A Gift Imprisoned: The Poetic Life Of Matthew Arnold

A Gift Imprisoned: The Poetic Life Of Matthew Arnold

by Ian Hamilton


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English poet Matthew Arnold had two lives. In his youth, he was an impassioned lyric poet. In his later years, he was Victorian England's best-known social prophet, educational reformer, and literary critic. Arnold's poetic life that gave us ” Dover Beach,” ”The Scholar-Gipsy,” and ”Empedocles on Etna” —was effectively over by the age of forty, when he began to devote all his energies to “purposeful” prose composition. As Auden said, he ”thrust his gift in prison till it died.” From the very start, though, Arnold had viewed his poetry-writing self as irresponsible, delinquent. As the eldest son of Dr. Arnold of Rugby, the great shaper of Victorian morality, his destiny—he knew—was inescapable. He had been born to ”make a difference” to the age in which he lived.For about twenty years, however, Matthew Arnold made efforts to resist his destiny as a social moralist, and this book is the story of that losing battle. As a biographical narrative, A Gift Imprisoned confronts a number of intriguing puzzles. Chief among these, of course, is the much-pondered Marguerite. Who was she: a dream-girl, an invention born of too much exposure to the novels of George Sand, or a real person met in Switzerland in 1848? Then there is Dr. Arnold himself: a devitalizing ogre or an inspiration? And, overarchingly, there is the matter of Arnold's attitude to his own gifts as a poet: Why did he so early on abandon the poetic life and settle for three decades of drudgery as an inspector of elementary schools? Was it really a fierce love of duty that took him down this path—or was it, rather, that he all along had insufficient faith in his own talent? And this leads to the question that matters most of all: How much faith do we and should we have in his talent? In this compelling study, Ian Hamilton brings his own formidable gifts and his lifelong passion for his subject to bear on one of the most mysterious literary figures of the last century—and a figure who still fascinates today. The result is a biography of rare originality and significance.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780465044221
Publisher: Basic Books
Publication date: 03/02/2000
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 4.34(w) x 11.14(h) x 0.13(d)
Lexile: 1250L (what's this?)

About the Author

Ian Hamilton is one of the foremost literary critics and biographers of our time. He is the author of the definitive biographies on Robert Lowell and that elusive master, J.D. Salinger. Among his other books are two collections of poetry, The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry in English (Editor); Keepers of the Flames: Literary Estates and the Rise of Biography from Shakespeare to Plath; Writers in Hollywood; and most recently the collection Walking Possession. He has been the literary editor of the TLS and various other influential English publications. He has recently been appointed contributing editor for The New Yorker.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Dr Arnold of Rugby

Matthew Arnold was the eldest son of the most celebrated headmaster in England. As a boy, he was — uninterruptedly — a schoolboy. His Rugby classmates went home at the end of term and told their parents what it was like to be taught by the legendary Thomas Arnold. For them, schoolmasters were one thing; parents were another. Some might have spoken of Dr Arnold with resentment, having lately been on the wrong end of a flogging. Others might have sung his praises, having perhaps earned a word or two of commendation. One or two might have worn a strange glint in the eye, as if they had been through some glorious conversion. All of them were probably quite glad to take a break. For Matthew Arnold, there was no such respite. Just having the name `Arnold' told the world where he belonged. For him, school holidays could never quite be holidays from school.

    It was Thomas Arnold's mission to mark boys for life, and over the years he scored some notable successes. Rugby in the nineteenth century produced numerous judges and high-ranking clerics. The colonies were well stocked with Arnold-trained officials. The school's speciality, though, was the training of schoolmasters. By mid-century, Arnold's Old Boys were in charge of more than a dozen of England's leading public schools. And Arnold's own legend — the legend that Lytton Strachey would eventually labour to demolish — was largely constructed by worshipful ex-pupils: Arthur Stanley, who wrote Arnold's biography, a huge Victorian bestseller, and Thomas Hughes, who — in the even more successful Tom Brown's Schooldays — portrayed the Doctor, with a reverential shudder, as `a man whom we felt to be with all his heart and soul and strength striving against whatever was mean and unmanly and unrighteous in our little world'.

