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.

He used those powers to combat the ‘bad civilisation of the middle class’ and to attempt to correct whatever was one-sided and one-eyed in dominant attitudes. ‘I hate all over-preponderance of single elements,’ he declared with the kind of direct passion which is rare in his published work. He said of ‘Culture and its Enemies’: ‘There are many attacks and answers ... but the great thing is to drag the Dissenting Middle Class into the great public arena of life and discussion, and not let it remain in its isolation. All its faults come from that isolation.’ Arnold believed in the corrective function of public debate: in his view, it was precisely in the ‘public arena’ that any ‘over-preponderance of single elements’ would find it hardest to survive. And this applied as much to the forms of one-sidedness that resulted from specialisation as to those that resulted from sectarianism. In one of his early periodical essays he speaks of the need for books to be judged not by specialists alone but by ‘another tribunal’, which considers their impact on ‘the general culture’. This is the root of what he meant by ‘the function of criticism’, and numerous arresting declarations and confiding asides in these letters bring out his increasing commitment to the performance of this function.

These volumes also give, with greater detail and immediacy than any biography, a sense of the world in which Arnold lived and moved, and in so doing they bring home to us how different, even remote, from ours was the experience of life which informed Arnold’s writing. It was, most obviously, a world of far more rigid social distinctions and more powerful forms of social authority, with the deference that entailed than we can now easily recapture. Arnold belonged, partly by birth but still more by achievement, to the metropolitan literary, ecclesiastical and professional class, which mixed, though scarcely on equal terms, with the really influential political élite of wealth and power. But these categories were far from clear-cut and certainly not impermeable. A letter from 1863 contains a revealing grumble: ‘I less and less like going out as going out is arranged in London at any rate, where society is not in coteries, where therefore you never know whom you shall meet, and hardly ever meet people you want to meet. Besides that, the eating and drinking is too incessant.’ Some allowance has to be made for simple liverishness here, but it nonetheless shows the very practical ways in which social circles overlapped; Arnold’s dinner companions could as often turn out to be politicians as poets, or indeed judges or bishops, lords or commoners, men of influence or young unknowns; and any single individual might fulfil more than one of these roles. Arnold’s social experience was certainly not confined to the society of other intellectuals, still less of other ‘educationists’: one of the works of reference most frequently cited in Cecil Lang’s wonderfully informative notes is a contemporary social register unashamedly called The Upper Ten Thousand.

But although Arnold was not averse to hobnobbing with the rich and titled, he was well aware that this was not his natural milieu: ‘the life of these country houses ... wearies me more and more,’ he wrote after one visit, especially on account of the landed aristocracy’s ‘radical want of occupation’. Although he lived beyond his means, his was the relatively small-scale, soberly-incurred, financial anxiety of the overstretched professional man, not the profligacy of the aristocrat. Educating his children, paying their medical bills, keeping up appearances – these were the sources of sleeplessness. When his father-in-law, a judge, went on circuit, Arnold travelled with him as his marshal because he needed to supplement his school-inspector’s salary, and the handsome payments he later received for his essays were not the least of the incentives to write them. But his was a comfortable life. In the 1860s he and his wife gave dinners or dined out at other people’s houses several nights a week, and even a quiet evening at home would involve dinner for several people served at table. Reflecting during a frosty December on how ‘a fire to get up by is perhaps the greatest comfort in the world,’ Arnold was a man of his time and class in making no mention of how the fire might have got there.

