Studies of a Biographer/Matthew Arnold
When your Principal asked me to select a topic for a lecture, I replied, in a moment of weakness, that I would speak of Matthew Arnold. The choice was partly suggested by an observation made on a recent visit to the United States. It struck me that Arnold's merits were even more fully recognised there than in his own country; though I hope that here, too, they do not lack appreciation. American opinion is probably not infallible. Still, fame on the other side of the Atlantic establishes a certain presumption of excellence. It proves that a man's influence was not created by, and may sometimes indicate that it has been partly obscured by, our local prejudices. At any rate, the observation suggested some thoughts, which, it occurred to me, might be worth submitting to an English audience. Well, I have been ever since repenting my decision. The reasons against my enterprise are indeed so strong that I am now almost afraid to mention them. In the first place, I knew Arnold personally, though I cannot boast of having known him so intimately as to be provided with reminiscences. At one of my meetings with him, indeed, I do remember a remark which was made, and which struck me at the moment as singularly happy. Unfortunately, it was a remark made by me and not by him. Nothing, therefore, should induce me to report it, although, if you attend to what I am about to say, you will perhaps hear it, and, I hope, recognise it by this description. But, though our acquaintance was not so close as I could have wished, it left me with a singularly strong impression of Arnold's personal charm. Though some objects of my worship were to him mere wooden idols; though I once satisfactorily confuted him in an article, now happily forgotten by myself and everybody else; though I was once even his Editor, and forced in that capacity to decline certain articles, on grounds, of course, quite apart from literary merit; yet he was always not only courteous but cordial, and, I may almost say, affectionate in manner. He had that obvious sweetness of nature, which it is impossible not to recognise and not to love. Though in controversy he took and gave many shrewd blows, he always received them with a courtesy, indicative not of mere policy or literary tact, but of dislike to inflicting pain and of incapacity for hating any tolerably decent antagonist in flesh and blood. He was on excellent terms with the classes whose foibles he ridiculed most unsparingly, and even his own foibles were attractive. He had his vanity; but vanity is a quality to which moralists have never done justice. As distinguished from conceit, from a sullen conviction of your own superiority, it often implies a craving for sympathy and a confidence in the sincerity of your fellows, which is in the main, as his certainly was, an amiable and attractive characteristic. If it just savoured of intellectual coxcombry, it was redeemed by a simplicity and social amenity which showed that his nature had resisted the ossifying process which makes most of us commonplace and prosaic in later life. Now, I dislike criticism of men whose personal acquaintance I have valued. 'I love Robertson,' said Johnson, 'and I won't talk of his books.' I feel the same, in a rather different sense, about Arnold. It is difficult to reconcile the claims of honest criticism and personal esteem. But, besides this, I have a difficulty to which I must refer at the risk of giving an impression of mock-modesty. I feel, that is, the great difficulty of speaking to purpose of a man whose intellectual type was so different from my own. Had Arnold been called upon to pronounce judgment upon me, he must, however reluctantly, have set me down as a Philistine. It is a word which I dislike; but I cannot deny that, in his phraseology, it would be indisputably appropriate. Arnold was a typical Oxford man in the days when Oxford was stirred by the 'movement' of which it is supposed to be proper to speak respectfully. I was taught in my childhood to regard 'Puseyism' and 'Tractarianism' with a vague shuddering horror; and, as I grew older, I am afraid that the horror only became milder as it was mixed with something too like contempt. The young leader whose opinions I assimilated in college days belonged to a different and more prosaic school. They scorned sentimentalism and aesthetic revivals, and, if they took any interest in speculative matters, read John Stuart John Stuart Mill, and were sound Utilitarians and orthodox Political Economists. A hard-headed senior wrangler is in his own conceit a superior being to a flighty double first-class man. But perhaps his solid conviction that he was in the right path made him rather unfitted to judge of the sister University. He thought her impulsive, ill-balanced, too easily hurried into the pursuit of all kinds of theological, philosophical, and literary chimeras; and therefore was unjust to her substantial merits and even to the intellectual impulse which, with all its vagaries, was yet better than stagnation. After all, I am probably only trying to hint at the fundamental difference between the poetic and the prosaic mind. We—for I may perhaps assume that some of you belong, like me, to the prosaic faction—feel, when dealing with such a man as Arnold, at a loss. He has intuitions where we have only calculations; he can strike out vivid pictures where we try laboriously to construct diagrams; he shows at once a type where our rough statistical and analytical tables fail to reveal more than a few tangible facts; he perceives the spirit and finer essence of an idea where it seems to slip through our coarser fingers, leaving only a residuum of sophistical paradox. In the long-run, the prosaic weigher and measurer has one advantage: he is generally in the right as far as he goes. His tests may be coarser, but they are more decisive and less dependent upon his own fancies; but, when he tries to understand his rival, to explain how at a bound the intuitive perception has reached conclusions after which he can only hobble on limping feet, he is apt to make a bungle of it: to despise the power in which he is so deficient: and probably to suggest unreasonable doubts as to its reality and value.
