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Uncle Matthew

A review of Matthew Arnold, by Lionel Trilling.

THIS IS NOT a biography of Matthew Arnold; it is a history and criticism of his thought. “Whatever biographical matter I have used,” Mr. Trailing explains in his preface, “is incidental to my critical purpose.” Yet I believe that it would have contributed to the accomplishment of this purpose to have filled in the biographical background a little more completely than he has done. We do not see Arnold quite clearly enough in his habitat; and it seems to me that there are certain personal values which ought to be solidly planted in the picture. The figure of Clough, for example, which contrasts with the figure of Arnold and throws it into relief—since Clough, with perplexities similar to Arnold’s, lacks the principle of life which Arnold always possessed. Mr. Trilling indicates their relationship, but he really does not show us Clough—though he is later at some special pains to recreate the Victorian super-crank, Francis Newman. And what about Matthew Arnold’s marriage? Mr. Trilling does not tell us a word about his wife—though he speculates about the unknown “Marguerite” of Arnold’s early poems. Mrs. Arnold, also, though he is not known to have mentioned her, must count for something in Arnold’s work.

Let us add that the summaries of Arnold’s poems and essays become occasionally a little dull (anyone who has ever tried it, however, knows how hard it is to make this kind of thing readable); and that the whole book is probably too long, could perhaps have been cut down fifty pages.

But this said, let us hasten to say that Mr. Trilling’s study of Arnold is a valuable and most interesting book. Matthew Arnold has stood up remarkably well; he has managed to sail on into our own time when many ships that seemed once to draw more water have gone down with the Victorian age. He was always uncomfortably conscious of being a “modern man” and the curious thing is that he still seems to be one—which one could never say about Tennyson or Browning, Ruskin or Carlyle. He appeared to be less brilliantly gifted than these; his achievements appeared to be slighter; and yet he was not only more intelligent, in some sense he was also more serious. At a time when the more famous of his contemporaries had taken to drugging themselves with rhetoric of the richest and most stupefying kind, Matthew Arnold saw the realities of his time, stated sharply the problem they presented, and would not desist from worrying about them even though he was never able to produce any solution of which the inadequacy was not absurd and patent. If he always remained a little of an amateur, he was able to escape the destiny of allowing himself to be degraded through his very professional competence into a hollow official spokesman like Tennyson or to intoxicate himself with the optimism of the prosperous merchant class like Browning. Matthew Arnold was never able to bring himself to pretend that things were all right. Some of the poems and some of the essays of Arnold still recur as living thoughts to our minds when so many of the works of his fellows have turned into period pieces:

He looked on Europe’s dying hour

Of fitful dream and feverish power;

His eye plung’d down the weltering strife,

The turmoil of expiring life;

He said—The end is everywhere:

Art still has truth, take refuge there.

The probability, however, with most of us is that the curve of Arnold’s development and the general structure of his thought have always remained for us rather indistinct. What we have retained from him are the poetic expression of the emotions of bewilderment and conflict, of the melancholy twilight of faith, and a critical temper of mind which unites in an exceptional way fastidiousness with varied appreciation. Even those famous definitions of his which have become passwords of the higher literary commentary, we might find ourselves at a loss to explain.

Mr. Trilling has here told us the whole story and gone to the bottom of all the uncertainties. He justifies our instinctive faith in Arnold and even makes us respect him more. He lays the indispensable foundation for his edifice in a chapter on Thomas Arnold, which provides a needed corrective for the impression left by Lytton Strachey’s caricature. The contrast between the two accounts is a remarkable illustration of the relativity of ideas. Strachey made Arnold odious from the paint of view of a cosmopolitan morality and ridiculous from the point of view of a Cambridge sophistication; whereas Trilling reveals Thomas Arnold as he figured to the eyes of his own age, not only as a man of electrical energy and able and positive intellect, but, in spite of some grotesque British prejudices, actually—in religion and education at least—rather impressively enlightened and progressive. Mathew Arnold had had really in his father an example both noble and vital. When the dandyism, the romanticism and the apparent frivolity of Matthew’s youth gave way before the repetitive didacticism of the schoolmaster and the preacher, it was not the ordinary schoolmaster or preacher that reasserted himself. Thomas Arnold had been somebody, an original doer and thinker: he had created Rugby School; he had been fighting all his life as a publicist to induce the Church of England to do something to elevate the working class. Matthew Arnold had the fortunate tradition of a father who, by virtue of unusual character as well as of public position, had fortified a base of operations somewhat outside the social groupings and who regarded himself as responsible to society as a whole. Matthew, for all his upper-middle-class snobberies—Pearsall Smith has just been telling us about them—did try to fulfill these responsibilities, just as, for all his sometimes comic British provincialisms—his ideas about French poetry, for example—he did, as the son of a schoolmaster who saw the importance of French and German, try to play out his literary role in terms of the great intellectual world.

Mr. Trilling shows how Arnold was driven by the waning of the authority of the Church to want to transfer this authority to a State which should command an allegiance from all classes; yet how, unable in the long run to bring himself to do away with revealed religion, he attempted to formulate for himself a purely philosophical concept of God at the same time that he left to the masses the ritual and creed of the Church; how he came to tend more and more—and even at the time of the Paris Commune—to sympathize with the working classes as against the bourgeoisie; how he visited the United States in the eighties and was divided between a horror of American uncouthness and a satisfaction in our democratic manners; and how he finally went so far as to declare in a lecture on “Equality” before the Royal Institute that “our present social organization,” though it had “been an appointed stage in our growth” and “enabled us to do great things,” had come to the end of its usefulness, that though “certainly equality will never of itself alone give us a perfect civilization,” yet “with such inequality as ours, a perfect civilization is impossible.” Mr. Trilling makes the important point that Arnold always tended to see literature and thought in relation to the society which had produced them and which he believed they ought to be called upon to serve, and that his thinking about social phenomena belonged to the same general Hegelian category as that of Marx and Engels in that he saw that there were “dialectical” reverses which altered the values of the past so that one age’s or society’s meat might be another age’s or society’s poison.

Mr. Trilling has thus, if I am not mistaken, written one of the first critical studies of any solidity and scope by an American of his generation. And he has escaped the great vice of that generation: the addiction to obfuscatory terminology. Dealing in a thoroughgoing fashion with the esthetic, the philosophical and the social-political aspects of his subject, he is almost entirely free from the jargons of any of these fields. I believe he has been influenced by the fashion in a little neglecting the literary aspect of Arnold as well as the biographical. The reaction against the impressionism of a criticism which was dominated by the example of such writers as James Huneker and Arthur Symons has made the critics of the period since the War tend to scorn what used to be called the “appreciation” in favor of the purely technical or philosophical or sociological treatment of literature; and also to forget that a really first-rate critical study ought to be a work of art.

But if Mr. Trilling has followed this fashion it is evidently not due to lack of competence. His observations on Arnold’s style are admirably phrased as well as just: “The Victorians, with Keats and Tennyson in mind, like to watch for the soft intertwinings of vowels and liquid consonants. But what slips off the tongue may slip easily from the mind, and the soft liquidity could not represent the struggle with the world and the self”; “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”; Arnold’s prose is “elegant yet sinewy, colloquial yet reserved, cool yet able to glow into warmth, careful never to flare into heat. It was a style that kept writer and reader at a sufficient distance from each other to allow room between them for the object of their consideration.”

In any case, Mr. Trilling’s book is a credit both to his generation and to American criticism in general. Even aside from the interest of its subject, it is stimulating as a study of the past which, largely conceived and diligently carried through, provides us with a new and firmer grip on old intellectual experience by subjecting it to the intelligence of the present.