    The tone here captures well the atmosphere at Rugby in the 1830s, the atmosphere from which Matthew Arnold, in his teens, so rarely managed to escape. The place crackled with moral fervour. Each day was alarmingly momentous; each day was a reckoning. Thomas Arnold, after all, was the civilised world's leading expert on boy-evil. `I have known boys of eight or nine years old who did not so much as know what would happen to them after their deaths,' he used to say. He above all others understood the `awful wickedness' of the half-men he ruled:

When the spring and activity of youth is altogether unsanctioned by anything pure and elevated in its desires it becomes a spectacle that is as dismaying, and almost more morally distressing, than the shouts and gambols of a set of lunatics.

Thomas Arnold's secret, perhaps, was that he never really liked small boys — or, rather, he never liked them when they were at their most instinctively small-boyish. He could too easily perceive `the devil in most of them'. And he had the knack of persuading them, or some of them, not to like themselves. When they grew big enough to join his sixth form, his trick was to give them a taste of his own power, setting them up as praepostors with big sticks, `fellow workers with him for the highest good of the school'. And he was intensely loyal to these juvenile lieutenants. They were encouraged to transmit to their juniors that `abhorrence of evil' in which they themselves had been so painfully instructed. When anybody complained about his prefects' methods, Arnold would usually leap to their defence: `There was no obloquy which he would not undergo in the protection of a boy who had, by due energy of this discipline, made himself obnoxious to the school, the parents, or the public.'

    Arnold's little Rugbeians had it drilled into them, day after day, that they were on the brink of an all-determining life-choice: they could seek promotion to the Arnold-controlled upper realm of `moral thoughtfulness' or they could linger in the mire, as `beasts or devils'. No boyish action was so insignificant that it could not be `invested with a moral character'; no adolescent fancy so fanciful that it might not reveal the truth of a boy's personality. It was Arnold's habit, as a critic of his pointed out, to refer `the most trifling matters to the most awful principles'. It was `his serious wish to bring boys to see a duty in every act of their lives'.

    Dr Arnold expelled boys from Rugby not just for `lying, or drinking, or habitual idleness', the three big sins to be watched for. Sometimes he kicked them out merely for exhibiting `low wit' or `carelessness of character'. He took pride in always being able to sniff out a bad egg. `Evil being unavoidable, we are not a jail to keep it in but a place of education where we must cast it out.'

    Why then did so many boys worship this fanatic? Dr Arnold himself gives us a clue when he describes an incident from his first teaching post, before he took the headmastership of Rugby. In the schoolroom one day he lost his temper with a backward pupil. As he raged, the boy looked up at him and asked: `Why do you speak angrily, sir? Indeed, I am doing the best that I can.' At this, Arnold was in disarray: `I never felt so ashamed in my life: that look and that speech I have never forgotten.' On another occasion, at roll-call, an inattentive boy called out his `Here' too loudly, making `the windows rattle'. When reprimanded, he said that he was of `a nervous disposition' and had been `so frightened at hearing his name called, that his shout was involuntary'. Instead of laughing off this explanation, Arnold consulted the school doctor. He wanted physiological corroboration.

    Nobody seems to have thought of Arnold as unjust; how could he be since he so loved the truth? Indeed, some of his sharper students viewed him near-protectively as the arch-victim of his own judicial vehemence. All this really did hurt him more than it hurt them. And he was always ready to take the side of the slow learner. Mere `intellectual acuteness, divested as it is, in too many cases, of all that is comprehensive and great and good' was to him `more revolting than the most helpless imbecility'. He was particularly contemptuous of rich boys who evinced `insolence and want of sympathy ... toward the lower orders'. When Arnold listed the three qualities he most prized in a boy, `intellectual ability' came third. He placed `gentlemanly conduct' second. `Religious and moral principles' was first. In other words, he offered a curriculum that was in everybody's reach. He could also be surprisingly tolerant, at times, when boys fell into error. He could not bear the idea of a boy choosing to be evil, but if a boy was simply too young to understand what was required of him, Arnold was prepared to bide his time. Tom Brown thought of Rugby as `the only spot in England well and truly ruled'.