Here is, I feel, my real weakness in speaking of Arnold; for I may certainly say at once that Arnold, whatever else he was, was a genuine poet. I do not dispute the general opinion of the day that there were only two poets of the first rank in his generation. Arnold must, on the whole, take a lower place than Tennyson and Browning. But, though I cannot avoid falling into the method of comparison, I do not accept with satisfaction the apparently implied doctrine that poets can be satisfactorily arranged in order of merit. We cannot give so many marks for style and so many for pathos or descriptive power. It is best to look at each poet by himself. We need only distinguish between the sham and the genuine article; and my own method of distinguishing is a simple one. I believe in poetry which learns itself by heart. There are poems which dominate and haunt one; which, once admitted, sting and cling to one; the tune of which comes up and runs in one's head at odd moments; and which suddenly revive, after years of forgetfulness, as vigorous and lively as ever. Such poetry, as Wordsworth told Arnold, has the characteristic of being 'inevitable,'—a phrase which has become something of a nuisance, but cannot be always avoided. You feel that the thing had to be said just as it was said; and that, once so said, nothing said by anybody else will just hit the same mark. Of course, this test, being personal, is not conclusive. I remember, I am ashamed to say it, some poetry which I know to be trash, merely, I suppose, because it jingles pleasantly; and I forget a great deal which I know to be good because I can perceive that it dominates other people; but then I do my best to keep my tastes on such occasions to myself. Now, Matthew Arnold's poetry has, in an eminent degree, the quality—if not of inevitableness—of adhesiveness. I don't know whether my experience is peculiar; but I have never got out of my head, since I read it, the little poem about the Neckan, who sings his plaintive song on the Baltic headlands, or the charming verses—the last, I fancy, which he wrote—about the dachshund Geist, whose grave at Cobham should be a goal for all poetic pilgrims. In certain of his more laboured poems, I am conscious rather that I ought to admire than that I do admire. To my brutal mind, the recollection of the classical models is a source of annoyance, as suggesting that the scholar is in danger of suppressing the man. But there are other poems which I love, if not because of, at any rate in spite of, the classical propensities which they reveal. 'Sohrab and Rustum' is to me among the most delightful of modern poems, though in it Arnold indulges, perhaps more than enough, in the long-tailed Homeric metaphor, which drags in upon principle all the points on which the thing compared does not resemble the object. I can always read 'Tristram and Iseult,' and the 'Church of Brou' and 'Empedocles on Etna'; and know that they leave behind them a sense of sweetness and delicacy and exquisite feeling, if they do not present those vivid phrases into which the very greatest men—the Dantes or Shakespeares—can infuse their very life-blood. In his Essays upon Celtic Literature—perhaps the most delightful of his books—Arnold says that English poetry derived three things mainly from Celtic sources: its turn for style, its turn for melancholy, and its turn for natural magic. The distinction is indicated with admirable fineness; and my perceptions are not quite fine enough to follow it. Keats, Arnold is able to perceive, is looking at nature like a Greek when he asks
What little town by river or seashore
but becomes Celtic when he speaks of
Magic casements, opening on the foam
Possibly: but I am shy of endeavouring to discriminate these exquisite essences, and I will not attempt to say whether it is the power of style or of magic, whether it is the presence of a Greek or a Celtic mode of looking at nature, that charms us in what is perhaps Arnold's masterpiece, the 'Scholar Gipsy,' Whether the exquisite concluding stanzas, for example, be an instance of the Greek or of the Celtic element, I know not; but I am quite sure that they are delightful. At his best Arnold reaches a felicity of style in which Tennyson alone, of all our modern poets, if Tennyson himself, was his superior. The comparison, much as I dislike comparisons, may suggest at least the question why Arnold's popularity is still, as I think it is, below his deserts. One answer is obvious. I cannot doubt that Arnold fully appreciated the greatest of contemporary artists. But certain references to Tennyson in his essays are significant. Arnold incidentally quotes Tennyson's 'great, broad-shouldered, genial Englishman,' by way of illustrating his favourite proposition that this broad-shouldered personage was a 'barbarian,' and conspicuous for insensibility to ideas. He refers with a certain scorn to the self-complacency implied in the phrase about freedom broadening slowly down from precedent to precedent. Though Arnold does not criticise the poetry, he evidently felt—what, to say the truth, I think must be admitted—that Tennyson interpreted the average—shall I say, the Philistine or the commonplace English sentiment?—a little too faithfully; but it may be inferred—though Arnold does not draw the inference–– that the extraordinary popularity of Tennyson was partly owing to the fact that he could express what occurred to everybody in language that could be approached by nobody. Arnold, on the contrary, is, in all his poems, writing for the cultivated, and even for a small class of cultivated people. The ideas which he expresses are not only such as do not commend themselves, but sometimes such as are rather annoying, to the average reader. The sentiments peculiar to a narrow, however refined, class are obviously so far less favourable to poetical treatment. Arnold seems to admit this in his occasional employment of that rhymeless metre which corresponds to the borderland between prose and poetry. A characteristic piece is that upon 'Heine's Grave.' We all remember the description of England, the 'Weary Titan,' who with deaf
Ears, and labour-dimmed eyes,
and a phrase which tells us how the spirit of the world, beholding men's absurdity, let a sardonic smile
For one short moment wander o'er his lips—
That, of course, is rather epigram than poetry. It matters, indeed, very little whether we call it by one name or another, so long as we allow it to be effective. But writing of this kind, call it poetry or prose, or a hybrid genus, in which the critic shows through the poet, is not likely to suit the popular mind. It presupposes a whole set of reflections which are the property of a special class. And the same may be said of the particular mood which is specially characteristic of Arnold. In the 'Scholar Gipsy' he laments 'the strange disease of modern life.'
