Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Critical Introduction by George Saintsbury
Matthew Arnold (18221888)
[Matthew Arnold was born at Laleham on 24th December 1822, and was educated at Winchester and Rugby (of which latter school his father had meanwhile become Head Master) until he obtained a scholarship at Balliol in 1840. He took the Newdigate in 1843, his degree next year, and an Oriel fellowship in 1845. Then he became private secretary to Lord Lansdowne for some years; but in 1851 married and was made Inspector of Schools, an appointment from which he only retired a short time before his death. His official work was from time to time varied by missions to report on foreign systems of education, which missions had no inconsiderable influence on some of his ideas: and in 1857 he was elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford. He had begun publishing verse very early, his first volume, The Strayed Reveller, having appeared in 1848 under the signature of A. only; and this was followed by others, new and collected. That of 1853 contained an exceedingly remarkable preface, which not only formulated the authors views on poetry, but showed him as master of a distinct and original style in prose. His further productions in verse (which were increased from time to time till at his death they amounted to a very considerable total) do not concern us here. But though the above-mentioned preface, with others, some official reports, his Lectures on Translating Homer (1861), and his scattered essays in periodicals had displayed his talents in the other harmony, it was not till the collection and publication in 1865, when he was forty-three years old, of his Essays in Criticism, that he made an indisputable mark as a prose writer. This volume had an almost immediate influence on students of literature in England, while the fascinating mannerism of its style attracted the general reader. Shortly afterwards Mr. Arnold began a series of prose works not so much in pure literature as in a sort of middle region between literature, religion, politics, and ethics in the widest sense. These covered about a decade from Culture and Anarchy 1869 (after the title of which as well as for other reasons the author was often nicknamed the Apostle of Culture,) through St. Paul and Protestantism (1870), Friendships Garland, a quaint satire on the English middle class (1871), Literature and Dogma (1873), to Last Essays on Church and Religion (1877). He then returned to more purely literary criticism, diverging from it, however, not a little, as in Mixed Essays (1879), Irish Essays (1882), and others. He died suddenly (1888), having strained his heart in imprudently vaulting a fence. No complete collection of his prose work has yet been made, which is a misfortune; but in 1880 he permitted, if he did not himself arrange, a volume of Prose Passages, which includes specimens of almost all his best work.]
NO English prose writer for quite half a century has, in the opinion of some competent judges, attained to so high a position in pure literature as Matthew Arnold; while in regard to technical excellence and distinction of style in the two kinds we should probably have to go back to Dryden before finding his equal or superior. It is in such cases almost always found, as it is found in the history of literature itself, that accomplishment in verse comes first, and to a great extent shapes the conditions of the subsequent accomplishment in prose. As the above biographical note will have shown, Mr. Arnolds production in prose was for very many years scanty and occasional; but it was sufficient, with the assistance of his practice in a decidedly classical variety of verse, distinguished by a somewhat economical and precise use of words, in treating even modern and romantic subjects, to enable him to elaborate one of the most peculiar and marked prose styles of this century.
It may indeed be contended that when the Essays in Criticism attracted public attention, the attraction was due at least as much to the subject and to the thought of the writer as to his style. All three were, in almost the highest degree, possessed of the interest of novelty. Except to a very few readers, familiar with the work of French critics, Mr. Arnolds fashion of handling literary subjects must have seemed almost entirely new; while no one could say that he was a servile or a very exact follower even of Sainte-Beuve himself. The attempt to bring literature, ancient and modern, under a sort of comparative inspection, and to handle it from general points of view, was almost as novel in the special way in which it was done. Behind this was the pretty fully revealed personal idiosyncrasy of the writer, which was in the highest degree distinct, piquant, and variedan extreme academic polish with a hardly disguised contempt for academic routine, liberalism of a very decided kind in some ways, combined with a profound and not in the least disguised disdain not merely of the vulgar but of the majority, very wide reading, with an earnest, an almost painful endeavour to disclaim the pedant and assume the man of the world. And behind this again (or to some tastes which might take the things in reverse order, first and foremost of all) there lay the stylebrilliant and polished to a nicety, condemning Corinthian ornament in a manner which itself showed the most laboured mannerism, relying to a great extent on obvious devices which might almost be called tricks, yet extolling the virtues of quietness and proportion, intensely individual and English, in spite of the affectation of cosmopolitanism, discussing grave subjects with something more nearly approaching to levity than almost any one except Sydney Smith had recently permitted himself, and in a way as different from Sydneys as possible. It was no wonder that critics first, and the public afterwards, were attracted, irritated, amused, or charmed.
