What should I make of Matthew Arnold?

This blog is written more as an extended question than as an attempt to pass some critical judgement or make a recommendation.

Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) was a poet and a cultural critic, who also worked for some years as a public servant (an inspector of schools). His like does not really exist today. Can you imagine an Ofsted inspector maintaining a relatively high profile as both a writer on society AND a poet? In fact, can you think of a poet in contemporary Britain with anything like a ‘high media profile’?

Those were different days indeed, and so what am I to make of this writer?

I admit that I like the idea of someone like Matthew Arnold, who combined a fair degree of poetic talent also with an attempt to describe and influence the culture of his times, while at the same time being rooted in a job other than literature or letters, which in some degree must have kept his head out of the clouds and his feet somewhat on the ground.

In this he’s something like a Victiorian version of TS Eliot, although having read them both Eliot is (in my opinion) the far greater poetic talent and a the more provocative and influential critic.

Anyway, I have a copy of the famous anthology called Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, and in my version there are a couple of poems by Arnold: the famous “Dover Beach” and “The Scholar Gypsy” which I really got to like a great deal. This latter poem is too long to reproduce here, but its start point is the legend of an Oxford scholar who packed in his studies to run away and live a life on the road with the gypsies.

Intrigued, I bought a book of Arnold’s poems, which also contained extracts from his cultural criticism (lectures, essays and the like). Upon receiving the book and trying to get to grips with it, I was distinctly underwhelmed.

I am quite ready to admit that I might be just an uncouth, lazy and uncultured so-and-s0 who should have given Arnold more time. However, in my defence I tend to like authors who observe Polonius’s belief that ‘brevity is the soul of wit’. For example I blogged yesterday about Keats and said among others things that I admire him so much because he was able to say a lot in a few words. Arnold achieved this in “Dover Beach” and gets there here and there elsewhere, but a lot of his other verse is very long. Another thing I wasn’t really prepared for (again “Dover Beach” acted as another red herring here) is that his poetic diction in other poems I grappled with was strikingly more archaic and archly ‘poetic’ than I thought it would be.

And what of his cultural criticism? Well I tried, but I think that’s one for the scholars right there, certainly nothing for a ‘general reader’ with plenty of other claims on his time and attention.

What provoked this blog post was that the other day I got hold of a second hand Oxford University Press anthology of English poetry, first published in 1986 and chosen by the writer John Wain. It’s pretty standard stuff, covering all the main names and including all their greatest poetic hits. Interestingly when it came to Arnold, Wain though it best to represent him through a short poem on Shakespeare, and the aforementioned “Dover Beach” and “The Scholar Gypsy”. In comparison, those poetic contemporaries alongside whom Arnold is most often mentioned, viz. Tennyson and Browning, get a more generous showing, including excerpts from their respective longer works and long poems published in their entirety.

So am I wrong? Are the anthology editors wrong? Is Arnold destined to be a two (or three) hit wonder in the poetic pantheon? Or should I give his other work another chance?

Feel free to leave me a comment to point me in the right direction.





Why Keats is now my favourite Romantic poet.

Like a lot of people who’ve read a lot of poetry, I had my phase when I read the Romantics. I was always rather sniffy about Keats, however. Taking my cue from a very fine teacher whose class I was very lucky to be in, and who was very much a Shelley man, I took the view that Keats fundamentally “had nothing to say”. It was all Odes to this and that and well-tuned, finely-wrought (overwrought?) stuff about things that didn’t really matter.

You could give me the sturm and drang, the passion and cynical humour of Byron. Or better still the intensity of Shelley, with his tempestuous imagination and his wide-ranging taste for experimentation.

Now my tastes have changed. There are still bits of Keats that I don’t much care for (his ‘comic’ verse, perhaps, and his taste for slightly whimsical stuff every now and again). But credit where it’s due: as a technician, as a craftsman, as a man with the sense of which is the right sounding word with just the right sense, he has very few equals. It was reading a biography of the italian writer Giuseppe Tomassi di Lampedusa (of The Leopard fame) that got me thinking about Keats again. Tomassi was exceptionally well read in other literatures, especially english, and he considered Keats’s work, especially the famed Odes, to be one of the crowning glories of the language. I took a look at them again and decided he was right.

What I see in Keats now is someone whose passion matched Shelley’s; whose technical skill matched Byron’s; whose imagination could be as wild as Coleridge’s; whose ability to take his own personal thoughts and reflections and make them applicable to his readers in such an enlightening and sympathetic way was the equal of Wordsworth’s.