With its sick hurry, its divided aims;
speaks of us 'light half-believers of our casual creeds'; tells how the wisest of us takes dejectedly 'his seat upon the intellectual throne,' and lays bare his sad experience of wretched days, and 'all his hourly varied anodynes'; while we, who are not the wisest, can only pine, wish that the long, unhappy dream would end, and keep as our only friend 'sad patience, too near neighbour to despair.' This note jars upon some people, who prefer, perhaps, the mild resignation of the 'Christian Year.' I fail of sympathy for the opposite reason. I cannot affect to share Arnold's discomfort. I have never been able—doubtless it is a defect—to sympathise with the Obermanns and Amiels whom Arnold admired; excellent but surely effeminate persons, who taste of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, and finding the taste bitter, go on making wry faces over it all their lives; and, admitting with one party that the old creeds are doomed, assert with the other that all beauty must die with them. The universe is open to a great many criticisms; there is plenty of cause for tears and for melancholy; and great poets in all ages have, because they were great poets, given utterance to the sorrows of their race. But I don't feel disposed to grumble at the abundance of interesting topics or the advance of scientific knowledge, because some inconveniences result from both. I say all this simply as explaining why the vulgar—including myself—fail to appreciate these musical moans over spilt milk, which represent rather a particular eddy in an intellectual revolution than the deeper and more permanent emotions of human nature. But I do not mean to depreciate Arnold's power; only to suggest reasons for the want of a wider recognition. The 'Scholar Gipsy,' for example, expresses in certain passages sentiment which I must call morbid, but for all that, even for me, it remains one of the most exquisite poems in the language.
This leads me to another point. In his essay upon Joubert (Essays in Criticism, p. 249), Arnold spoke of literature as a 'criticism of life.' Elsewhere (Introduction to Mr. H. Ward's Collection of Poems) he gave the same account of poetry. But to poetry, he says in the same breath, we shall have to turn for consolation, and it will replace much of 'what now passes with us for religion and philosophy.' If so, he obviously cannot mean that poetry and criticism are really the same thing. The phrase 'criticism of life' gave great offence, and was much ridiculed by some writers, who were apparently unable to distinguish between an epigram and a philosophical dogma. To them, indeed, Arnold's whole position was naturally abhorrent. For it is not uncommon now to hear denunciations of all attempts to connect art with morality and philosophy. It is wicked, we are told, for a poet, or a novelist, or a painter, to take any moral consideration into account; and therefore to talk of poetry as destined to do for us much that philosophy and religion used to do is, of course, manifestly absurd. I will not argue the point at length, being content to observe that the cry seems to me oddly superfluous. Of all the dangers to which modern novelists, for example, are exposed, that against which they are least required to guard is the danger of being too philosophical. They really may feel at their ease; nor do I think that they need feel much alarmed as to the risk of being too moral. Meanwhile, it is my belief that nobody is the better in any department of life or literature for being a fool or a brute: and least of all in poetry. I cannot think that a man is disqualified for poetry either by thinking more deeply than others or by having a keener perception of (I hope I may join the two words) moral beauty. A perception of what it is that makes a hero or saint is, I fancy, as necessary to a great literary artist as a perception of what it is that constitutes physical beauty to a painter. The whole doctrine, in short, seems to me to be a misstatement of the very undeniable and very ancient truth that it is a poet's business to present types, for example, and not to give bare psychological theory: not that he is the worse for being even a deep philosopher or a subtle logician; on the contrary, he is so far the better; but that he is the worse if he gives the abstract reasoning instead of incarnating his thought in concrete imagery. And so, when Arnold called poetry a criticism of life, he only meant to express what seems to me to be an undeniable truth. The Elgin marbles might, in his sense, be called a criticism of the physique of the sight-seers. To contrast their perfect forms and unapproachable grace with the knock-kneed, spindle-shanked, narrow-chested, round-shouldered product of London slums who passes before them, is to criticise the poor creature's defects of structure in the most effective way. In a similar sense, when a poet or a novelist presents us with a type, when Addison gives us a Roger de Coverley, or Goldsmith a Vicar of Wakefield, or Scott a Dandie Dinmont, or Thackeray a Colonel Newcome, or Dickens a Mr. Creakle (I chose this example of Dickens only because Arnold made use of it himself), they present us with ideal portraits which set off—more effectively than any deliberate analysis—the actual human beings known to us, who more or less represent similar classes. In his essay upon the 'Function of Criticism,' Arnold explained his lofty conception of the art, and showed why, in his sense of the word, it should be the main aim of all modern literature. 'Criticism,' he said, 'is the disinterested endeavour to learn and propagate the best that is known or thought in the world.' The difference between poetry and criticism is that one gives us the ideal and the other explains to us how it differs from the real. What is latent in the poet is made explicit in the critic. Arnold, himself, even when he turned to criticism, was primarily a poet. His judgments show greater skill in seizing characteristic aspects than in giving a logical analysis or a convincing proof. He goes by intuition, not by roundabout logical approaches. No recent English critic, I think, has approached him in the art of giving delicate portraits of literary leaders; he has spoken, for example, precisely the right word about Byron and Wordsworth. Many of us, who cannot rival him, may gain from Arnold's writings a higher conception of what will be our true function if we could discharge it. He did, I think, more than any man to impress upon his countrymen that the critic should not be a mere combatant in a series of faction fights, puffing friends, and