It was almost impossible that such an attitude and such a style should not by degrees subject their practitioner to the danger which more specially attends an artist of this kind, the danger of caricaturing himself. Nor can it be reasonably denied that Mr. Arnold did encounter this danger, and did not always escape scatheless from it. His mode of persiflage when pursued too far towards the religious ideas of his countrymen, was sometimes thought even by those who were not rigidly orthodox to savour of bad taste; his attitude as of a more elegant Socrates subjecting the politics, the ethics, the social arrangements of his country to ironic scrutiny was in the same way thought, not always by strict adherents of convention, to savour of presumption; and his laudations of sweetness, of culture, his denunciations (if things so suave could be called denunciations) of the Philistine, the Barbarian, and so forth, found unkind critics of criticism who dismissed them as amusing, but perhaps slightly overdone, jingles and plays with cant and question-begging terms. In particular certain mechanical devices of stylehighly effective, but like all highly effective devices almost as highly dangerousbegan to irritate after a time, especially a certain trick of identical repetition of the same word and phrase, with a sort of refrain-effect which Mr. Arnold much affected, sometimes with the object of driving home his argument, and sometimes with that of barbing his ridicule. His severer censors called this, not without some justice, damnable iteration, and were wont to say that in it and in some other ways his smile was too apt to become a grimace, his easy urbanity a forced affectation, and his critical comment an uncritical impertinence.
Such expressions were of course not much less exaggerated than the exaggeration of idiosyncrasy which occasioned them; but there was something of justice behind them, and it was possible to suspect in Mr. Arnolds latest years and latest writings a certain silent concession.
When he returned from religion and politics to his natural sphere of literature, and to a certain debateable land between actions and manners in which he was also at home, the substance of his criticismsexcepting a few freaks and flings from which he never could refrain, and which communicated to his writings much of their salt and spiritwas always admirably sound and its expression was always delightful and distinguished. It has also to be noted, very much to the credit of Mr. Arnolds prose, that despite its extreme mannerism and the apparently obvious tricks by which that mannerism is reached, it is anything but an easy style to imitate, and has, as a matter of fact, seldom or never been successfully copied even by deliberate and well-skilled parodists. While Carlyle, and Macaulay, and Mr. Ruskin have been copied and caricatured by scores and hundreds of writers, it is not easy to think of one who has reproduced the peculiarities of the Arnoldian style in any considerable degree. Yet the temptation to do so must have been very great; for not only was it an eminently popular style, but its characteristics were such as specially appeal to persons of literary tastes. It was almost perfectly clear, with a clearness rather French than English, with a sufficient volume of thought pervading it, but with that volume translucent to its very bottomwhich perhaps lay at no very extraordinary depth from the surface. It sparkled with wit, but the wit was never of the kind which diverts or distracts the attention. It succeeded in being allusive and strongly charged with literary reminiscence and suggestion, without exciting any of the not quite intelligible wrath which allusiveness and suggestiveness in other writers have frequently aroused. Although it constantly introduced foreign words, and more constantly strove to introduce foreign ideas, it did not seem to offend the John Bullishness of Englishmen in this respect. It really could challenge for itself its authors famous desiderata of sweetness and light; and the only countercharge that even Momus could make was that the sweetness occasionally became a little cloying, and that the light was not so much given or even reflected as purely transmittedthat the style indeed obscured nothing, but did not illuminate very much.
Such a style was eminently fitted for the purposes of criticism. It would probably have been found fretting in narrative at any length, though Friendships Garland, and the half anecdotic passages scattered about other works, are most agreeable. It was felt to be a little incongruous and over-parted, as Costard says when Mr. Arnold tried serious argument. But for light comment and insinuation, for suggestion in passing, for exhibiting in a series of vivid and skilfully combined touches, the character of a book or an author, above all for contrasts and comparisons of national and individual types in their more salient features, it was incomparably well suited. In the seventeenth century Mr. Arnold would certainly have been a preacher, and a most remarkable one, for he had the didactic, not to say the pedagogic element very strongly in him, and occupying, as he intellectually did, a place somewhere near the centre of the triangle whose points are Taylor, Fuller, and South, he could not but have produced extraordinary work. In the nineteenth century he was as necessarily an essayist. And when he chose his subjects happily and did not overcharge his treatment of them, he was an essayist who had no superior among the men of his own time, and who is not likely ever to be displaced from the first rank of his own division in literature. It seems impossible that he should ever be far surpassed in a certain mild ironic handling, which implies no indignation and not much serious contempt, but a great deal of amused disapproval, which resembles a shrug rather than a frown or even a sneer. It is not likely that he will soon be equalled in that masterly faculty of presenting the unfamiliar which appears in his Essay on Heine, or in that On the Literary Influence of Academies. No doubt his work will be not a little injuriously affected by the very characteristic which helped it at first, the constant presence of local and temporal allusions, the way in which the substance of it is, so to speak, shot with reference to the thoughts, the facts, the cant, the caprice, the fashion of the moment. To read for instance Friendships Garland after a lapse of many years is not quite to experience afresh the sensations with which one read it first; and yet such a reader of it is necessarily supplied with the keys to the various enigmas. What the keyless or almost keyless reader of the future will make of it will probably be something less satisfactory still.
But this is the almost inevitable penalty of attention to the ephemeral, the fated operation of that principle of losing life to save it and vice versa, which was such a favourite with Mr. Arnolds contemporary, analogue, friend (I believe), and (I am sure to some extent) master M. Renan. And an ample residuum will abide even this test. Matthew Arnold will probably never be rated by competent judges among the strongest writers of English prose. But he must always hold one of the highest places in it for grace, for an elaborate and calculated charm, andto employ the only single word which really expresses him, though at the moment it is out of fashion and fallen from the best sense in which alone he deserves itfor the rare and delightful if not exactly consummate quality of elegance.