Matthew Arnold (Coates, 1909)

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
For works with similar titles, see Matthew Arnold.

IT has been said that everything that is best in the life of the England of to-day may be traced back to Arnold of Rugby, so potent was the educational influence of the great Head Master upon the generations that followed him. Yet by none has that influence been more profoundly felt than by his own immediate descendants, many of whom have risen to eminent distinction. His eldest son, Matthew, described after his death, in noble lines, as the "great son of a good father,"—quick to appreciate merit of a different kind from his own,—held that father's memory in profoundest reverence, refusing the title of Doctor, even when Professor of Poetry at Oxford. To those who later so addressed him he would gently demur: "Mr. Arnold,—there can be but one Dr. Arnold." In his lines on "Rugby Chapel," he has paid loving and imperishable tribute to that strong soul who "would not alone be saved, would not alone conquer and come to its goal."

Dr. Arnold, who had little of his son's sense of humor, died early and, as has been pointed out, before he fully appreciated the merits of his eldest son. Vatic and somewhat austere, there is a characteristic story that when Matthew, a mere lad, burst into the room where Dr. Arnold sat at Rugby, and cried with boyish enthusiasm: "Father, I've won the Balliol Scholarship!" (he was the youngest man who had ever achieved it) the father sternly replied: "Well, then, you didn't deserve it." One supposes the unsympathetic judgment to have resulted from an opinion that the privilege had been gained rather through talent than by industry.

In 1845, being elected a fellow of Oriel, the Common Room of which had for a long time been the most distinguished in Oxford, he found there Clough, whom he so admirably celebrated, and Lord Coleridge, who so admirably celebrated him, "in language which," adds Sir Mountstuart E. Grant Duff, "it would be an impertinence to praise." It is agreed that Arnold wrote of Oxford the noblest praise she has inspired in prose; and his, also, is the most exquisite tribute ever paid to her in verse:

Sweet city with her dreaming spires,—
She needs not June for beauty's heightening!

To one who knew Matthew Arnold at any period of his life, it is easy to recognize the description which Principal Shairp of St. Andrews gives of him in his early Oxford days, the gifted and winning youth with jaunty air and gay, from whose lips, as we listen, we seem to hear "great words of Goethe, catch of Béranger,"—for the genial current of his youth was never frozen, no; not to the last glad beautiful hour of his unselfish and laborious life. Sparkling and pellucid it flowed through all his days, for the refreshment and delight of those about him. Possessed always of quiet force and fastidious taste, sweet reasonableness was so truly his method, that those, even, whom in argument or controversy he opposed (contending earnestly for what he believed to be right), found it difficult to quarrel with one so persuasive and so amusing, or wholly to resist his charm. The sweetness and light which in later years he ceased not to advocate, were of no one more characteristic than of himself,—whose prayer it was that he might be given "the will neither to strive nor cry, and the power to feel for others;" so that, while the most convinced of men, his temper for debate was conceded to be well nigh perfect.

In speaking of him after his death, the Archbishop of Canterbury said that no one could know him without loving him; "he was so kind, so thoroughly and so invariably sweet. He seemed to be a man who could never quarrel; and," he adds, "his powers of mind, too, were singularly great."

Says an eminent English writer: "No one ever possessed the charm of manner in higher perfection than Matthew Arnold, and nowhere was he so charming as in the bosom of his family."

He and his brother Thomas,—the father of Mrs. Humphry Ward,—were warmly attached, having been playfellows, a year apart in age. In an article published in the Manchester Guardian, and entitled "Matthew Arnold by One Who Knew Him Well," Thomas Arnold, a man distinguished as one of the more important of those who followed Newman into the Church of Homo, thus writes of his brother:

When we survey the wide field over which ranged the powerful mind of him whom we have lost,—the poetry of every age, classical literature, the philosophy of the Graco-Roman and Christian worlds, all that is best in modern literature, besides the special knowledge of education and its methods which his calling required,—and then consider that more than forty years ago, when he was but twenty-four years old, this man knew that he was, in a certain sense, doomed,—the spectacle of his unflagging energy all these years, of his cheerfulness, his hopefulness, his unselfish helpfulness, his tender sympathy with all the honest weak, and all the struggling good, seems to bring before us one of the most pathetic and beautiful pictures that modern life affords.

Like Stevenson, visibly touched by the finger of doom,—knowing well for many years that death might come at any moment,—he maintained the lucidity of mind and largeness of temper which he so prized in others; but, as he wrote of Falkland, so it may be said of him, "Whosoever leads such a life, needs be the less anxious upon how short warning it is taken from him."

In referring to the poems of 1867, the Rev. Stopford A. Brooke writes: "The high emotion and thought of a heart worn more by sorrow for the world than by its own pain, fills these verses to the brim. He worked with deep anxiety to help the world forward to clearer views of life. ... He took his share in the daily drudgery of the world, and brought to it sweetness and light. He cared for the beauty of the natural world, but he cared far more for the landscape of the soul of man." In writing of the Obermann poems, says Dr. Brooke: "I may dwell here on their charm—charm of grave thought, ranging far and wide, charm of word and phrase, and charm of natural description. The very atmosphere of that lovely land where so many hearts have been healed—the flower-haunted meadows, the shimmering lake below, the blue hills, the far-off snows—is in the loving verse; and it is mingled with the soul of Arnold and Obermann, till each mountain slope and every flower upon it, and the waves of the lake as they break on the shore, are of men, and through men, and in men. . . . Beyond the elegiac cry is the greater cry of humanity!"