saying to an enemy, ‘This will never do.' The weak side, however, of the poetical criticism is its tendency to be 'subjective,' that is, to reflect too strongly the personal prejudices of the author. It must virtually consist in giving the impression made upon the critic; and, however delicate his perception and wide his sympathy, he will be scarcely human if his judgments are not affected by his personal equation. No one could be more alive to the danger than Arnold, and his most characteristic teaching turns upon the mode of avoiding it. There are times, no doubt, when he relies too confidently upon the fineness of his perception, and then obviously has a slight spasm of diffidence. I have noticed how, in his Essays on Celtic Literature, he uses the true poetical or intuitive method: he recognises the precise point at which Shakespeare or Keats passes from the Greek to the Celtic note; he trusts to the fineness of his ear, like a musician who can detect the slightest discord. And we feel perhaps that a man who can decide, for example, an ethnological question by such means, who can by simple inspiration determine which are the Celtic and which are the Teutonic and which are the Norman elements in English character, is going a little beyond his tether. Arnold obviously feels so too. In the same book he speaks most respectfully of the opposite or prosaic method. Zeuss, the great Celtic scholar, is praised because he uses a scientific test to determine the age of documents. This test is that in Welsh and Irish the letters p and t gradually changed into b or d (as if the Celts had caught a cold in their head); that map became mab, and coet, coed. This, says Arnold, is a verifiable and scientific test. When Arnold is himself trying to distinguish the Celtic element in Englishmen, he starts by remarking that a Frenchman would speak of German bêtise, but of English gaucherie: the German is balourd, and the Englishman empêtré; and the German niais, while the Englishman is mélancolique. We can hardly say that the difference of meaning between balourd and empêtré is as clear as the difference of sound between t and d: and Arnold is, perhaps, too much inclined to trust to his intuitions, as if they were equivalent to scientific and measurable statements. The same tendency shows itself in his curious delight in discovering catch-words, and repeating them sometimes to weariness. He uses such phrases as 'sweetness and light' with a certain air of laying down a genuine scientific distinction, as clear-cut and unequivocal as a chemist's analysis. He feels that he has thoroughly analysed English characteristics when he has classified his countrymen as 'Philistines, Barbarians, and the Populace.' To fix a certain aspect of things by an appropriate phrase is the process which corresponded with him to a scientific analysis. But may not this method merely lead to the substitution of one set of prejudices for another; the prejudices, say, of the fastidious don for the prejudices of the coarser tradesman? The Frenchman who calls the Englishman empêré may be as narrow-minded as the Englishman who calls the Frenchman a frog-eater. Certainly, Arnold would reply. What we need is to make a stream of fresh thought play freely about our stock 'notions and habits.' We have to get out of an unfruitful and mechanical routine. Or, as he puts it in another way, his one qualification for teaching his countrymen is, he says, his belief in the 'primary needfulness of seeing things as they really are, and of the greater importance of ideas than of the machinery which exists for them.' That is, we want, above all things, to get rid of prejudices in general, not of any special prejudice; to have our opinions constructed out of pure, impartial, unbiassed thought, free from all baser alloy of mephitic vapours. The mere self-willed assertion of our own fancies can never lift us to the higher point of view which would reveal our narrowness and ignorance. Hence the vast importance of 'culture': the one thing needful; which, again, in another view, is equivalent to a frank submission of ourselves to the Zeitgeist. The Zeitgeist, indeed, is an entity not quite easy to define. But it at least supposes that genuine philosophy and scientific thought is a reality; that there is a real difference between the scholar and the charlatan; that criticism in a wide sense has achieved some permanent and definite results; and that, although many antiquated prejudices still survive and dominate us, especially in England, and constitute the whole mental furniture of the Philistine, they are doomed to decay, and those who hold by them doomed to perish with them. To recognise, therefore, the deep, underlying currents of thought, to get outside of the narrow limits of the popular prejudice, to steep our minds in the best thought of the past, and to be open to the really great thoughts of the present, is the one salvation for the race and for reasonable men; The English people, he often said, had entered the prison of Puritanism, and had the key turned upon their spirit for two centuries. To give them the key and to exhort them to use it was his great aim. Heine had called himself a 'brave soldier in the war of the liberation of humanity,' and Arnold took service in the same army. Only—and this was the doctrine upon which he laid emphasis—to fight effectually we must recognise the true leaders, those who really spoke with authority, and who were the true advanced guard in the march to the land of promise. Your individualist would only take off the fetters so as to allow a free fight among the prisoners. The prophet of culture alone can enable us to get free from the prison-house itself. His strong sense of the mischief of literary anarchy appeared in his once famous essay upon the French Academy. Though he guarded himself against recommending an English institution, he was fascinated by the charm of an acknowledged tribunal of good taste, an outward and visible symbol of right reason, of a body which, by its moral authority, should restrain men from those excesses and faults of taste into which even the greatest Englishmen are apt to fall, and which should keep distinctly before our minds the conviction that we only obtain worthy intellectual liberty when we recognise the necessity of subordination to the highest minds. To imbibe the teaching of the Zeitgeist, to know what is the true living thought of the age and who are its great men, is to accept a higher rule, and not merely (as he put it) to exchange the errors of Miall for the errors of Mill: to become a vulgar Freethinker instead of a vulgar Dissenter.
