peculiarity of a so-called miracle is that it cannot be verified. The definitions of God with which theologians begin to elaborate their systems are mere metaphysical propositions. They may be true, but they cannot be verified. “The name of God,” he says in another place, “is a point in which the religious and the scientific sense may meet, as the least inadequate name for that universal order which the intellect feels after as a law, and the heart feels after as a benefit.”

Every occurrence in nature verifies the existence of that universal order which the intellect feels after as a law. The heart too, as Pascal says, has its reasons; it knows and acknowledges what Arnold calls the Eternal not ourselves that makes for righteousness. All history, all moral experience, verifies the reality of this power. Its existence and its influence and its enduringness are daily and hourly tested. It is what we know of God by our hearts. It is the God, not of metaphysics, nor of miracles, but of experience. Arnold, with his profound knowledge of the Old Testament, tries to show that this was what the various writers of that age-long accumulation of experience came to mean when they spoke of the Lord, the Eternal, the Righteous One. I am not sure that he does not give them credit for being less anthropomorphic than they really were. It is only in two or three of the later prophets that I, for my part, can discern this high conception. That it was the conception of God which Jesus entertained and which he taught, seems to me very likely. In the best authenticated sayings of Jesus there is magnificently little than can be termed metaphysical, and perhaps no reference to God at all except as the Eternal not ourselves that makes for righteousness. He frequently rebuked those who would have persuaded him to test the power of God by performing miracles. His God was not the God of metaphysics, not the God of miracles, but the God of experience.

Thus far I have no difficulty in going hand in hand with Arnold. I agree with him that we have been too prone to make God after our own image, giving him hands and feet, presuming to define him, declaring that he must be this or that and must do thus or thus. The theologians, who are especially inclined to this anthropomorphic excess, which sometimes amounts to blasphemy—as when they speak of God being jealous and angry—have defended themselves by quoting Scripture, and it is precisely such misuse of Scripture that enlightened readers are learning not to make. Enlightened readers are learning to look upon the Bible as the record of the religious experiences of a peculiar people, the first to emerge from the worship of a tribal deity anthro-pomorphically conceived of, into a more spiritual and universal phase, but not as a unique revelation nor as a volume essentially different in the method of its composition from ether primitive literature.

Yet, though agreeing thus far with Arnold and believing that he represented the Zeit-Geist or Spirit of Time and only anticipated by a few years the general trend of religious thought, there is a point at which some instinct and my own experience bid me pause. A deep desire remains unsatisfied, the desire to speak to God. I know full well that wishing is not proof, and that even a universal desire gives no perfect assurance that the thing desired is possible. Nevertheless, the longing to speak to God persists. Black desolation falls upon the soul that does not believe it can speak to God. Solitary and disconsolate, it wanders through vague spaces, missing someone, longing for someone. There is no loneliness like to this. We all have felt it. Jesus himself went through this lonely passage, which was in sooth the valley of the shadow of death. Not even the theological prepossessions of the men who wrote the gospels and would fain have depicted him as very God, prevented them from recording the heart-broken, terrified human cry of Jesus in his hour of agony: “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?” And they have left us also that other cry, of perplexed human distress passing into resignation, when Jesus in Gethsemane felt out after God and found him: “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt.” We instinctively reach out after God in moments of anguish or fear. We instinctively picture him to ourselves at such times not as the Eternal not ourselves which makes for righteousness, though this he surely is, but as one like ourselves. The greatest joy of which a human being is capable, a joy that lifts the heart and makes it sing like a bird in the morning sunshine, is a sense of communion with God. To miss this joy altogether is not to have lived at all. To have had it and lost it is to be widowed of what made life sweet, is to have our house left unto us desolate, is to forget “The sound of glory ringing in our ears.”