    Arnold was a ruler, but he was also an eminent scholar, editor of Thucydides, disciple of Niebuhr, and author of several works on Roman history. The example of Niebuhr, whose own history of Rome was appearing in English in the 1830s, led Arnold to construct a theory of history which was most useful to him in his dealings with small boys. A nation, he would say, is `like a person'. It has a moral consciousness that develops, stage by stage, from infancy, through adolescence, to full manhood. Nations grow up in different ways, as people do, and react differently to each stage of their development. Some have unhappy childhoods, others are moody and aggressive during adolescence. Few ever manage to achieve a balanced and virtuous maturity. Over the centuries, ancient Greece and Rome reached something like full adulthood. Now it was England's turn.

    England in 1830 was, so to speak, still in the sixth form. There were signs, though, that the nation was getting ready to leave school. Looking around, Arnold thought he could perceive a new spirit in the land, a spirit suggestive of intellectual freedom, social justice, ecclesiastical reform. But he was troubled, too. He sensed a general `superficiality of feeling', an absence of that moral self-awareness without which no reform could be meaningful, or made to stick. It was much the same with boys. When Arnold `thought of the social evils of the country, it awakened a corresponding desire to check the thoughtless waste and selfishness of schoolboys'.

    But schoolboys, like nations, could not learn to be grown up until they were grown up. This truism seems to have caused Arnold some perplexity, accounting perhaps for the `puzzled expression' that Lytton Strachey detected in his portrait. If small boys were indeed wicked by nature, by involuntary inclination, at what age should the devil in them be uprooted? A schoolmaster could hardly stand by and let the little horrors have their way. On the other hand, were there not dangers in catching them too young? `My object,' Arnold said when he took on the Rugby job, `will be, if possible, to form Christian men, for Christian boys I can scarcely hope to make; I mean that, from the natural imperfect state of boyhood, they are not susceptible of Christian principles in their full development upon their practice, and I suspect that a low standard of morals in many respects must be tolerated amongst them, as it was on a larger scale in what I consider the boyhood of the human race.'

    No boy, though, was so small that he did not know when Dr Arnold was displeased. In lessons, Arnold saw to it that his students learned to crave `the pleased look and the cheerful "Thank you" which followed upon a successful answer or translation', and to dread `the fall of his countenance with its deepening severity, the stern elevation of his eyebrow, the sudden "Sit down" which followed upon the reverse'.

    The Doctor's `presence' has been variously described: magnetic, awesome, irresistible — these are the customary epithets. And yet there was more to it than mere intimidation. Somehow he made the boys not want to let him down. Arnold, says Arthur Stanley, never `seemed to be on the watch for boys' and altogether he gave the impression of trusting their allegiance to his cause. For example, he despised liars. If a falsehood were discovered, he would punish it severely. But he could be oddly unsuspicious. `"If you say so, that is quite enough — of course, I believe your word,"' he'd say, `and there grew up in consequence a general feeling that it was a shame to tell Arnold a lie — he always believes one.' (Not always, it so happened. On one notorious occasion, Arnold gave a boy eighteen strokes for lying and then discovered he was innocent. Abject public apologies ensued.)

    Tom Brown was also flogged by Dr Arnold, ,but he of course was grateful. The Doctor had his reasons, as he always did.

