“It is a pity that the poet should be compelled to impart interest and force to his subject, instead of receiving them from it.” — poet and critic Matthew Arnold

“My poems represent, on the whole, the main movement of mind of the last quarter of a century, and thus they will probably have their day as people become conscious to themselves of what that movement of mind is, and interested in the literary productions which reflect it. It might be fairly urged that I have less poetical sentiment than Tennyson, and less intellectual vigor and abundance than Browning; yet, perhaps because I have more of a fusion of the two than either of them, and have regularly applied that fusion to the main line of modern development, I am likely enough to have my turn, as they have had theirs.” — Matthew Arnold, letter to his mother

If you have any inclination – as I do – of trying to educate yourself on the continuum of literature – like, who led to what, and who inspired who, and what outside forces created the literature of such-and-such an era – then in your reading you will encounter the words of Matthew Arnold. He was a poet, and his “Dover Beach” is anthologized, and his most famous poem, and the one we had to read in high school. But he was also a critic, an exacting and severe man, who dug into the works of his contemporaries, as well as the past masters, in order to understand and explain what it is they were doing. His comments are invaluable, even if you disagree with them.

Born on this day in 1822, Arnold came from an interesting background. He was not a member of the elite. His father was a headmaster at a school. (Arnold himself would go on to be Inspector of Schools, appointed in 1851). Like father, like son. A blessing and a curse. Arnold was very father-dominated, even more so after his father died. Arnold was ambitious. His dreams were huge. And, hell, with the space of time, one can say “Listen, you made it into the canon with ‘Dover Beach.’ Not too many people writing poetry today will still be read literally 150 years later.”

More about Matthew Arnold after the jump:


Unlike many other writers of his era, he had to work for a living. He worked in the school system, and saw first-hand the social and political implications of the rigid class structure. He was born disabled, and had to wear braces on his legs. He went to Balliol College at Oxford on a scholarship. Money was always a problem, and becoming inspector of schools gave him some stability – finally – and so he got married. All along, he was publishing poetry, often anonymously.

He was an incredible critic. He paid very very close attention to other poets. He was stringent and stark. He had issues with Chaucer, for example. He thought Robert Burns was far better. He was not afraid to “take on” the Great Names. He wrote odes to poets, to Wordsworth, to Byron. But in a way he could never reach the heights he dreamed for himself, he couldn’t “beat” Robert Browning or Tennyson (although I have to say “Dover Beach” is – in my mind – better than Browning/Tennyson put together). Browning and Tennyson were THE guys to “beat” in the 19th century. Arnold wrote books of cultural criticism, two major works in the mid-1860s, books which are still referenced all the time. Not too shabby, Arnold, not too shabby. I value his insights.

And “Dover Beach” is brilliant. The movement of it. It feels modern to me, as in “modernist.” Things are fracturing. The apocalypse is at hand. And that final stanza!

Dover Beach

The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.


Matthew Arnold, one of Shelley’s greatest champions:

[Shelley was] a beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating his wings in a luminous void in vain.

Robert Graves:

He was so capable, honest and humorless a monumental mason that he deserves more honour than most of his energetic and vainglorious contemporaries – the Brownings, Tennysons and Rossettis.

George Orwell, “New Words”, Feb-April 1940

In poetry one can point to words which, apart from their direct meanings, regularly convey certain ideas by their sound. Thus: “Deeper than did ever plummet sound” (Shakespeare–more than once I think). “Past the plunge of plummet” (A.E. Housman). “The unplumbed, salt, estranging sea” (Matthew Arnold) etc.

Matthew Arnold:

The uppermost idea with Hebraism is conduct and obedience.

Michael Schmidt, Lives of the Poets:

What sets him apart from his contemporaries is a sense that ideas matter, actions are to be judged by motive rather than effect. A hunger for order is part of his hunger for truth.

Matthew Arnold
By W.H. Auden

His gift knew what he was — a dark disordered city;
Doubt hid it from the father’s fond chastising sky;
Where once the mother-farms had glowed protectively,
Stood the haphazard alleys of the neighbours’ pity.

–Yet would have gladly lived in him and learned his ways,
And grown observant like a beggar, and become
Familiar with each square and boulevard and slum,
And found in the disorder a whole world to praise.

But all his homeless reverence, revolted, cried:
“I am my father’s forum and he shall be heard,
Nothing shall contradict the holy final word,
Nothing.” And thrust his gift in prison till it died,

And left him nothing but a jailor’s voice and face,
And all rang hollow but the clear denunciation
Of a gregarious optimistic generation
That saw itself already in a father’s place.

