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Such time as he could spare from these important but more prosaic duties, Arnold devoted to literature. He could not, like many of his great contemporaries, give his whole life and energy to writing, yet he won a high place in poetry, and he became one of the most distinguished and influential prose-writers of his day. In 1857 he was made professor of poetry at Oxford, a position which has been filled by many distinguished men, and he was re-elected for a second term of five years in 1862. In 1883, and again in 1886, he lectured in the United States. In 1886, after he had resigned his position as Inspector of Schools, he was given a pension by the government "as a public recognition of service to the poetry and literature of England." Two years later he died suddenly of heart disease, and was buried at Laleham, where he had entered upon his laborious and anxious life, sixty-six years before.
Poet and Critic. Arnold's literary career naturally divides itself into two periods: the period of his poetry, and the period of his prose. He wrote the greater part of his poetry before he was thirty-five; after that (while he did not give up writing poetry altogether) he devoted by far the larger part of his time and energy to prose. Thus, his poetry (with the exception of some notable later poems) is the voice of Arnold's youth; his prose, in which he criticizes literature, or discusses the problems of his age, is the expression of his mature views on art and life.
The tone, or spirit, of Arnold's poetry is often very different from that of his prose. His poems, taken as a whole, express his discontent with life, and espepecially with the life or ideals of his own time. In the midst of the rush and change of Victorian England, Arnold's verse is filled with complaint, regret, and
an intense longing for the tranquil and simple faith of a time gone by. The age, he says, is “a hopeless tangle;” men live too fast, they are too restless and distracted, to see clearly or attain peace. There is no living poet or prophet to guide the bewildered modern world:
“Achilles ponders in his tent,
Arnold does not fight fiercely against life or the world, as Byron did; he sounds no note of challenge or despair. He would rather have us endure with stoical patience the evils which we can neither remedy nor avert. What, he asks, was accomplished by Byron's passionate outcry? Men have the same griefs still, but
Let us not struggle, then, against the inevitable. Let us turn to the world of nature, and watch how all things perform their appointed tasks, not with a "senseless uproar,” but in tranquillity and silence. So should man do his work, undistracted and unafraid, dependent on himself, finding strength in his own soul, for
The fountains of our life are all within."
Arnold delights in showing us human sorrow, only to withdraw our minds from it by leading us to look at the eternal calm of Nature, in the presence of which all the strife and passion of man's brief existence seem small and unimportant.
“We, O Nature, depart,
Thou survivest us! this,
Yet, to Arnold's eyes, even Nature is not happy, but rather possessed with a deep, uncomplaining patience. To Wordsworth, Arnold's master in poetry, every flower seemed to enjoy the air it breathed; to Browning, when the earth was filled with the new life of spring, it seemed as though “God renewed his ancient rapture," and was happy in and through his works. But to Arnold, the hills and rocks and sky, if one could put their life into words,
Filled as it is with a quiet and contemplative melancholy, lacking as it is in certain directions, Arnold's poetry has, within its somewhat narrow limits, a nameless but unmistakable charm. It attracts us by its refinement, its delicate beauty, its classical restraint. It reveals the lover of Nature, the critic, the thinker, and above all the man of a fine but exclusive culture. Arnold was not a born lyric poet; his verses, that is, have not that free and natural melody which delights us in the best lyrics of Shelley or Burns. Indeed, highly finished and beautiful as Arnold's poetry often is, we feel that it is largely the result of careful training, fine taste, and deliberate art. We miss, in the thin, intellectual atmosphere of Arnold, the force and fire of Byron, the narrative power of Scott, the warmhearted, human sympathy of Burns. Almost all of
Arnold's poetry is the expression of a single mood, a mood of subdued sadness in which regret and longing mingle with resignation. But in giving poetic utterance to this mood, Arnold was speaking not only for himself but for a great many of his own time. He is the interpreter of those who, in the middle years of the nineteenth century, felt the bitterness of the conflict between the new thought and the old faith. Arnold's poetry expresses the mingled feelings awakened by this time of change. Looking back to the old beliefs with regret, and shrinking from conclusions of the new science which he feels obliged to accept, he describes himself as
Wandering between two worlds, one dead,
Prose. — In his poetry Arnold complained of the “something that infects the world;" he declared that artists were “envious and the mob profane;" in his prose he tried to set the world right. He worked to raise the standards of literary taste, to elevate the world by a deeper and truer culture, and to make "righteousness and the will of God prevail.” He was one of the most finished prose masters, and the most influential literary critic of the Victorian age. His prose has none of the impetuous eloquence of Carlyle, nor the varied excellence of Ruskin. It is quiet, beautifully clear, restrained, discriminating, free from the heat and tumult of strong emotions. As a critic of literature Arnold performed a great service. He thought that the English were disposed to be narrow in their opinions, and believed that they should be taught to judge of their literature in a broader way by comparing it with that of other nations. He wrote a number of essays on
foreign writers, of modern and classical times, to encourage this wider view. He insisted on a high standard of excellence in style (believing that the English were stronger in inspiration than in the art of expression), and he laid down certain first principles of literary judgment. Yet in his criticism, as in his poetry, we feel the lack of the deep human sympathy that we find in Thackeray's Lectures on the English Humourists, or in Carlyle's Essay on Burns. Finally, in Culture and Anarchy, and in several later works, Arnold offered his solution of the social problems and religious questions of his time.
While we recognize and admire Arnold's finished scholarship, his fastidious taste, his keen and brilliant intellect, and his culture and refinement, we feel instinctively that he was a smaller man than Ruskin or Carlyle. Books fill a large place in our existence, but life is larger than books. Arnold believed that the world can be saved by culture, — "by getting to know the best that has been thought and said in the world," but the really wise man knows that this is the delusion of one who has lived “all his life in a dream of learning, and has never had his sleep broken by a real sense of things.”
The development of didactic and critical prose in the Victorian period, which we have partly considered in the works of Macaulay, Ruskin, Carlyle, and Arnold, was a significant and distinctive feature of nineteenthcentury literature. But even more important was the growth of the English novel. The great problems of modern society which formed so large a part of the subject-matter of these writers found expression also