Because the world in which he moved was severely circumscribed if still interestingly diverse, he had a vivid sense of who his critics and his readers were: a striking proportion of the proper names that figure in his topical prose are mentioned as acquaintances in his letters. For example, one of Arnold’s most persistent opponents in the 1860s was James Fitzjames Stephen, literary bruiser-in-chief for no-nonsense Liberalism. Reporting a slashing attack on ‘The Functions of Criticism’, Arnold wrote: ‘It is by Fitzjames Stephen, and is due partly to ... his ideas being naturally very antagonistic to mine. He meant to be as civil as he could, consistent with attacking me au fond; he sent his wife to call, as a proof, I suppose, that he wished amity.’ Fitzjames Stephen had a singular way of expressing his amity, at least in print: further attacks on Arnold’s essays followed these social niceties (one signed ‘a British Philistine’), and he did an inadvertent service to English letters by provoking the sequence of essays that were to become the beginning of Culture and Anarchy. Stephen was not one to pull his literary punches, yet in January 1866, after several rounds, we find Arnold casually recording: ‘Tomorrow we dine with the Fitzjames Stephens,’ and the social reciprocities were observed three months later when ‘the Fitzjames Stephens’ are numbered among the dinner guests chez Arnold. On some causes they could still act as allies: ‘tonight I dine with Fitzjames Stephen to talk over the Public Schools bill.’ And when in 1869 Stephen was appointed Legal Member of the Viceroy’s Council in India, we find Arnold reporting to his mother: ‘walked across the park to the Fitzjames Stephens [as] I wanted to say goodbye to them.’ At one point, Lang annotates a reference to yet another attack on Arnold as being ‘unsigned but either by Fitzjames Stephen or the devil’. Having often supped with this particular devil, Arnold knew how to tweak his tail: some of the darts in Arnold’s essays which can now seem tiresome were merely public expressions of esprit de l’escalier, rejoinders that came to him as he walked back across the park.

Arnold’s membership of this social-cum-intellectual élite enabled him to write with a confidence and a certainty of being listened to which he might otherwise have lacked, but he did not necessarily endorse the established views of his class. In one of the scores of interesting letters which have not previously been published, Arnold responds to an American correspondent who had evidently taxed him with the unsympathetic nature of his remarks on the United States. Arnold disarmed the criticism by insisting that his aversion was to some of the most ‘English’ features of American society, and went on to offer a revealing general prescription: ‘Undoubtedly I think that the attitude – in literature at any rate – of men of the best sort must be, in your country, one of resistance and opposition to much that they see predominant around them, but then so, too, it must be here.’ Arnold’s was hardly the ‘resistance’ of the modern ‘alienated intellectual’, but one should not overlook the extent to which there was criticism as well as collusion in his attacks on ‘my countrymen’.

Arnold receives acknowledgment today for having been the first Professor of Poetry at Oxford to deliver his lectures in English rather than Latin. This reflected a realistic assessment of the needs of his audience, not any linguistic incapacity on his part; he was a sufficiendy accomplished Latinist still to compose and deliver the annual Crewian oration in Latin. A little reading in his favourite classical authors can almost seem part of his daily routine, in the way some people might now meditate or do exercises: returning home from dinner parties, he explained in 1862, he would finish his school reports, write a few letters, and ‘read about 100 lines of the Odyssey to keep myself from putrefaction’. The ancient world was a living presence for Arnold, not an object of scholarly curiosity. ‘I cannot express to you the effect which this Roman south of France has upon me – the astonishing greatness of the ancient world,’ he wrote to his sister. And he wrote home to his wife from one of his school-inspecting tours: ‘I have had a cold wet journey and only a bun for luncheon ... came on here – six miles – on the top of an omnibus – a dawdling conveyance, and a cold, wet drive. I felt rather disconsolate between Liverpool and Shrewsbury.’ He tried reading one of Kingsley’s novels: ‘however, that did not comfort me much, and I betook myself to Hesiod, a Greek friend I had with me, with excellent effect.’

The classics were, of course, only part of his reading, the variety of which helped to make him one of the least parochial of English critics. A letter of 1857 catches him in slightly pompous vein telling one of his sisters that his library was ‘a collection of the chefs d’oeuvre in all the languages which I can read – excluding, therefore, even in English, a great many writers whose works are considered indispensable to an English library, but yet have no claim to rank (in my opinion) among the chefs d’oeuvre of me literature of the world.’ A concern with ‘ranking’ was to be one of the disfiguring tics of his later criticism, but far from being a pedagogic pose, it was a tendency with deep roots in his experience as a reader.