Matthew Arnold:

Wordsworth owed much to Burns, relying for effect solely on the weight and force of that which with entire fidelity he utters. Burns could show him.

George Orwell, Review of Barbarians and Philistines: Democracy and the Public Schools by T.C. Worsley, Time and Tide, September 14, 1940:

The title of this book is not intended as a denunciation. It refers to the distinction drawn by Matthew Arnold between the “barbarian” spirit of the old landed aristocracy and the “Philistine” spirit of the monied bourgeoisie, who progressively overwhelmed them from 1930 onwards…The new class who were coming into power naturally wanted a more civilized type of school than the Rugby described by Tom Hughes, and through the efforts of Dr. Arnold and other reformers they got it. But the aristocracy had by no means disappeared, they intermarried with the bourgeoisie and deeply influenced their view of life, and thew schools were modified in consequence. The “barbarous” element persisted in the hatred of intellectuality and the worship of games, which Arnold had certainly not foreseen or intended.

Michael Schmidt:

Arnold in his lyrics, elegies and poems of action is self-dissatisfied: with his poetry, his life, his society, his sense of time – a universalized pathos, a vision of the human condition in his century that combines the negative clarity of an Old Testament prophet with the manners of a classical patrician: resignation tempers vehemence. He sees things as they are and will be. In “Dover Beach,” the greatest single poem of the Victorian period, a moment of happiness regards itself in the context of history.

Matthew Arnold:

The English poetry of the first quarter of this century, with plenty of energy, plenty of creative force, did not know enough. This makes Byron so empty of matter, Shelley so incoherent, Wordsworth even, profound as he is, yet so wanting in completeness and variety.

T.S. Eliot:

In Culture and Anarchy, in Literature and Dogma, Arnold was not occupied so much in establishing a criticism as in attacking the uncritical.

Matthew Arnold on William Blake:

“…perfect sureness of hand”

Harold Bloom:

Whatever his achievement as a critic of literature, society, or religion, his work as a poet may not merit the reputation it has continued to hold in the twentieth century. Arnold is, at his best, a very good but highly derivative poet. As with Tennyson, Hopkins, and Rossetti, Arnold’s dominant precursor was Keats, but this is an unhappy puzzle, since Arnold (unlike the others) professed not to admire Keats greatly, while writing his own elegiac poems in a diction, meter, imagistic procedure, that are embarrassingly close to Keats.

Matthew Arnold on Shelley:

“…want of art, in his workmanship as a poet…”

George Orwell, “The Frontiers of Art and Propaganda”, Broadcast, April 20, 1941; The Listener, May 29, 1941

The mid-nineteenth century English writers were barbarians, even when they happened to be gifted artists, like Dickens. But in the later part of the century contact with Europe was re-established through Matthew Arnold, Pater, Oscar Wilde and various others, and the respect for form and technique in literature came back. It is from then that the notion of ‘art for art’s sake’ — a phrase very much out of fashion, but still, I think, the best available — really dates.

Robert Lowell, letter to Elizabeth Bishop, November 24, 1965:

The great Victorians for me are Tennyson, Browning, Lear, Fitzgerald, Arnold and Hopkins.

Matthew Arnold, letter to Arthur Clough:

Browning is a man with a moderate gift passionately desiring movement and fullness, and obtaining but a confused multitudinousness.

Christopher Hitchens, “Joyce in Bloom,” Vanity Fair, 2004:

The great Victorian Matthew Arnold thought that the true cultural balance was between Hellenism and Hebraism, or between the polytheistic, the philosophical, and the aesthetic and the spare, stern monotheism of the Old Testament. He also believed that poetry should replace religion as the source of ethics and morality.

John Cowper Powys:

With the possible exception of Merope, Matthew Arnold’s poetry is arresting from cover to cover – [He] is the great amateur of English poetry [he] always has the air of an ironic and urbane scholar chatting freely, perhaps a little indiscreetly, with his not very respectful pupils.

Matthew Arnold, on Robert Burns:

Of life and the world, as they came before him, his view is large, free, shrewd, benignant – truly poetic, therefore; and his manner of rendering what he sees is to match.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems in the English Language:

Matthew Arnold thought that this inevitability of great poetry could be clarified by the citation of “touchstones,” brief passages of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and Milton against which other poems could be tested. But Arnold deliberately chose to be imprecise when he spoke of his touchstones as possessing “a high poetic stamp of diction and movement.” That “movement” palpable is Arnold’s own trope, as “inevitability” is mine, and does not illumine the question of how great poetry is to be recognized. A contrast of the true sense of “inevitability”–the “unavoidable” as opposed to the invariable–may take us closer to answering the question than the Arnoldian reliance upon the “movement” of touchstones, though any quotation from great poetry is bound to be a kind of touchstone, however we intend it.

