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.