A Brief About Matthew Arnold
by Charles W. Eliot
Matthew Arnold was the son of the well-known English schoolmaster, Thomas Arnold of Rugby. He was born at Laleham in 1822, and went to school at Winchester and Rugby. Going up to Balliol College, Oxford, in 1841, he won a scholarship, took the Newdigate prize for English verse, and was elected fellow of Oriel in 1845. After some years as a private secretary, he became an Inspector of Schools and performed the routine duties of this office for thirty-five years. For ten years he was Professor of Poetry at Oxford, and in 1883-84 he lectured in America. He died in 1888.
Arnold is notable among modern men of letters as being almost equally distinguished in poetry and prose. His poetical work belongs to the earlier part of his career, and was practically finished by 1867. At the time of its first publication it appealed to only a narrow public; but it rose steadily in esteem through Arnold's life, though he ceased to add to it, and now many critics hold that it will outlive his prose. The best of it is refined in feeling, lofty in thought, and exquisite in expression; its prevailing note, a subdued melancholy.
In prose Arnold wrote on many themes—educational, social, political, and, especially, literary and religious. His attacks on dogmatic Christianity promise to be the most short-lived of his works; and perhaps deservedly so, as here Arnold was dealing with technical matters in which he was not an expert. In literary criticism he has been and still is a vital influence, urging especially the value of an outlook over the literatures of other countries and the cultivating of an intimacy with the great classics of the past. In the following essay on the "Study of Poetry," one of the most famous of his utterances, there may be found exemplified his characteristically vivacious and memorable style, his delicate appreciations brilliantly and precisely expressed, his concrete and persuasive argument. Perhaps no single critical document of our time has contributed so many phrases to the current literary vocabulary, or has stimulated so many readers to the use of lofty and definite standards of judgment.