The doctrine of culture is, of course, in some sense the common property of all cultivated men. Carlyle, like Arnold, wished for an exit from Houndsditch and a relinquishment of Hebrew old clothes. But Arnold detested Carlyle's Puritanism, and was alienated by his sulphurous and volcanic explosiveness. Mill hated the tyranny of the majority, and, of course, rejected the Puritan theology. But Mill was a Benthamite, and Benthamism was the natural doctrine of the Philistine. Mill's theories would lead, though in spite of himself, to that consummation which Arnold most dreaded—the general dominion of the Commonplace: to the definitive imposition upon the world of the code of the Philistine. To define Arnold's point of view, we should have, I think, to consider what in our modern slang is called his environment. Any one who reads the life of his father will see how profound was the influence upon the son. 'Somewhere, surely, afar,' as he says in the lines in Rugby Chapel,
In the sounding labour-house vast
Some of the force, may one say, had passed into the younger man, though, he had lost something of the austere strength, and had gained much in delicacy, and certainly in a sense of humour curiously absent in the elder, as it is, I think, in most good men. Dr. Arnold shared the forebodings common at the period of the Reform Bill. The old dogged Conservatism of the George III. and Eldon type was doomed. But who was to profit by the victory? The Radicals, led by Bentham and James Mill? That meant confiscation and disestablishment in practice; and in theory, materialism or atheism. This was the 'liberalism' denounced and dreaded by Newman. But then, to Dr. Arnold, the Oxford Movement itself meant a revival of superstition and sacerdotalism. He held that there was a truer liberalism than Benthamism, a liberalism of which Coleridge expounded and suggested the philosophy: a doctrine which could reanimate the old creeds by exposing them to the light, and bring them into harmony with the best modern thought. The Church, neither plundered nor enslaved by superstition, might be lifted to a higher intellectual level, and become once more the great national organ of spiritual influence and development. Matthew Arnold always held to this aspiration. He hoped that the Church might open its doors to all dissenters—not only to Protestants, but even in course of time to Roman Catholics. He hated disestablishment, and even in the case of the Church of Ireland, condemned a measure which, though it removed an injustice, removed it at the cost of an alliance with the narrow dissenting prejudices. But the views of the young man were also modified by the fascination of the Newman school. Of Oxford he could never speak without enthusiasm, if he could not quite refrain from a touch of irony. 'Adorable dreamer!' he exclaims, 'whose heart has been so romantic! who has given thyself prodigally, given thyself to sides and to heroes not mine, only not to the Philistines! Home of lost causes and forsaken beliefs, and unpopular names and impossible loyalties!' Oxford, as he says elsewhere, had taught the truth that 'beauty and sweetness are essential characters of a complete human perfection.' Bad philosophies, another critic (I think Professor Flint) has said, when they die, go to Oxford. Arnold admitted the badness of the philosophies, but the beauty and sweetness, he would have added, are immortal. The effect, therefore, upon him was not to diminish his loyalty to philosophy; no one more hated all obscurantism: his belief in 'culture,' in the great achievements of scholarship, of science, of historical criticism, was part of his nature. He was not the man to propose to put back the hand of the dial, or to repel the intellectual ocean with the mop of an orthodox Mrs. Partington. But his keen appreciation of the beauty of the old ideals governed his thought. He even held that the Christianity of the future would be Catholicism, though Catholicism 'purged' and 'opening itself to the light,' 'conscious of its own poetry, freed from its sacerdotal despotism, and freed from its pseudo-scientific apparatus of superannuated dogma.' Meanwhile, his classical training and his delight in the clearness and symmetry of the great French writers affected his taste. He has told us how his youthful enthusiasm took him at one time to Paris, to spend two months in seeing Rachel's performances on the French stage, and at another, to visit George Sand in her country retirement. And then came the experience of his official career which made him familiar with the educational systems of France and Germany, and with the chaotic set of institutions which represented an educational system in England. The master-thought, he says, by which his politics were governed was the thought of the 'bad civilisation of the English middle-class.' This was, in fact, the really serious aim to which his whole literary activity in later life converged. Condemned to live and work among the middle-class, while imbued with the ideas in which they were most defective, loving, as he did, the beauty and freshness of Oxford, the logical clearness and belief in ideas of France, the devotion to scientific truth and philosophical thoroughness in Germany, the sight of the dogged British Philistine became to him a perpetual grievance. The middle-class, as he said in one of his favourite formulæ, has a ‘defective type of religion, a narrow range of intellect and knowledge, a stinted sense of beauty, and a low type of manners.’ Accordingly, the function which he took for himself was to be a thorn in the side of the Philistine: to pierce the animal's thick hide with taunts, delicate but barbed; to invent nicknames which might reveal to the creature his own absurdity; to fasten upon expressions characteristic of the blatant arrogance and complacent ineffable self-conceit of the vulgar John Bull, and repeat them till even Bull might be induced to blush. Somebody's unlucky statement that the English was the best breed in the world; the motto about the 'dissidence of dissent and the Protestantism of the Protestant religion '; the notice of Wragg–– the woman who was taken up for child-murder; the assertion of The Saturday Review that we were the most logical people in the world; the roarings of the 'young lions of The Daily Telegraph,' and their like, which covered our impotence in European wars; the truss-manufactory which ornamented the finest site in Europe: upon these and other texts he harped—perhaps with a little too much repetition—in the hope of bringing to us some sense of our defects. I must confess that, as a good Philistine, I often felt, and hope I profited by the feeling, that he had pierced me to the quick, and I submitted to his castigations as I have had to submit to the probings of a dentist—I knew they were for my good. And I often wished, I must also confess, that I too had a little sweetness and light that I might be able to say such nasty things of my enemies. We who were young radicals in the days when Arminius von Thunder-Ten Tronckh was writing to The Pall Mall Gazette, tried to retort by calling him a mere dandy, a kid-gloved Oxford coxcomb, who was thinking that revolutions could be made with rosewater. I can see now that we did not do justice to the real seriousness of his purpose. You do not, we said sometimes, propose any practical measure. He replied fairly enough that it was not his business, nor the business of philosophers and poets generally, to mix in actual politics and draft Acts of Parliament. They had to modify ideas. He might have added that in his own sphere, he had made very practical criticisms upon our educational system; and had, for example, pointed out the defects of English secondary education with a clearness which is only now beginning to have some recognition from practical politicians. But it was no doubt his conviction that his countrymen required less a change of machinery than an intellectual change. What is indispensable, he said, is that we should not only do to Ireland something different, but that we should be something different, A writer, however great a thinker and artist, who deliberately proposes to change the character of his countrymen, is undoubtedly undertaking a superhuman task. If Philistinism be really part of our character we shall be Philistines to the end, let our Carlyles and Newmans or Mills and Arnolds preach never so wisely and never so frequently. And yet their preaching ís not the less useful: more useful, perhaps, than that of the politicians who boast of keeping to the practical and confine their energies to promoting such measures as are likely to catch votes at the next election. 'To see things as they really are': that, he said, was his great aim; and it is clearly a good one. And what is the great obstacle to seeing things as they really are? The great obstacle is, I take it, that we are ourselves part of the things to be seen; and that there is an ancient and proverbial difficulty about seeing ourselves. When certain prejudices have become parts of our mental furniture, when our primary data and our methods of reasoning imply a set of local narrow assumptions, the task of getting outside them is almost the task of getting outside of our own skins. Our pigtails, as the poet observes, persist in hanging behind us in spite of all our circumgyrations. The greatness of a thinker is measured by the width of his intellectual horizon, or by the height to which he can rise above the plane of ordinary thought. Arnold's free play of thought implies the process by which he hoped to achieve liberation for himself. Be yourself cultured, and your eyes will be opened to the ugliness of the Philistines. To be cultured, widen your intellectual horizon, and steep yourself in the best thought of all ages and all civilised men. If Arnold trusted a little too much to the aesthetic perceptions thus generated, he succeeded, I think, in reaching a position from which he both discerned and portrayed most clearly some palpable blots. Such a service is a great one, whatever the accuracy of the judgment. It is good to breathe a new atmosphere if only for a space. I have more respect than he had for the masculine common-sense of Macaulay—the great apostle, as Arnold called him, of the Philistines—but, after Macaulay's unhesitating utterances of the old Whig creed, which to him was an ultimate and infallible gospel, Arnold's utterances lift us at once to a higher point of view. When one attempts, under Arnold's guidance, to assign to the Whig his proper place in European history, and to see how far he is from fully representing the ultimate verdict of philosophy, whatever our political creed–– and mine is very different from Arnold's—he really helps us to cure the mind's eye of the cataract of dogged prejudice, of whose very existence we were unconscious.