The intensity of that experience puts more fitful readers to shame. ‘I am reading Dante in Italian for the first time. O what force!’ The fusion of his literary and emotional experience is most baldly revealed in a sequence of diary entries for a week in February 1851 when he was courting his future wife, Fanny Lucy (‘Flu’), in the face of her father’s disapproval: ‘read in Milton at breakfast’, ‘wretched, nervous day’, ‘read in Paradise Lost’, ‘wretched day’, ‘read in Goethe and Milton, walked in park, much better spirits’, ‘dear letter from Flu, wrote twice to her today’, ‘read in Milton and in Grote on Socrates’, ‘letter from Flu, wrote three times to her’. He is every inch the moody, Byronic lover (as well as ardent correspondent), but the list of companions from whom he sought solace is impressive.

Arnold was a man of letters in the most literal sense. He wrote several a day, sometimes retiring to the Athenaeum in the afternoon with a pile of correspondence, sometimes sitting up late at night after finishing all his other tasks, bringing his mother or one of his sisters up to date with family news and literary triumphs. The items garnered here include the equivalents of phone calls and Christmas cards, of rough drafts and business transactions, of manifestos and public pronouncements, of post-prandial confession and pillow talk. There are wonderful examples from almost the entire range of the genre, from the unbuttoned, young-poets-in-the-pub, opinionated zest of his early letters to Arthur Hugh Clough, through the affectionate or anxious effusions to members of his family, and on to the elegantly-turned exchange of compliments with a fellow-writer or public figure.

The narrative spine of the edition is provided by the vast number of letters to his mother, to whom he tried to write every week. She evidently kept large numbers of them and they are biographically the most informative, mixing family doings with reports on his success, but also what he was reading and thinking about. His mother, a cultivated woman in her own right, entered into his literary and intellectual life, even though some of his sallies made her uncomfortable. The letters to his favourite sister, Jane, constantly invoke, and try against the odds to recreate, the intense intimacy they had shared in childhood, and include an extraordinarily revealing strangulated cry of pain at the news of her engagement. Hardly less intriguing are the numerous letters to Lady Louisa de Rothschild, an attractive, bookish (and very rich) woman who shared his intellectual interests far more than his wife did. Characteristic of this relationship is the letter in which he reports how the irreverent preface to his Essays in Criticism failed to find favour with his mother and sister, earnest in the Dr Arnold manner, or with his wife, who is ‘always thrown into a nervous terror by my writing anything which she thinks likely to draw down attacks on me’, and ‘so altogether I needed the refreshment of your sympathy.’

His letters do not reveal the secrets of his marriage, though there are one or two teasing scraps, such as the diary entry from his honeymoon ‘early to bed/up late’. What they do show most forcibly is his joy in his children (he was a naturally sentimental man, who later wrote some rather cringe-making poems on the deaths of beloved pets). He was an indulgent, expressive father, and although the conventions of Victorian domestic economy hardly qualify him as a ‘new man’ avant la lettre, he was practically and emotionally immersed in the care and upbringing of his children. For example, in the winter of 1867 his eldest child, 15-year-old Tom, was ill yet again: ‘His coughing generally wakes me though he is in the next room, and if I hear him moaning I know that the pain in his side, which the cough brings on, is troublesome, and then I generally go in and visit him, rub his back, give him an extra pillow, and so on. This morning I sate down in his bed by him and let him rest against me, as he had been sitting up for a long time; and very soon he got to sleep.’ Basil, the youngest of Arnold’s six children, died in infancy at the beginning of 1868: ‘I sat up with him till 4 this morning, looking over my papers, that Flu and Mrs Tuffin might get some sleep; & at the end of every second paper I went to him, stroked his poor twitching hand & kissed his soft warm cheek; & though he never slept he seemed easy & hardly moaned at all.’ Later in the same year, ‘little Tommy’s’ always precarious health also finally gave out: ‘His breath grew shorter and shorter towards morning, though he dozed a good deal; between nine and ten the effort for breath grew into a painful labour and in this, at ten o’clock, he sank, with his head upon his poor mother’s shoulder.’ Less than four years later, a third son, ‘Budge’, probably Arnold’s most cherished child, died at the age of 18: Arnold was inconsolable.