These illuminating judgments and tributes of impressive beauty are not unworthy of one who, as Dr. Brooke declares, "has his own district chair in the general assembly and church of the first-born of England."

That Arnold's poetry has a note of pathos—that it is often poignantly sad—none will deny; otherwise, it could hardly be so exquisite,—for, as Shelley reminds us, Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought,[1] and "the poet expressing pain as well as pleasure, becomes at one with all who feel pain. Conscious then of his brotherhood with man,—and far more conscious of it than by sympathy only with man's pleasure,—strength and passion flow into his poetry."

Shall we quarrel with our sublimities for being sad—with the (Edipus, the Prometheus, Lear, Othello, Laodamia, The Sick King in Bokhara, The Ring and the Book? No; nor need we of necessity attribute to their authors any peculiar personal despondency. The exceeding sadness is part of the charm, and we are grateful for the depth and power of the emotions such poems excite,—for their lasting hold upon the imagination and the heart, for their purifying and uplifting influence.

"All men of genius," says Aristotle, "are of a nature originally melancholy." This judgment may have applied to Arnold, but, if so, lie had not only conquered for himself hope and cheerfulness, but that charming gaiety which makes Birrell declare that, wherever he chanced to be, he always conspired and contrived to make things pleasant. Yet Arnold had in certain directions cause sufficient for sadness and despondency. "The best the State ever did for him," said the London Times in an able obituary article in April, 1888, "was to set the poet, the thinker, the analyst of beauty, the subtle theorist, to the task of examining national school-children in spelling, rules of arithmetic, and plain sewing. He never repined, though he saw thousands of his inferiors glorified by State and church. He trained himself with singlemindedness and purity unsullied by self-interest to see things as they really were, and to do the really right thing."

Matthew Arnold stands for many things. Versatile and complex beyond the great majority of men, he is not to be summed up in a phrase.

There was the Arnold to whom Bishop Butler and Bishop Wilson so strongly appealed—the Arnold of Culture and Anarchy, Literature and Dogma, St. Paul and Protestantism,—books revealing what John Morley called "Arnold's courageous piety." There was the Arnold referred to by Senator Hoar of Massachusetts when he said to the present writer: "I have often thought that had the Almighty given me a choice as to the mind I would prefer to possess, I should have chosen the kind of mind that wrote the essays On Translating Homer." There was the Arnold of whom it is said: "Criticism before him was one thing: after him it is another thing." There was the Arnold of Friendship's Garland, the Preface to the Essays in Criticism, and numberless scattered witticisms equal to any in the language. There was the Arnold of East London, the Stanzas in Memory of Edward Quillinan, The Forsaken Merman, the Thyrsis, and that entire and perfect chrysolite The Sick King in Bokhara,—poems overflowing with the tenderest and loftiest human sympathy. There was the Arnold of the self-revealing Note-Books: and all of these were one,—more or less developed at different periods of life, but indissolubly united in him of whom Lord Chief-Justice Coleridge wrote: "I believe that a more blameless, nay, a more admirable man in every relation never lived. He was one of the noblest and most perfect characters I have ever known, and I have known him, man and boy, sixty years! At the time of his death, he was probably, all things considered, the most distinguished Man of Letters of the English-speaking world. . . . Few souls have ever passed away with more hopes of acceptance; few lives more unscathed have been lived from childhood to old age, few men have ever gone into that silent void where if there are no smiles, there are no tears, leaving behind them such passionate regrets, such daily, hourly desire for communion which the grave forbids."

Whence that completed form of all completeness,
Whence came that high perfection of all sweetness?

An answer to the question—if not the only answer—is to be found in the Note-Books—that unconscious evidence which he (who so desired that no biography of him might be written) has himself left us as to the quality of his thought and life. In those precious little volumes written in many tongues and designed for no eye but his own, we see what standards of perfection he kept before him—by what means he strengthened and enriched his spirit, insisting upon the importance of definite and constant labor—of work "that fills and moralizes the day." We find the Latin precept, Always set before yourself some definite aim, recurring oftener than any other; and the two main conditions of all good work, isolation and limitation, are continually insisted upon. "To disregard the transient and trivial, and to serve the eternal alone—it is strange to see with what persistency the poet braces himself up to that exacting standard. Time after time we find repeated the warnings not only against such bodily pleasures as blunt the soul, but against the casual interests that split and distract it. It is from the Note-Books we learn that that noble self-mastery, that equable temper, that invariable sweetness and exaltation of mind, which seems so a part of him, were not maintained without effort,—learn how constantly he chose to live in the spirit, desiring for himself before all things vivid insight and gentle emotions.

George Eliot declared that of all modern poetry Arnold's was that which kept constantly growing upon her; and it is possible that the reason those who care for his poetry at all find it difficult to care quite so much for any other, lies in the fact that no other English poet is so personally sympathetic. In the penetrating charm of his style, the rare and irresistible loveliness of his verse, the truth and delicacy of his intuitions, the freshness and glow, the distinction, the incommunicable magic of his poetical expression, he has no living peer. Using the words he wrote of another,—"Let us bid him farewell in confidence and pride. Slowly, very slowly, his ideal of lucidity of mind and largeness of temper conquers; but—it conquers."

I turned my face to the wall and wept,
   For they told me you were dead,
And I no longer loved the day
   From which your light had fled:
I thought you lost; but o'er the seas—
   O, deep—which us divide,
Your light, a beacon on a height,
Shines, through the dark to guide!


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1925.

The author died in 1927, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.