His position was, no doubt, one which we may call unpractical. He was a democrat in one sense: for aristocracy was unfavourable to ideas, and the Zeitgeist has condemned the system. Inequality, as he said in a remarkable essay, 'materialises our upper classes, vulgarises our middle classes, brutalises our lower classes.' He speaks as one shocked, not less in his moral than in his æsthetic capacity, by the 'hardly human horror, the abjection and uncivilisedness' of the populace in Glasgow and the East of London. He held that the French Revolution, by promoting equality, had raised the lower classes of France to a marked superiority in civilisation above the corresponding class in England. Democracy, he admitted, might get too much of its own way in England. The remedy was to be sought in a stronger action of the central power. We have not, he complains, the notion, so familiar on the Continent and to antiquity, of the State; and the English hatred of all authority has tended to make us drift towards mere anarchy. When Fawcett preached self-help, Arnold held that to exhort to self-help in England was to carry coals to Newcastle. It was the parrot-like repetition of old formulae that made our liberalism barren. Our danger was all the other way, the danger of exaggerating the blessings of self-will and self-assertion. I do not quote Arnold's view to show that he was right, or to claim foresight for his predictions. I doubt, for example, whether any one would say now that we hear too much of self-help, or that there is no danger on the opposite side, or whether Arnold himself would have been attracted by State Socialism He was, indeed, deliberately in the habit of giving one side of a question without caring to add even the corrections of which he himself approved. That is natural in a man who wishes to stimulate thought, rather than to preach any definite practical conclusion. I only urge that there was a real and very rare merit in such a position taken by a man of so much insight. The effort to see English life and society and thought, as a German professor or a French politician might see it, to get outside of the prejudices which are part of ourselves, is itself a most useful experience. And when such criticism is carried on with a singular fulness of perception, with pungent flashes of sarcasm, but with a power of speaking truths as undeniable as they are unpleasant, and yet with so much true urbanity—in spite of certain little defects, when he seems to be rather forcing himself to be humorous, and becomes liable to an accusation of flippancy—in such a case, I say that we owe the deepest gratitude to our critic. His criticism is anything but final, but it is to be taken into account by every man who believes in the importance of really civilising the coming world. How the huge, all-devouring monster which we call Democracy is to be dealt with: how he is to be coaxed or lectured or preached into taking as large a dose as possible of culture, of respect for true science and genuine thought, is really one of the most pressing of problems. Some look on with despair, doubting only by whatever particular process we shall be crushed into a dead level of monotonous mediocrity. I do not suppose that Arnold or any one else could give any solution of the great problems; what he could do, and did, I think, more effectually than any one, was to wake us out of our dull complacency—to help to break through the stolid crust, whatever seeds may be sown by other hands. Perhaps this explains why he is read in America, where the Philistine is a very conspicuous phenomenon and the ugly side of middle-class mediocrity is even more prominent than here.
I have reserved to the last, in order that I may pass lightly, the point which to Arnold himself doubtless appeared to be the most important part of his teaching—I mean, of course, the criticism of religion, to which he devoted his last writings. In his last books, Arnold preached a doctrine which will hardly find many followers. He seemed even to be taking pains to get into a position scarcely intelligible to people who take things practically. He poses, one may say, as a literary critic; he disavows all logical system, and declares almost ostentatiously that he is no metaphysician; but his apparent conclusion is, not that he is incompetent to speak of philosophy, but that philosophy is mere pedantry, so far as it is not poetry in disguise. The organ by which we are to discover religious truth does not employ the prosaic method of examining evidence, nor the logical method of à priori reasoning; but that free play of thought which is our guide in letters: the judgment, as he says, which insensibly forms itself in a fair mind, familiar with the best thoughts of the world. The prophet is inspired by the Zeitgeist, and judges by a cultivated instinct, not by systematic argument. The rather airy mode of treating great problems which emerges is often bewildering to the ordinary mind. The orthodox may revolt against the easy confidence with which the Zeitgeist puts aside 'miracles' and the supernatural,—not as disproved, but as obviously not worth the trouble of disproving. The agnostic is amazed to find that Arnold, while treating all theological dogma as exploded rubbish, expatiates upon the supreme value of the sublimated essence of theology. God, Arnold tells us, is not a term of science, but a term of poetry and eloquence—a term 'thrown out' at a not fully grasped object of consciousness—a literary term, in short–– with various indefinite meanings for different people. The 'magnified and non-natural man' of whom theologians speak is to be superseded by the 'stream of tendency' or the 'not ourselves which makes for righteousness'; and, in expressing his contempt for the vulgar conceptions, he perhaps sometimes forgot his usual good taste, as in the famous reference to the three Lords Shaftesbury. Such phrases might be taken for the scoffing which he condemned in others. I glanced the other day at a satirical novel, in which the writer asks whether an old Irishwoman is to say, instead of 'God bless you,' 'the stream of tendency bless you.' I then opened the preface to Arnold's God and the Bible and found him making a similar criticism upon Mr. Herbert Spencer. Nobody, he observes, would say, 'The unknowable is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.'