The oak pulpit standing out by itself above the school seats. The tall gallant form, the kindling eye, the voice, now soft as the tones of a flute, now clear and stirring as the call of the light infantry bugle, of him who stood there Sunday after Sunday, witnessing and pleading for his Lord, the King of righteousness and love and glory, with whose spirit he was filled, and in whose power he spoke. The long lines of young faces rising tier above tier down the whole length of the chapel, from the little boy's who had just left his mother to the young man's who was going out next week into the great world rejoicing in his strength ... But what was it after all which seized and held these 300 boys, dragging them out of themselves, willing or unwilling, for twenty minutes on Sunday afternoons ... We couldn't enter into half of what we heard; we hadn't the knowledge of our own hearts or the knowledge of one another, and little enough of the faith, hope and love needed to that end. But we listened, as all boys in their better moods will listen ... to a man whom we felt to be with all his heart and soul and strength striving against whatever was mean and unmanly and unrighteous in our little world. It was not the cold clear voice of one giving advice and warning from serene heights to those who were struggling and sinning below, but the warm living voice of one who was fighting for us and by our sides, and calling on us to help him and ourselves and one another. And so, wearily and little by little, but surely and steadily on the whole, was brought home to the young boy, for the first time, the meaning of his life: that it was no fool's or sluggard's paradise into which he had wandered by chance, but a battlefield ordained from on old, where there are no spectators, but the youngest must take his side, and the stakes are life and death. And he who roused this consciousness in them showed them at the same time, by every word he spoke in the pulpit, and by his whole daily life, how that battle was to be fought; and stood there before them their fellow-soldier and the captain of their band. The true sort of captain too for a boy's army, one who had no misgivings and gave no uncertain word of command, and, let who would yield or make truce, would fight the fight out (so every boy felt) to the last gasp and the last drop of blood. Other sides of his character might take hold and influence boys here and there, but it was this thoroughness and undaunted courage which more than anything else won his way to the hearts of the great mass of those on whom he left his mark ...

These sermons of Arnold's were dashed off in half an hour on Sunday mornings and perusers of his manuscripts have been surprised to find in them no crossings-out, no second thoughts. Some of his flintier harangues must indeed have been tough going for the younger boys. Were schools like theirs really `the very seats and nurseries of vice'? Had they themselves already supped `too largely of that poisoned bowl'? Would they in truth look back in years to come `with inexpressible regret' on those `hours which have been wasted in folly, or worse than folly'?

    Arnold's voice, in spite of Tom Brown's testimony, was not in the least flute-like. Others have described his delivery as harsh and grating. But his sermons were always short and, although aimed for publication, they were not easy to sleep through. Even when Arnold was abstractly ranting about sin, punishment, eternal damnation and suchlike, he could give the impression that this sermon was meant especially for you:

But how is it with you now? ... Do you think of God now? ... Do you say your prayers to Him? Do you still think that lying, and all those shuffling, dishonest excuses, which are as bad as lying, are base, and contemptible, and wicked? ... Do you still love to be kind to your companions, never teasing or ill-treating them? — or have you already been accustomed to the devilish pleasure of giving pain to others; and whilst you are yourselves teased and ill-used by some who are stronger than you, do you repeat the very same conduct to those who are weaker than you? Are you still anxious to please your parents; and, in saying your lessons, do you still retain the natural thought of a well-bred and noble disposition, that you would like to say them as well as you can, and to please those who teach you?

These interrogative lists were obviously calculated to keep each boy squirming in his seat. Now and again, though, Arnold answered his own questions, rather movingly. `And where are our departed friends now?' he asked on All Souls' Day, 1834. This question, he said, could be answered with `one word; but how much does that word contain!'. The boys must have expected the answer to be `Heaven', but Arnold had a better word for what he had in mind:

I cannot tell in what place they are, or with what degree of happiness or consciousness. I cannot tell if they regard us still, or if they can pray for us, or wish us any good. But they are in safety ... and under Christ's care, and ... we shall meet them when Christ comes again.

In 1834 Matthew Arnold was eleven, not yet enrolled at Rugby and not yet exposed to the full force of his father's public style. Nor, probably, did he know much of the Doctor's reputation in the world at large. By this date, Arnold was not only a well-known schoolteacher; he was also notorious as an intrepid controversialist. The grand gentlemen of Warwickshire who sat on the school's board of trustees could barely open a newspaper without coming across an attack on their dangerously `radical' headmaster. Arnold was what we would now speak of as `good copy': on politics, on Church reform, on corporal punishment, on Catholics, Dissenters, Jews. It was not always easy to predict the line he would take. He was by no means straightforwardly liberal in his views. But, whatever his position, he was always ready to espouse it with energy and `indiscretion'.

