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The fourteen years which have elapsed since Matthew Arnold's death have added greatly to the number of his readers, especially the readers of his poems. No poet of modern times, perhaps no English poet of any time, appeals so directly and so exclusively to the cultivated taste of the educated classes. To say that a classical education was necessary for understanding him would perhaps be to go too far. But a capacity for appreciating form and style, the charm of rhythm and the beauty of words, is undoubtedly essential. It may be said of Mr. Arnold with truth, and it is his chief praise, that the more widely mental culture spreads, the higher his fame will be. He was not, indeed, a profound thinker. He did not illuminate, like Wordsworth, with a single flash, the abysses of man's nature, and the inmost recesses of the human soul. He was not, as Plato was, a spectator of all time and all existence. His aim was, as he said of Sophocles, to see life steadily, and see it whole. But he saw it as a scholar and a man of letters.
He interpreted greater minds than his own. He almost fulfilled his ideal. He knew, so far at least as the Western world is concerned, the best that had been said and thought in all ages. Next to Milton, he was the most learned of English poets.
How far Matthew Arnold will suffer from having been too much the child of his own age, it is as yet too soon to say. The “ Zeit-Geist” has its limitations. It is the spirit of wisdom, not the spirit of a day, that is justified of all her children. “Thyrsis” is a very beautiful poem, not much less beautiful than “Adonais,” though very unlike it. But Clough was not Keats. Keats is near to every one of us, while Clough is already far away. To Mr. Arnold, however, Clough was not merely a personal friend. He was the embodiment of Oxford in the thirties and forties, of a special type now rare, if not extinct. Matthew Arnold's passionate love of Oxford has inspired some of his noblest verse, and some of his most musical prose. All Oxford men know, or used to know, the exquisite sentences about the beautiful city with her dreaming towers, breathing the last enchantment of the middle age. It was the unreformed Oxford which Matthew Arnold knew, and he represented the high-water mark of what it could do. The “grand old fortifying classical curriculum" at which he laughed, and in which he believed, was seen at its best in the Oxford of those days. There was no “specialising.” There were classics, and there were mathematics, and there was the river, and there was Headington Hill with Shotover beyond it. If that did not satisfy a man, he must have been hard to please. At any rate, he was not entitled to take a degree in Tamil, with a school and examiners all to himself.
Education was the business of Matthew Arnold's
life. He understood it in the broadest sense. There was nothing narrow, technical, or pedantic about his scholarship or his criticism. But in the proper sense of a much abused term his work is academic. It is steeped in, one might say saturated with, culture. It was written by a scholar for scholars, and only scholars can fully appreciate it. Matthew Arnold fulfilled the precept of Horace. He turned over his Greek models by day and by night. He brought everything to the classical touchstone. Whatever was not Greek was barbarian. “Except," wrote Sir Henry Maine, in a moment of rare enthusiasm, “except the blind forces of nature, nothing moves in this world which is not Greek in its origin.” Such was substantially Mr. Arnold's creed, though as his father's son he recognised that Hebraism entered with Hellenism into the structure of the Christian Church.
Yet both as a poet and as a critic Matthew Arnold was essentially a man of his time. He was singularly receptive of ideas, even when they were ephemeral. He loved to dabble in politics, but the best parts of his political writings are the quotations from Burke. He did more than dabble in theology. He took the doctors of the Tübingen school for apostles, and treated a phase of Biblical speculation as if it were permanent truth. He had no sympathy with dry and minute criticism of detail, like Bishop Colenso's.
He addicted himself to Ewald and to Renan. He threw himself into the Liberal reaction against Tractarianism, whose attitude to the Great First Cause has been described by a satirist in the memorable line
“Philosophy is lenient; he may go."
Matthew Arnold's literary criticism, once regarded by young enthusiasts as a revelation, has long since taken a secure place in English letters. Like his poetry, unlike his theology and his politics, it has original and intrinsic value. It is penetrating as well as brilliant, conscientious as well as imaginative. Matthew Arnold may be said to have done for literature almost what Ruskin did for art. minded, or informed, the British public that criticism was a serious thing; that good criticism was just as important as good authorship; that it was not a question of individual taste, but partly of received authority, and partly of trained judgment. His own masters, besides the old Greeks, were chiefly Goethe and Sainte-Beuve. But few critics have been so thoroughly original, and still fewer have had so large a share of the “dæmonic" faculty, the faculty which awakens intelligent enthusiasm in others. Essays in Criticism is one of the indispensable books. Not to have read it is to be ignorant of a great intellectual event.
In his double character of poet and critic, Matthew Arnold may be called our English Goethe. This is not to put the two men on a level; for, of course, one could not without absurdity talk of Goethe as a German Arnold. Goethe is one of the world's poets. Matthew Arnold is little known to those who do not speak the English tongue. But among them his reputation widens, and will widen, as knowledge and the love of books spread through all classes of society. To all who care for things of the mind his work must ever be dear. Something of his own radiant and sympathetic personality pervades all his writings, except
perhaps when he is dealing with Dissenters. would have been well if he had applied the critical pruning-knife to the exuberant mannerism which sometimes disfigures his style. The repetition of pet phrases is a literary vice. But Matthew Arnold is more than strong enough to live in spite of his faults. His best poetry, and his best prose, are among the choicest legacies bequeathed by the nineteenth century to the twentieth. If they belong to an age, they are the glory of it, for they show what golden ore it could extract, and hand down to the future, from the buried accumulations of the past.