Arnold's answer to his critic would, in fact, have been that he never proposed that the old Irishwoman should give up her form of expression. He professed to be simply explaining her real meaning. He apparently thought, as I have said, that a modified form of Catholicism would be the religion of the future; the modification amounting to this, that it would only profess to be poetry instead of science, and giving symbols 'thrown out' at truth, not dogmas with the validity of theorems in geometry. He argued not only that the Hebrew religion itself is to be taken by us in the poetical sense, but that by the prophets themselves it was never understood differently. So the text which says that 'Man must be born of a spirit' means only that man must be born of an influence; and, moreover, never meant anything more. This was the original sense of the first utterance, which was only twisted into pseudo-science by later dogmatists. It follows that orthodox theology is an 'immense misunderstanding of the Bible'—a misunderstanding because it takes poetry for prose. By clearing away the accretions we see that the Bible is to be read throughout in this sense; and therefore that, to restore its true value, we are not to throw it aside, but to take it as the original authors meant us to take it.
The weakness of the poetic or imaginative treatment is the tendency to confound a judgment of beauty with a judgment of fact. A creed is so charming or so morally stimulating that it must be true. Arnold did not accept this way of putting it. He had too genuine a respect for the daylight of the understanding, too much hearty loyalty to the Zeitgeist and scientific thought to accept a principle which would lead to simple reaction and recrudescence of superstition. He unequivocally accepts the results obtained by German critics, heavy-eyed and pedantic as they may sometimes be, for he believes with all his heart in thorough, unflinching, scholar-like research. He will not shut his eyes or mistake mere æsthetic pleasure for logical conviction. But, he argues, the essence of the creed is precisely its moral beauty; the power with which it expresses certain ethical truths—its grasp of the doctrine (to quote his favourite, though I cannot think very fortunate, formula) that conduct is three-fourths of life, that it is the essence of the religion, or rather, is itself the religion; and that the whole framework of historical fact and ecclesiastical dogma is unimportant. We read Homer, he says, for our enjoyment, and to turn the book to our benefit. We should read the Bible in the same way. The truth of the Greek or Hebrew mythology and history is irrelevant. The true lights of the Christian Church, he says, are not Augustine and Luther or Bossuet, but à Kempis and Tauler and St. Francis of Sales; not, that is, the legislators or reformers or systematisers of dogma, but the mystics and pietists and men who have uttered the religious sentiment in the most perfect form. It is characteristic that in his book upon St. Paul, while dwelling enthusiastically upon the apostle's ethical teaching, he says nothing of the work which to St. Paul himself, as to most historians, must surely have seemed important, the freeing of Christian doctrine from fetters of Judaism; and treats the theological reasons by which St. Paul justified his position as mere surplusage or concessions to contemporary prejudice.
The problem here suggested is a very wide one. We may agree that the true value of a religion is in its ethical force. We may admit that the moral ideas embodied in its teaching are the only part which is valuable when we cease to believe in the history or the dogma; and that they still preserve a very high value. We may still be edified by Homer or by Æschylus, or by Socrates and Epictetus, though we accept not a word of their statements of fact or philosophy. But can the essence of a religion be thus preserved intact when its dogma and its historical assertions are denied? Could St. Paul have spread the Church of the Gentiles without the help of the theories which Arnold regarded as accretions? Would the beautiful spirit of the mystics have conquered the world as well as touched the hearts of a few hermits without the rigid framework of dogmas in which they were set and the great ecclesiastical organisation for which a definite dogmatic system was required? We may love the mystical writers, but, without the organisers of Churches and creeds, can we believe that they would even have made a church for the world? To set forth a great moral ideal is undoubtedly an enormous service. But the prosaic mind will ask, Is it enough to present us with ideals? Do we not also require statements of fact? It is all very well to say be good, and to say this and that is the real meaning of goodness; but to make men good, you have also got to tell them why they should be good, and to create a system of discipline and dogma for effectually stimulating their love of goodness.