It was only a few days after the death of his eldest son that Arnold began writing the preface to Culture and Anarchy, one of the most equable, playful classics in the history of social criticism. How did he do it? A hint is given in another letter to his mother:

No one has a stronger and more abiding sense than I have of the ‘daemonic’ element – as Goethe called it – which underlies and encompasses our life: but I think, as Goethe thought, that the right thing is, while conscious of this element and of all that there is inexplicable round one, to keep pushing on one’s posts into the darkness, and to establish no post that is not perfectly in light, and firm. One gains nothing on the darkness by being, like Shelley, as incoherent as the darkness itself.

Only in rare moments of extremity is the darkness visible in these letters, but it is enough to remind us how it was the constant companion of all that was light and firm in the great achievement of his public prose.

Arnold is one of the last of the great Victorians to have justice done to him on this grand editorial scale. A two-volume collection of his letters – too loosely thrown together to be called an ‘edition’ – appeared shortly after his death, heavily mutilated in deference to his family’s fear of giving offence or revealing too much of the great man’s less than serious sides. His Keatsian early correspondence with Clough received its due in 1932, in the much-quoted edition by H.F. Lowry, but thereafter the long-mooted project of a collected correspondence was plagued by delays and obstacles, the story of which is told in Lang’s attractively wry introduction. Three more volumes are promised for the remaining 18 years of Arnold’s life, years which will see most of his religious writing, including Literature and Dogma, but also his famous late essays on poetry, as well as his visits to America and his ever-growing fame. But these first three volumes cover the years in which he wrote practically all his poetry, the first series of Essays in Criticism and Culture and Anarchy. They are the years of Arnold at his winning, amusing, serious best.

Cecil Lang has already produced acclaimed editions of Swinburne’s and Tennyson’s letters. No praise can be too high for the elegant, authoritative annotation displayed here. And amid the mass of information, one gets a glimpse from time to time of a peppery wit, as, for instance, in the note on C.J. Vaughan, headmaster of Harrow, who is described as having to resign on account of ‘his lickerish itch for downy youths’; or Robert Williams Buchanan, who is economically characterised as ‘Scottish poet, novelist, journalist, sneak, and liar’; or, magisterially: ‘Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve (1804-69), a nasty, little, ugly, malicious, sexually deformed, half-man, half-toady, and whole scandal-monger, was France’s greatest literary critic-historian and easily one of the most interesting of Arnold’s acquaintances.’ It is appropriate that Arnold, who could command the lightest of touches, should not have fallen into the clutches of some latter-day equivalent of F.W. Newman, editor and translator of Homer, whom Arnold memorably pilloried for his obstructive pedantry and lack of literary tact.

Jane, Arnold’s elder sister who partly functioned as a kind of epistolary superego for him, worried, with her moralising Lake District austerity, whether Matt wasn’t being corrupted by his married life in London: ‘for I think both he and Fanny Lucy are quite enough inclined to value the externals and proprieties of life.’ It has always been a question about the urbane and sociable author of Culture and Anarchy whether, in a broader sense, he didn’t overvalue the ‘externals and proprieties of life’, a question most often asked, perhaps, by those who rather pride themselves on knowing just how little these things should be valued. In fact, no sooner had she voiced that criticism than Jane caught herself: ‘but the dear boy’s great affectionateness is always both touching and refreshing to me.’ The strength and reach of his affections are constantly evident in these letters, partly perhaps because so many of them are to his family, but above all because he lived in and was nourished by his emotions to a far greater extent than subsequent critics have allowed. He knew that the great enemy is ‘aridity’, the bleak tundra of egotism and indifference, the being ‘iced over’ that threatens everyone as they become more set in their ways. Obligation, routine and disappointment increasingly threatened to tighten their grip as he passed into middle age, but only the obtuse interestedness of a determinedly ‘symptomatic reading’ could make one overlook the energy and drama of his resistance.