    And this may have come as a surprise to his employers. When Thomas Arnold was offered the headmastership of Rugby in 1828, the trustees had no idea what they were getting. Arnold was well connected in Oxford, where he had been a Fellow of Oriel, then mightily prestigious, but for nine years he had been teaching obscurely at a private school at Laleham in Middlesex. Born in the Isle of Wight in 1795, the son of a customs inspector, he had reached Oriel by way of scholarships to Winchester, then Corpus Christi, Oxford. Great things had been predicted for him but even at Oriel he was found to be too scrupulously wayward, too rigorously zealous for the truth. He delayed his ordination because he had doubts concerning `certain points' in the Thirty-Nine Articles. The doctrine of the blessed Trinity, for instance, gave him pause: he could not `get rid of a certain feeling of objections'. His friends advised him to conquer these objections by `main force', but he preferred to bide his time. He married, moved to Laleham, had the first six of his nine children, and seemed to have opted for a life of studious, home-based seclusion:

I have always thought that I should like to be aut Caesar aut nullus, and as it is pretty well settled that I shall not be Caesar, I am quite content to live in peace as nullus.

So he said. But he also confessed to being `one of the most ambitious men alive'. He used these Laleham years to stock his mind, to prepare for the great tasks that lay ahead. He worked on his Thucydides, wrote articles on Roman history, published his first Sermons, travelled a lot, learned German. In 1826 he wrote: `I hope to be allowed, before I die, to accomplish something in education, and also with regard to the Church.' His writings kept him in the public eye, and his Laleham pupils — who tended to be of sixth-form age — went on to university, where they spoke glowingly of his teaching prowess. When he applied for the Rugby headmastership, the Provost of Oriel wrote him a testimonial predicting that, if he got the job, he would `change the face of education all through the public schools of England'.

    It was this testimonial, some said, that gave Arnold the edge over his fifty or so rival applicants. And the trustees had good reason to be happy with their choice. The school's reputation was transformed; under Arnold, enrolments shot up from 136 boys when he arrived to 360 in his final year — a figure that might have been higher if Arnold had not been so free with his expulsions. Rugby's governors could not have predicted that their shy scholar from the sticks — and Arnold was shy at first, by all accounts — would turn into a firebrand pamphleteer.

    In 1829 the new head raised eyebrows by publishing The Christian Duty of Conceding the Claims of the Roman Catholics. He followed this a few years later with a plea for Church reform which argued for an Established Church that would assimilate all Christian sects, including the Dissenters, allow the laity more power and cut back on the privileges and pretensions of the clergy. Arnold's Church of England would welcome `great varieties of opinion and of ceremonies ... while it worshipped a common God'.

    This was in 1834, the year after the emergence of the Oxford Movement, which of course wanted just the opposite. John Keble, the Movement's founder, was one of Arnold's closest friends — indeed, the Movement was largely Oriel-based and staffed by several significant `friends of his youth' — but such loyalties, although still genuinely felt, did not stop him from penning a vitriolic magazine article, `The Oxford Malignants', which lambasted Keble and his High Anglican associates. As Arnold saw it, the tracts put out by the Oxford Movement threatened to obstruct all his own designs for Church reform. If successful in their aims, these Tractarians would make the established Church even more inaccessible, more remote from social issues, than it already was. In his view, the whole enterprise was really a last-ditch attempt to protect the mystique of the priesthood, and to shore up the assumptions of authority and privilege that went along with that mystique. `The fanaticism of mere tomfoolery,' he called it, and proceeded to denounce Newman, Pusey and the others as `formalist, Judaising fanatics who have ever been the peculiar disgrace of the Church of England', causing Newman to enquire, with deadly politesse: `But is Arnold a Christian?'