Where he outdid them all was in his mastery of brevity, and I think that this is one of his great qualities. Put simply, at his very best, I think that Keats says what he wants to say and that’s it. Yes, he wrote long poems, but even these don’t come across as being half so long winded and ponderous as- for example- Wordsworth’s Prelude.

He only had a short time to live, and of course he knew it. I think, then, that this lends his poetry a seriousness of intent and a level-headed and unflinching quality when it comes to confronting some of the very big human themes. It also gives his very best work a refreshingly crisp directness. John Keats, therefore,  is one of my favourite English poets because with him there is no flannel and barely any messing around. The only annoying thing is that it’s taken me so long to realise it.

I now think that rather than being someone who “had nothing to say”, Keats is someone with so much to say, and who says it so much better than most others.


When I have Fears That I May Cease to Be

When I have fears that I may cease to be

Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,

Before high-pilèd books, in charactery,

Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain;

When I behold, upon the night’s starred face,

Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,

And think that I may never live to trace

Their shadows with the magic hand of chance;

And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,

That I shall never look upon thee more,

Never have relish in the faery power

Of unreflecting love—then on the shore

Of the wide world I stand alone, and think

Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.




Review of “In a Glass Darkly” by Sheriden le Fanu.

Irishman Sheriden le Fanu is perhaps the doyen of Victorian  ghost story writers, and his five-story collection “In a Glass Darkly” is a superb introduction to the writer’s work. These are classic unsettling stories in the British/ Irish tradition, in that they are largely subtle tales that unfold slowly but surely, and usually climax with a suitably macabre, and sometimes truly horrific, ending.

The neat narrative framework for this collection is that they all purport to be papers from the collection of German physician Martin Hesselius. Hesselius is German doctor, prevented from going into practice by an injury to his hand. Instead he branched out into a different area becomes something of a specialist in afflictions of a more supernatural nature.

Though an intriguing character in his own right, Hesselius exists more of a framing device in the story. Each story is a ‘case history’ taken from his files. He only appears as a participant in the first story, the unsettling “Green Tea”, a tale of a clergyman whose studies in occult lore and love of said beverage bring on the unwelcome attentions of a particularly sinister creature that starts plaguing his existence.  But is it a real visitation or a hallucination? Is the clergyman mad or truly damned? As a doctor, Hesselius can only speculate as to the cause, something he does in each of the stories.

This pseudo-medical/ psychiatric aspect of the stories is interesting. Of course Le Fanu was writing well before the development of modern psychiatry and psychology, and some of Hesselius’s attempts to explain the various phenomena in the stories struck me as being quant or downright odd. They do help lend the stories a convincingly studious air nonetheless, and with his detached and determined air, Hesselius comes across as a true investigator, so much so that you could imagine his character being resurrected and used in stories set in the modern day.

Even without Hesselius’s comments, however, each story provides the intrigue, shocks and thrills you’d expect from good ghost/ horror fiction. Le Fanu is an inventive and original writer who is capable of producing some genuinely original plots. That said, perhaps the most famous story in the book is the final one called “Carmilla”, where he makes use of one of the oldest horror legends of all. One the great vampire stories, it was apparently an influence on Bram Stoker. Carmilla the female vampire is a fascinating character, and this story of her (literal and figurative) attachment to the other lead female character is justly seen as a classic of the genre.

If you read it for yourself you may come away with the impression, as I did, that a rather knowing Le Fanu got away with quite a lot with regard to the story’s sexual subtext. Not all Victorians, it seems, were as straight laced as they would have wanted us to believe, and just like us they liked a good scare now and then.

Coming late to Kipling.

Review of Rudyard Kipling, Collected [should read “Selected“] Short Stories, Everyman’s Classics.

Kipling remains a household name in all but the most book-bereft of homes, but how of much of him has the average reader actually read these days?

I don’t know if I’d be classed as an average reader,  but perhaps my experience of him is similar to other people’s. Had I been born at any time up to- say for argument’s sake- 1940,  I would probably have had a keen knowledge of Kipling. For boys and girls growing up in bookish households in the early and mid twentieth century, Kipling was part of the canon: the pick of the poems, Stalkey and Co, The Jungle Books and Kim were all childhood staples.

I am not suggesting that post-war children have not been reading Kipling. Far from it. But I think you could argue that the more general popular disregard of his work has led to fewer children reading him than he deserves.

