An Abiding Sense of the Demonic

Stefan Collini

  • The Letters of Matthew Arnold. Vol. I: 1829-59 edited by Cecil Lang
    Virginia, 549 pp, £47.50, November 1998, ISBN 0 8139 1651 8
  • The Letters of Matthew Arnold. Vol. II: 1860-65 edited by Cecil Lang
    Virginia, 505 pp, £47.95, November 1998, ISBN 0 8139 1706 9
  • The Letters of Matthew Arnold. Vol. III: 1866-70 edited by Cecil Lang
    Virginia, 483 pp, £47.95, November 1998, ISBN 0 8139 1765 4

I shall put together either for a pamphlet or for Fraser, a sort of résumé of the present question, as the result of what I have thought, read, and observed here, about it. I am very well and only wish I was not so lazy, but hope and believe one is less so from 40 to 50, if one lives, than at any other time of life.

Matthew Arnold was 37 when he wrote this letter from Strasbourg where in 1859 he was on a fact-finding mission about foreign schools for the royal commission on elementary education. For eight years he had occupied the gentlemanly but humdrum post of an inspector of schools, toiling round the shires of England listening to children reciting their letters and school-managers their grievances. Though he had published some well-received volumes of verse, he could hardly be thought of as well-known; being the son of Dr Arnold, the famous headmaster, was still his principal calling-card. (The phrase ‘if one lives’ is surely an indication that he was incapable, especially when writing to his widowed mother, of forgetting that ‘dearest Papa’ had died at the age of 47.) But the reference to the idea of putting some thoughts together ‘either for a pamphlet or for Fraser’ (i.e. Fraser’s Magazine) marks the first, deceptively casual, appearance of the activity which was to transform Arnold’s life. It was through writing polemical and critical essays for the periodicals that he was, within a few years, to become famous in his own right. And it was through this activity that he found both a source of creative energy and a means to its satisfaction, and hence a kind of fulfilment which had so far eluded him.

Two views about Arnold tend to hamper current discussion of his life and work. The first – the more generous but also more ignorant – is that he was only really alive during those years of early adulthood in which he wrote nearly all his poetry, but that he then gave himself over to duty, to public life and to prose, with all its associations of the flat, the dull, the prosaic. This view naturally tends to disparage the worth of the prose in comparison to the poetry, but it is essentially a view about the creative trajectory of Arnold’s life: it tells a story of vitality curbed and stifled, the story encapsulated in Auden’s much-quoted line about how he ‘thrust his gift in prison till it died’.

The second view, commonly voiced within contemporary academic literary studies, is in some ways better informed, but it is, as it were, programmatically ungenerous in the approved manner of ‘suspicious’ reading. This view sees Arnold as a conservative ideologue, the literary hired gun of the possessing classes, deploying supercilious ridicule to repress disruptive popular energies and to install the contingent tastes of a particular social group as the universal standard of ‘culture’. Whatever merit this view allows to the youthful poetry (not much, usually), it sees the prose as a compound of bile and braggadocio – obstructive showing-off in the service of a complacent snobbery.

One similarity between these two views, which is generally unrecognised or unacknowledged, is their assumption that there is something artificial or dead at the heart of Arnold’s prose, something which indicates a kind of posturing in the public eye, whether for ideological or careerist purposes. Arnold’s collected prose runs to II substantial volumes, all (the preface to an early volume of poetry aside) dating from after the letter to his mother: the tendency of both interpretations is to regard these volumes as the record of a life gone wrong.

As the first three volumes of his letters, in their intimate abundance, confirm, this judgment is laughably inadequate. Arnold of course regretted the fact that his poetic powers seemed to be drying up, that ‘the Muse be gone away’, and admirers of his poetry cannot help but share this regret. But by 1859 Arnold had for almost two decades been telling himself, in the current idiom, to ‘get a life’, and the languor and anomie that characterised him in the 1840s and 1850s, when his best poetry was written, fell away in the early 1860s as he found his voice as an essayist. In the space of four or five years, Arnold acquired a significant reputation, and we can now follow, in greater detail than has ever before been possible, the effect this had on his words. It was his relatively abrupt appearance on the periodical-writing scene that, to use an Arnoldian word, animated him. As he wrote in 1863 to Sainte-Beuve, ‘Mon écrit attire beaucoup d’attaques, beaucoup de conflits; mais, avec tout cela, on se sent vivre.’

He was lucky in his historical moment. In the early 1860s, the stately quarterly reviews were being challenged and effectively displaced by the newer monthly magazines and weeklies. Macmillan’s Magazine had been founded in 1859, the Cornhill (with Thackeray as the first editor) in 1860, to be followed by the Fortnightly Review (a monthly, perversely) in 1865 and the Contemporary Review in 1866, and so on. The lighter, more topical nature of these publications suited Arnold’s ironic, bantering style better than the leisurely but emphatically partisan nature of the old Edinburgh and Quarterly. Once launched, Arnold deliberately worked his opportunities. At the beginning of November 1862 he told his mother: ‘Either in Fraser or McMillan [sic] I hope to have something (prose) every month till June, inclusive’. This was an exceptional period, but he had already become a contributor whom editors courted and to whom readers paid attention. The shift in his literary reputation which this brought about was well illustrated by the fact that when his New Poems was published in 1867, reviewers pondered how far his verse lived up to the ideals enunciated in his much-discussed essay ‘Culture and its Enemies’, which had appeared in the Cornhill earlier in the year (and was to form the opening of Culture and Anarchy). The effect of this change on Arnold’s sense of himself is nicely captured by the portrait photographs reproduced as the frontispieces to these beautifully manicured volumes. The first, taken in the mid-1850s, is in profile, the eyes cast down, hinting at something baffled or unresolved; the third, from the late 1860s, is full face, a portrait with a confident address to the viewer, a handsome, capable man in possession of his powers.

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