    A good question, from the Oxford point of view. As the High Anglicans understood it, Arnold — once a good chap, one of them, though flawed — had turned into a rough-tongued liberal activist, ready to sweep away the `one true Church', with its time-honoured rituals and doctrines, its apostolic birthright, its vestments and ceremonies (all of which they wished to see revitalised and re-enforced), for the sake of some vague, sleeves-up, utopia of Christian togetherness. The Oxford Movement, they would say, stood for the old poetry of belief. Reformers like Arnold represented the new prose.

    As Arthur Stanley indicates in his biography, Arnold's stance earned him some influential enemies. The year of his `Oxford Malignants' piece, 1836, was in many ways the low point of his career. His job at Rugby was under threat because of his pamphleteering, and he was viewed with suspicion, not to say with enmity, by several of his old admirers. Even former pupils, now at Oxford, and seduced — as most clever students were — by Newman's silver tongue, were made uneasy by Arnold's belligerent approach. In the coming years, this belligerence would soften. Arnold continued to stand firm against the Newmanites (as late as 1841 he was lamenting that `I scarcely know one amongst my dearest friends ... whom I do not believe to be in some point or other in grave error') but he came to regret the tone of some of his earlier pronouncements. `The Oxford Malignants' marked the climax of his youthful vehemence. A year earlier, he had turned forty. A year later, his son Matthew enrolled at Rugby, aged fourteen.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrationsix
1Dr Arnold of Rugby1
2'Crabby' in Childhood13
5First Poems55
6'Days of Lelia and Valentine'73
7Lansdowne, Clough and Marguerite92
8The Strayed Reveller, Obermann and Marguerite, Once More109
9Marriage to Miss Wightman128
10Empedocles Renounced148
11'This for our wisest!'164
12A Professor of Poetry179
13Last Poems197

What People are Saying About This

William H. Pritchard

Ian Hamilton is one of the best contemporary poetry critics, so it is good to have this 'poetic life' of Matthew Arnold... Hamilton treats both life and work with sympathy and discrimination, as well as with the humor that has always characterized his engagements with literature. Elegantly and economically argued throughout, A Gift Imprisoned provides further evidence that Arnold is very much alive for us today.

Edward Mendelsohn

Hamilton's book vindicates literary biography by continually and persuasively illuminating Arnold's poems.

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A Gift Imprisoned: The Poetic Life of Matthew Arnold 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
steveiewoolf More than 1 year ago
“The present book is an attempt to animate certain key moments, or turning points, in Arnold’s passage from the poetic life to the prose of his later years.” The above is a very honest statement quoted from the book’s preface. Ian Hamilton is not trying to pull over the reader’s eyes by suggesting that his book is the complete and definitive life of Matthew Arnold. This stamp of honesty is ingrained throughout the book, within his style of writing, his objectiveness and his refraining from turning the biography into a hagiography. Ian Hamilton has created a remarkable piece of work. It is made even more remarkable as it appears Arnold did not leave behind a bounty of diaries, letters etc from which a biography could be constructed.   Unlike some of his contemporaries, Wordsworth, Browning and Tennyson, Arnold has all but been forgotten, his poetry no longer fashionable, consigned to be a poet only enjoyed by scholars. While Arnold’s poetry never had the emotional charge of Wordsworth or the introspective humanity of Tennyson, it did have a grace and a force of nature. While the poetry of his contemporaries had all the beauty and style of a supermodel, Arnold’s poetry was the beauty of the soul, the person within not the external superficial beauty that one could tire of looking at.  Ah, love, let us be true To one another! for the world, which seems To lie before us like a land of dreams, So various, so beautiful, so new, Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain; And we are here as on a darkling plain Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, Where ignorant armies clash by night. Dover Beach Ian Hamilton does a great service to the memory of Matthew Arnold with his insightful, intelligent and penetrating analysis of Arnold’s verse. Hamilton shows us the development of Arnold’s poetry and as such puts that work in context biographically and historically.  If there is one thing that a biography of a poet’s life should try to attain is to have the reader want to read or reread the poetry of the biographer’s subject. Arnold turned his back on the world of poetry to concentrate on prose during the last twenty or so years of this life. The nineteenth century and beyond was a poorer place because of this decision.  “He thrust is gift in prison till it died”  W.H. Auden.