Growing up in the 80’s, I suspect my own experience of Kipling was more the contemporary norm, in that I did not read Kipling, but knew the name. I remember going to see Disney’s “The Jungle Book” at the cinema around the age of 8 or 9 but perhaps I didn’t make the link. It certainly didn’t occur to me to read those stories, and I don’t remember Kipling being read to me at home.  At some stage a teacher in primary school might have read read my class some of the Just So stories.

Later on in my late teens or early twenties I began an oddly disjointed relationship with Kipling. He still remains popular as a poet, if only for one poem, “If”. I first encountered it around that time when it was voted “the nation’s (i.e. the United Kingdom’s) favourite poem”. However, I was vaguely aware that Kipling was the de facto “poet of empire”, and besides I saw Jim Davidson quoted in the paper as saying “If” was his favourite poem. So that was it as far as I was concerned. If Jim Davidson liked it, then I assumed that Kipling’s poetry was most certainly down at the cheaper end of British culture.

That could have been the end of things.

Except that around the same time, in my late teens, something strange happened. A local bookshop was having a closing down sale, and my mom came home with, among other things, a bargain copy of Mrs Bathurst and Other Stories publish by OUP.  I remember reading the title story as well as another neglected gem called “Proofs of Holy Writ”. The more mysterious and speculative of Kipling’s short stories are not the kind of thing you might expect a teenager to be reading, but I put prejudice aside and took them for what they were (“Mrs Bathurst” is a genuinely enigmatic and compelling story).

But I put the book aside again.  It was only years later, quite recently in fact, that Auden’s line from “In Memoriam W.B. Yeats” on how time “will pardon Kipling and his views” has come true in my case. Everyman books publish a “Collected Stories” of Kipling, which is as good a one-volume overview as you can get at the moment. Kipling wrote a great deal of stories, and there are a lot of selections out there. But if you want only one, or perhaps are new to the writer, then the Everyman is a very good book to have. Bear in mind, though, that the book is a ‘selected’ edition, and not a collected as claimed in the title. As for the actual selection on offer, I’d say it’s representative rather than definitive. Because Kipling was a master story teller who was also very prolific, any editor trying to make a selection is on a bit of a hiding to nothing, in that they’re bound to miss out something that some reader or other would consider essential. However, this is about as good an all-round collection as you could wish for. All the key periods of Kipling’s career are catered for, from the early Indian stories of his Plain Tales from the Hills period, to selections from “Stalkey and Co.” right up to some uncannily good later work. All of this goes to show what an under-rated writer of adult fiction he continues to be, especially in the United Kingdom.

I’ll just pick three examples from among many of the treasures to be found here, in order to convey why I like him so much. First there’s “Mrs Bathhurst” which is a tale of desire, and which  roams right across the British Empire. Then there’s “The Man Who would be King” which is one of the greatest stories written by anyone anywhere ever, and sums up far better than the poem “The White Man’s Burden” the dangerous obsessions with riches, power and prestige that continue to drive would-be empire builders to this day. And finally there’s a late, post- World War I story called “The Gardener” which deals with the emotional aftermath of losing a child in that dreadful conflagration. Even the most rabid anti-Kiplingite would have to admit that it is touching and heartfelt without ever succumbing to sentimentality. In fact here’s a trick to play on your literary friends. Read them “The Gardener” without them knowing who it’s by, and then see if they can guess the author. Kipling’s might well be the last name to spring to mind.

There is plenty more to confound expectation here, as well as stories to shock, delight, make you laugh, make you think, make you smile and to send a shiver down your spine. The settings for a lot of these stories will surprise you too. I can think of very few writers with the sheer imagination to write so convincingly about so many diverse kinds of people in so many diverse settings and epochs. He even tried his hand at a kind of proto-science fiction, an example of which is included. Above all these stories will make you realise that, for all his faults, there is far more to Kipling than “If”, the Jungle Book and his being the de facto poet of Empire. One thing I think any intelligent reader would have to agree is that at his very best he was one of the greatest english writers ever, and in having this book you will have most of his strongest work right there in your hands.

As if to square the circle, my son has recently started dipping into the  Just So stories. He is also the proud owner of a 1930’s edition of the Jungle Books, which we found in a second hand shop. After the reading the first couple of pages he found them irresistible. I think it goes to show that good writing is what matters, regardless of our feelings about the writer. So whether we see Kipling as a deeply dodgy relic of our colonial past, or as a misunderstood genius, it might be worth ‘treating those two imposters just the same’ and putting them aside once and for all, while we get on with the more serious work of judging his works on their individual merits.