T.S. Eliot:

Arnold — I think it will be conceded — was rather a propagandist for criticism rather than a critic, a populariser rather than a creator of ideas.

Matthew Arnold in a letter to his mother, 1860:

The real truth is that Tennyson, with all his temperament and artistic skill, is deficient in intellectual power; and no modern poet can make very much of his business unless he is pre-eminently strong in this.

Michael Schmidt, Lives of the Poets:

He evolved a theory of the art so exacting that – except in “Sohrab and Rustum” – he could not live up to it himself. He undervalues lyric and elegy – modes natural to him – and stresses the importance of a suitable, large subject, preferably heroic

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems of the English Language

Arnold, long admired both for his poetry and for his literary criticism, was not particularly good at either. I am aware that mine is not a popular judgment, among scholars.

George Orwell, Review of Notes towards the Definition of Culture by T.S. Eliot; The Observer, November 28, 1948

And before writing off our own age as irrevocably damned, is it not worth remembering that Matthew Arnold and Swift and Shakespeare–to carry the story back only three centuries–were all equally certain that they lived in a period of decline?

Lytton Strachey:

Arnold breaks into melody only occasionally, but through all his verse runs the grave cadence of the speaking voice… His very colloquialism is one of Arnold’s charms; it is the urbanity of the ancient poets … which assumes the presence of a hearer and addresses him – with a resultant intimacy and simplicity of manner that is often very moving.

Matthew Arnold on Robert Burns’ “The Jolly Beggars”:

The piece is a superb poetic success. It has a breadth, truth, and power which are only matched by Shakespeare and Aristophanes.

Algernon Charles Swinburne:

The majesty and composure of thought and verse, the perfect clearness and competence of the words, distinguish this from other poetry of the intellect now more approved and applauded.

Matthew Arnold:

Wordsworth, Scott, and Keats have left admirable works; far more solid and complete works than those which Byron and Shelley left. But their works have this defect – they do not belong to that which is the main current of the literature of modern epochs, they do not apply modern ideas to life. They constitute, therefore, minor concerns… [Shelley and Byron will be remembered] long after the inadequacy of their actual work is clearly recognised, for their passionate, their Titanic effort to flow in the main stream of modern literature; their names will be greater than their writings.

And let’s end with Anthony Hecht’s fine parody called “Dover Bitch”. LOL. (Thank you, Jincy Willett for reminding me!)

The Dover Bitch
By Anthony Hecht

A Criticism of Life: for Andrews Wanning

So there stood Matthew Arnold and this girl
With the cliffs of England crumbling away behind them,
And he said to her, ‘Try to be true to me,
And I’ll do the same for you, for things are bad
All over, etc., etc.’
Well now, I knew this girl. It’s true she had read
Sophocles in a fairly good translation
And caught that bitter allusion to the sea,
But all the time he was talking she had in mind
The notion of what his whiskers would feel like
On the back of her neck. She told me later on
That after a while she got to looking out
At the lights across the channel, and really felt sad,
Thinking of all the wine and enormous beds
And blandishments in French and the perfumes.
And then she got really angry. To have been brought
All the way down from London, and then be addressed
As a sort of mournful cosmic last resort
Is really tough on a girl, and she was pretty.
Anyway, she watched him pace the room
And finger his watch-chain and seem to sweat a bit,
And then she said one or two unprintable things.
But you mustn’t judge her by that. What I mean to say is,
She’s really all right. I still see her once in a while
And she always treats me right. We have a drink
And I give her a good time, and perhaps it’s a year
Before I see her again, but there she is,
Running to fat, but dependable as they come.
And sometimes I bring her a bottle of Nuit d’ Amour.

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2 Responses to “It is a pity that the poet should be compelled to impart interest and force to his subject, instead of receiving them from it.” — poet and critic Matthew Arnold

  1. Great post! “Dover Beach” and the parody “The Dover Bitch” are two of my favorite poems.

    • sheila says:

      oh God how could I forget Dover Bitch?? I’ll have to add to the post – so funny – and also speaks to the original poem’s staying power! Thanks Jincy!

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