I do not presume to discuss such a point here. I confine myself to saying that Arnold's solution of the difficulty not only shows admirable candour and courage, but may seem to correspond to the most probable goal of the modern evolution of thought. It often gives a singular impression to compare the apologists of orthodoxy in the present day with their predecessors of a past generation. The old divine used to prove the historical assertions of his creed by evidence and to demonstrate its dogmas by reasoning. He tried, at least, to 'confute' cavillers by argument. The modern apologist entirely changes the system. He admits that the evidence is inadequate, and that the dogmas, as formerly understood, were really false and repulsive. He accepts positions once supposed to be essentially sceptical. And yet, all the same, he ends by concluding that it does not matter. The sceptic was in the right; but in spite of this, believers are somehow justified. That strikes some people as dishonest, and the best excuse is that it is an approximation to Arnold's position. Agree fully and frankly that the value of a creed is not to be tested by its historical and philosophical validity; that it really belongs to the sphere of poetry and provides symbols for the emotions, not truths for the understanding; that, therefore, all the argumentation about 'evidences' and so forth is the application of a totally inappropriate test; and you certainly reach an intelligible position. It is moreover one to which the modern mind, with its growing indifference to the old controversies, its apparently unaltered, if not growing, conviction that some religion is necessary, combined with the conviction that one set of dogmas is about as good as another, may seem to be approximating. The Churches would escape a good many difficulties, and apologists a good deal of trouble, in connecting their with their conclusions, if they could boldly follow Arnold and say that they do not appeal to the reason but to the imagination. Leave out the awkward words 'I believe'; or substitute, 'I feign for purposes of edification,' and all would go right. Unity must be sought, not by the triumph of one set of dogmas, but all equally absolute, but by giving up dogma, or treating it as essentially poetry, and admitting that to take it as a prosaic statement of fact always is and always has been a blunder. It is true that the prosaic person has a difficulty in accepting this position. He will not admit that a religion is good for anything when it abandons its ancient claims to give genuine knowledge as well as providing modes of utterance of our sentiments. The questions which arise are those which upon Arnold's method seem to be passed over. It is his indifference to them which gives sometimes the very erroneous impression of a want of seriousness. Arnold was undeniably and profoundly in earnest, though he seems scarcely to have realised the degree in which, to ordinary minds, he seemed to be offering not stones, but mere vapour when asked for bread. He felt that he was occupied with the most serious of problems, and he saw at least some of the conditions of successful treatment. On all sides his loyalty to culture (the word has been a little spoilt of late), his genuine and hearty appreciation of scholarship and scientific thought, his longing to set himself in the great current of intellectual progress, are always attractive, and are the more marked because of his appreciation (his excessive appreciation, may I say?) of the 'sweetness,' if not the light, of the Oxford Movement. If, indeed, his appreciation was excessive, I am conscious, I hope, of the value of the doctrine which led him. We ought, he says, to have an 'infinite tenderness' for the popular science of religion. It is 'the spontaneous work of nature, the travail of the human mind, to adapt to its grasp and employment great ideas of which it feels the attraction.' I feel the truth of this teaching more, I fear, than I have acted upon it. I belong, as I have said, to the prosaic class of mankind. We ought to catch at least something of Arnold's spirit, so far as to admit, at least, that the great problem is to reconcile unflinching loyalty to truth with tenderness 'infinite,' if possible, for the errors which are but a grasping after truth. If Arnold combined the two tendencies in a fashion of his own, he set a most valuable example, even to those who cannot think his method successful. He said of a great contemporary that he was always beating the bush without starting the hare, I am under the impression that Arnold, if he started the hare, did not quite catch it. But beating the bushes is an essential preliminary. He stirred and agitated many brains which could not be reached by sober argument or by coarser invective, and he applied good wholesome irritants to our stolid self-satisfaction. When one remarks how little is left of most philosophers in the way of positive result, and yet remembers gratefully the service they have done in the way of stimulus to thought, one may feel grateful to a man who, while renouncing all claims to be a philosopher, did more than most philosophers to rouse us to new perception of our needs and was one of the most effective agents in breaking up old crusts of prejudice.
Putting on a mask, sometimes of levity, sometimes of mere literary dandyism, with an irony which sometimes is a little too elaborate, but which often expresses the keenest intelligence trying to pass itself off as simplicity, he was a skirmisher, but a skirmisher who did more than most heavily-armed warriors, against the vast oppressive reign of stupidity and prejudice. He made the old dragon Philistinism (to use his phrase) wince at times, and showed the ugliness and clumsiness of the creature; and after all he did it in a spirit as of one who recognised the monster was after all a most kindly monster at bottom. He may be enlisted in useful service if you can only apply the goad successfully, and made effective, in his ponderous way, like the Carthaginian elephants, if only you can mount his neck and goad him in the right direction. No single arm is sufficient for such a task; the dragon shakes himself and goes to sleep again in a stertorous and rather less complacent fashion, let us hope; and we feel that the struggle will too probably endure till we have ceased to be personally interested.
I cannot, indeed, get it out of my head that we slow-footed and prosaic persons sometimes make our ground surer; and that, for example, poor Bishop Colenso, whom Arnold ridiculed as the typical Philistine critic, did some good service with his prosaic arithmetic. There are cases in which the four rules are better than the finest critical insight. But there is room for poets as well as for arithmeticians; and Arnold, as at once poet and critic, has the special gift—if I may trust my own experience—of making one feel silly and tasteless when one has uttered a narrow-minded, crude, or ungenerous sentiment; and I dip into his writings to receive a shock, unpleasant at times, but excellent in its effects as an intellectual tonic.
- A lecture delivered at the Owens College, Manchester, 13th November 1893.
- Culture and Anarchy (1893), p. 121.
- St. Paul and Protestantism (1870), p. 70.
- Essays on Criticism, p. 70.
- Culture and Anarchy, p. 23.
- St. Paul and Protestantism.
- Essays on Criticism, p. xvii.
- Culture and Anarchy, p. 23.
- Mixed Essays, p. 121.
- Irish Essays, p. 151.
- Ibid. p. 17.
- Mixed Essays, p. 167.
- Preface to Irish Essays.
- Irish Essays, p. 91.
- Culture and Anarchy, p. 36.
- Irish Essays, p. 96.
- Literature and Dogma, p. 12.
- God and the Bible, p. 99.
- Literature and Dogma, p. 290.
- Literature and Dogma, p. 303.