I am glad to say there is, after all, something very much like communion with God opened up to us in the second great phase of Arnold’s religious teaching, to which I now come. The first phase was his insistence that we can gain knowledge of God through experience, not through metaphysical definitions nor through belief in miracles. The second is his exposition of the method and secret of Jesus. “The end,” he tells us, “for which both books were written,” —he is referring to “Literature and Dogma” and “God and the Bible”—was “to show the truth and necessity of Christianity, and its power and charm for the heart, mind, and imagination of man, even though the preternatural, which is now its popular sanction, should have to be given up.” The power and charm of Christianity, he tells us, are transmitted by the method and secret of Jesus. I must say I do not think these are very happy terms. They require explanation and yet turn out to signify nothing that we did not already know. He means by the method of Jesus the practice which we all know Jesus pursued, the practice of inwardness, getting at the heart of a man directly and changing it. By the secret of Jesus he means self-renouncement, dying unto self and living again in a wider life. He is more original in his use of another phrase, “The sweet reasonableness of Jesus.” Though in the early books in which he teaches how Jesus won the world by sweet reasonableness, there are too much bitterness, too much sarcasm and too many personal attacks, Arnold performed a valuable service in calling attention to the fact that Jesus appealed to the reason of his hearers, to their experience, and spoke not in harsh tones of command, but in the sweet accents of sympathy. We say truly that Jesus revealed God. He did so by showing men the treasures in their own hearts, the possibilities of goodness and happiness that lay there, already tested by millions of experiments and needing only to be used. Reason accepts only experience as the test of truth. Jesus appealed to the reason of men by referring them to experience, and he spoke with sweet persuasiveness —he did not strive nor cry. This is what I understand Arnold to mean by the oft-recurring phrase, “sweet reasonableness.”

The manner in these four books is too often insolent and offensive. The method is too often anything but direct; it is too often sinuous and obscure. His defence of the Fourth Gospel as having equal authenticity with the other three and even presenting a more intimate picture of the mind of Jesus, is, I think, a failure. On the other hand, I think he was successful in showing that the true power and charm of Christianity come through Jesus and will continue to come through him when the Zeit-Geist has proved even more effective than it has yet been in quietly sapping the traditional supports of Christianity, namely metaphysical definitions and belief in miracles. At a time when he had grown more mellow, in his article on Tolstoi, a more original religious genius than himself, and indeed the greatest religious teacher of modern times, he summed up what may be termed the new theology, though to me it seems the oldest, the original and pure Christianity. He was summing up, I say, the teaching of Tolstoi, but at the end accepted it as his own belief, exclaiming, “Sound and saving doctrine, in my opinion, this is.” The statement is as follows:

“Moral life is the gift of God, is God, and this true life, this union with God to which we aspire, we reach through Jesus. We reach it through union with Jesus and by adopting his life. This doctrine is proved true for us by the life in God, to be acquired through Jesus, being what our nature feels after and moves to, by the warning of misery if we are severed from it, the sanction of happiness if we find it.”

It has been extremely difficult to reduce to a summary the activities of a man who was so many things at once-literary critic, poet, educational reformer, political and social critic, religious teacher. It is nearly forty years since he died. How much of him survives? Much, I think. His poetry has stood the test of being at one time perhaps over-admired because of its melancholy tone, a kind of admiration which can scarcely be regarded as propitious, and of coming in competition with the lighter, more musical verse of Swinburne, and of meeting now a generation of young people who affect an air of superiority to what they call Victorianism. It has stood these tests. Dozens of Ar-nold’s lines are now part of the intellectual possession of all even moderately well read people. Several of his poems have reached safety, so to speak, being already used as classics, in the enormously ramified school-life of the English world, and garnered in all the general anthologies. I think a very high proportion of his poetry, as compared with Tennyson’s or Longfellow’s or Swinburne’s, has passed the danger-line of speedy oblivion. His prose is undoubtedly much less read than it was forty years ago. A certain part of it, however, is still vital, namely, his literary criticism, of which the soundness, sanity, independence, charm, and beauty have rarely been surpassed. His other prose writings are eminently worth reading, are still read by many discriminating people, and yet are probably passing out of the general consciousness into a dignified retirement such as that which the works of his beloved Bishops Butler and Wilson enjoy. But their effect, the effect of his educational, political, social, and religious criticism, has been and is and will continue to be very great, greater already, in the retrospect, than the total effect Carlyle has produced, equalled only by the dynamic effect of Ruskin and that of Emerson. In spite of the reactionary movement that has swept over the world since the war, the power of superstition, of a narrow and unenlightened literalism in religion is weaker than it was in Arnold’s day, and much of the credit for the change should go to him. Slightly altering a phrase of Sainte-Beuve’s, I may say that in exercising his prophetic function he was doing the work of a poet, for “poets alone have these instincts, like birds of passage which marvellously foretell the approach of the seasons.”


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading