A Gift Imprisoned: The Poetic Life of Matthew Arnold 
by Ian Hamilton.
Bloomsbury, 241 pp., £17.99, March 1998, 0 7475 3671 6
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The last few decades have been good for Matthew Arnold. In 1977, R.H. Super completed the 11-volume Complete Prose Works, a venture that seemed quixotic (‘all those school reports!’) when he began it in 1960. The complete Poems, edited, tidied up and annotated by Kenneth and Miriam Allott, were revised and reissued in 1979. A new edition is on the way from Nicholas Shrimpton. Cecil Lang is up to the second instalment of the Letters (despite fierce crossfire from rival scholars in the letters pages of the TLS). Following the line opened by Lionel Trilling’s ‘biography of a mind’ in America and by Raymond Williams’s Arnoldian meditations in Culture and Society in Britain, Stefan Collini produced his impressive Matthew Arnold: A Critical Portrait in 1994. And there have been two cap-à-pie biographies: Park Honan’s in 1981 (with its provocative identification of ‘Marguerite’) and Nicholas Murray’s two years ago (with its no-nonsense put-down of Honan’s Marguerite thesis).

Threading a way through this crowd of card-carrying Arnoldians might have seemed rather daunting. As he tells us in his Preface, Ian Hamilton ‘several years ago ... had the idea of trying to write a full-scale biography of Matthew Arnold’. Since then the ambition has narrowed into something more purposive. His interest, Hamilton came to realise, was principally in the small nucleus of lyric poems and ‘a number of intriguing puzzles’ arising out of them; notably, ‘the matter of Arnold’s attitude to his own gifts as a poet: why did he abandon the poetic life and settle for three decades of drudgery as an inspector of elementary schools?’

Ian Hamilton, the author of a fine biography of Robert Lowell, has made himself a connoisseur of the pitfalls of biography since the frustrations of his search for J.D. Salinger. In Keepers of the Flame (1992) he surveyed the legal and practical impediments: the prophylactic bonfire, the deathbed prohibition, the vigilant widow, the lies artfully sown in life to spring up as pious myths after death, the outrageously money-extorting estate. In A Gift Imprisoned he considers the epistemological obstacles confronting the biographer. Can one ever know another person intimately enough to ‘write a life’? ‘To Marguerite – Continued’, one of Hamilton’s favourite poems, is relevant:

Yes! in the sea of life enisled,
With echoing straits between us thrown,
Dotting the shoreless watery wild,
We mortal millions live alone.

That last italicised word (Arnold loved italics) can be read as a prohibition: keep out, you publishing rascal – or if you do come in, don’t expect to find me at home.

Arnold’s last two biographers have been assiduous in turning over the literary remains and, unless Cecil Lang has something up his sleeve, there are no exciting discoveries to be made in the surviving manuscript materials (as his endnotes testify, Hamilton has dutifully revisited them). While retaining the known outline of the life, Hamilton has undertaken to ‘animate certain key moments, or turning points, in Arnold’s passage from the poetic life to the prose life of his later years’. The result is a book of Stracheyan brevity and wit but one that is friendly in its intrusiveness. Hamilton likes Arnold and respects his eminence.

For all their thoroughness neither of the preceding biographies satisfactorily explains the mid-life retreat from poetry. Honan locates the initial turn to verse as essentially feminine in origin, something encouraged by Arnold’s mother (‘he was the apple of her eye’) and by a Dorothy Wordsworth-like, quasi-incestuous relationship with his elder sister ‘K’ (Jane Arnold). Honan’s attention to Jane (a background figure for other biographers) verges on the compulsive; her index entry reads: ‘Forster, Jane Martha, née Arnold (M. A.’s sister), 4–424 passim.’ The book is 424 pages long.

It was to his sister that Arnold confided the tantalising observation that his poems were merely ‘fragments’: ‘I am fragments, while you are a whole; the whole effect of my poems is quite vague and indeterminate: this is their weakness.’ The turn away from poetry began (Honan implies) with the marriage of ‘K’ to the uncongenial William Forster in 1850 and Arnold’s own marriage immediately afterwards. Arnold evidently came to his marriage bed pure, apart from some heart-lusting after the blue-eyed Marguerite and therapeutic masturbation (faithfully chronicled by Cecil Lang from symbolic marks in the diaries). For Honan, Arnold is a ‘complex bundle’, whose interior mystery (that region which Arnold called ‘the sea of intuition’) is only to be penetrated by daring speculation.

Murray, taking a more commonsensical line, describes Arnold watching his ‘poetic gift evaporate’, as other middle-aged men might look into the mirror and ruefully note their receding hairline. This passive interpretation (elsewhere he talks of ‘the early departure of his poetic gift’) is at odds with his conception of a young Arnold strategically in command of his personality, ‘part Prince Hamlet and part Prince Hal’. In his closer analyses of the poems, Murray is alert to nuance and paradox. He notes, for example, that ‘Dover Beach’ – with its Tiresian despair – was written by ‘a young man, happily married, on his honeymoon’. Exactly what kind of ‘clash by night’ was Arnold thinking of? Enlightening as his commentary on the poems is, Murray makes little attempt to explain why the poet stopped writing them, merely citing Arnold’s own bleak comment: ‘if Poetry comes not as naturally as the Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all.’ It stopped coming. Hamilton favours a more active explanation. His title derives from Auden’s ‘He thrust his gift in prison till it died.’ Arnold killed Arnold the poet.

It does not help that in his poetry Arnold offers so many conflicting clues as to why he finds it a difficult, pointless, doomed or encumbered enterprise. Poetry, he likes to complain, is used up. A Western European of the present day comes historically and culturally too late on the scene: only bones and ashes remain. Arnold’s first published work, ‘Alaric at Rome’ (‘a prize poem recited in Rugby School, June 12, 1840’), dramatises the pathos of the latecomer. The Goth Alaric takes the Eternal City only to discover that he should have come four centuries earlier if capture were to mean anything other than kicking skulls around a graveyard:

Thy dead are kings, thy dust are palaces,
Relics of nations thy memorial-stones:
And the dim glories of departed days
Fold like a shroud around thy withered bones:
And o’er thy towers the wind’s half-uttered sigh
Whispers, in mournful tones, thy silent elegy.

Arnold failed to persuade his contemporaries of the superiority of classicism: like us, they mostly preferred his lyric poems – which he valued least – to the weighty Neoclassical work (‘Empedocles on Etna’, ‘Balder Dead’, ‘Sohrab and Rustum’, Merope). The critics didn’t agree with him about the insanity (his word) of Romanticism, and he gave up trying to educate adults and turned to children.

Another deterrent to continuing with poetry was the script which Thomas Arnold had written for his sons – their ‘destiny’. Matthew, Tom, William: they all, more or less rebelliously, accepted that theirs must be a life of useful toil – they became educationists. In his second published poem, ‘Cromwell’ (‘a prize poem recited in the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, June 28, 1843’), the 21-year-old Arnold speaks of his own as well as the Lord Protector’s youth of dreamy ‘inaction’ to be followed by a life of work – ‘manhood’s sterner will’. The ‘brazen prison’ and the ‘hot race’ could be put off for only so long: ‘I in the world must live,’ the poet tells the Alpine wanderer Obermann. And the world meant work, not poetry.

On other occasions, Arnold identified his inability to write poetry after middle age as a kind of male-menopausal drying up. In ‘Growing Old’, first published in 1867, the poet asks himself what ageing is, and answers:

It is – last stage of all –
When we are frozen up within, and quite
The phantom of ourselves,
To hear the world applaud the hollow ghost
Which blamed the living man.

People should have been nicer about his first collection, The Strayed Reveller, in 1849: it’s too late now.

In another lyric published the same year, Arnold makes a direct link between poetic output and sexual energy:

Youth rambles on life’s arid mount,
And strikes the rock, and finds the vein,
And brings the water from the fount,
The fount which shall not flow again.

The man mature with labour chops
For the bright stream a channel grand,
And sees not that the sacred drops
Ran off and vanish’d out of hand.

And then the old man totters nigh
And feebly rakes among the stones.
The mount is mute, the channel dry;
And down he lays his weary bones.

Arnold was 46 (Bill Clinton’s age when he was elected) when he published this gloomy elegy to his sexual-poetic powers. Cut Tennyson and Browning off at that age and we would have neither The Idylls of the King nor The Ring and the Book.

A more convincing explanation of his poetic block is found in a late conversation poem, ‘Epilogue to Lessing’s Laocoon’. Wandering with a friend in Hyde Park, Arnold asks why there are so few ‘real successes’ in poetry, compared with music, sculpture and art. The reason, he suggests, is that poetry is the highest of the arts:

Beethoven, Raphael, cannot reach
The charm which Homer, Shakespeare, teach.

The 19th century, Arnold concludes, does not afford time and space to be a poet. There will be no poets after Wordsworth, ‘the age can rear them no more.’

Hamilton stresses the dominance of Thomas Arnold, and points to the extinction of the poet in the same year of life as the Doctor was cut down by angina. Arnold was warned early in life about his heart, and expected to die, like his father, in his mid-forties. His poetry died instead.

The disabilities and illnesses which afflicted Arnold in childhood and early manhood may also have played an important part. Hamilton makes much more than previous biographers have done of the ‘irons’, or leg braces, that the infant wore between the ages of two and four, and which led to his unlovely family nickname, ‘Crabby’ (from his scuttling, sideways gait). The leg irons, Hamilton suggests, stayed with him all his life as a ‘notion of his own fragility’. Unexpectedly, Arnold joins the century’s other hobbling poets, Scott and Byron. The youthful dandyism, the affectation of nonchalance, was by way of compensation.

Hamilton sees the fact that Arnold wrote poetry as a happy accident: the outcome of the leisure he made for himself by idling at Oxford, and thanks to family influence, finding himself, aged 25, placed in a sinecure as private secretary to the Whig politician Lord Lansdowne. It was not just the ease, but guilt about the ease and unease about the guilt, which inspired his poetry:

the very grandeur of his new workplace, together with the elevated contacts it afforded, probably intensified young Arnold’s sense of separateness from the main, dreary drift of ‘general life’. It may also have inflamed his underlying restlessness, his fear of not knowing how this sense of being separate might or should be used. A different job at this stage of his life – a humbler, more demanding one – might well have shelved such fears or rudely squashed them. We might have lost Arnold altogether as a poet.

Here, and elsewhere, Hamilton suggests that what made Arnold dysfunctional as a person made him functional as a poet. This gets one into murky waters. If you could go back and slip a few Prozac to Sylvia Plath, knowing that by so doing you would unwrite those final poems, but save her life, what would you do? Conversely, would one wish further unhappiness on Arnold, so that we might have more poems like ‘The Buried Life’? The most stimulating and least dogmatic of writers, Hamilton does not attempt to answer such questions but leaves them fizzing in the reader’s mind.

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