|Selected Writings, Vol. 3, William Sharp||ON MATTHEW ARNOLD
WHEN Matthew Arnold died, one of the greatest of his contemporaries said of
him, "There goes our last Greek."
In the sense in which it was uttered, the saying was singularly apt. The most English of Englishmen was, in his genius recognisably, in his temperament distinctively, and in his natural outlook upon the essential aspects, conditions, and facts of life, Hellenic. Nevertheless, Arnold is, in the narrow interpretation, pre-eminently the typical English writer of our century. There are three great groups into which British authors segregate : the distinctively Anglo-Saxon, the distinctively Anglo-Celtic, and the distinctively English. The third is but the parochial part of the first : the disengaged, the national in the strictly local and limited sense. In our own day Matthew Arnold is its foremost representative. Robert Browning, William Morris, and Thomas Hardy are typical exponents of the first; Alfred Tennyson, Algernon Charles A. Swinburne, and George Meredith, of the second. Of the third there are few eminent, though innumerable minor, exemplars. The point of view is here of less importance than the approach. No one could have a saner, a more serene, a wider outlook than Arnold had. It was in the method of his approach to his subjects that he displayed how merely temperamental was his Hellenism, how accidental his inclination towards the poles of Athens and Paris, how saturated with nationality his nature.
The poet, the high-priest of Culture, the interpreter, the critic of literature and thought, the educationist, the politician Matthew Arnold was all these. As a politician, in other than the parliamentary sense, and as an interested observer in the science of contemporary sociology, his insight was notably deficient and his point of view parochial rather than imperial. In all his best work the poet in him came to the rescue of "the son of Dr. Arnold" : as, in his life as a man, the innate Matthew Arnold habitually revealed itself through his crust of caste-prejudice and family-pride. He was made up of contradictions as are all strongly individual natures. It would be difficult, for example, to indicate any great writer of our time less likely to understand the depth and potency of the Celtic element in our national life. Yet, we are confronted by the fact that it was Matthew Arnold who first disclosed to his countrymen not only the beauty and the charm of Celtic literature, but the need of a more intimate understanding of, a livelier sympathy with, Celtic life and thought. Here we have the poet : whose functions, as ever, are those of the seer and interpreter as well as of the singer. It was not the outer, the accidental Matthew Arnold, but the man of genius---child of the land where there is no nationality---who saw in a flash, from a leading article in the Times in disparagement of the Celtic idea, that here, in the prevalent unimaginative insularity of mind and judgment, lies our real difficulty in the government of Ireland.
The time has not yet come for a proper estimate of the prose writings and influence of Matthew Arnold. It is more than likely that much of his argumentative work will be found to be of its time and for its time only : and that of his many critical and interpretative studies only those which deal with literature per se, and pre-eminently the Celtic Essay, will survive. He was, above all else---that is, as an essayist---an illuminator. In this respect he was more akin to Renan than to his acknowledged master, Sainte-Beuve. Sainte-Beuve's strength lies in analysis and exposition. Renan's in synthesis and illumination. It was to Renan, moreover, that he owed his sudden and vivid interest in Celtic literature : so that, indirectly, it is to Ernest Renan we are indebted for the famous Celtic Essay, that unmistakable offspring of La Poésie, des Races Celtiques. Renan's essay in France and Germany, and Matthew Arnold's in this country and in America, were the torches which have lit so many Celtic brands, or, let us say, were the two winds which fanned the Celtic flame which is now one of the most potent influences in contemporary literature. The mainsprings of contemporary Celticism (apart from philology) are in Macpherson's Ossian and in the Mabinogion of Lady Charlotte Guest ; but the influence of these was waning, along with the great romantic movement which they had helped to inspire or sustain, when, in France, La Poésie des Races Celtiques appeared, and, about ten years later, in England, Matthew Arnold's famous essay-Arnold's prose writings are familiar to all lovers of literature for their lucidity of thought, their pure and limpid style, and their distinctive charm. Whether or not they become part of enduring literature, this is certain: that their influence has been, and probably will continue to be, one of profound value. Arnold's moderation, sanity, reticence, and dignity, with his sunny geniality, render him an invaluable model. He will, for his fellow-craftsmen at any rate, and indeed for all who love literature, remain one of the most tonic writers of the Victorian age.
The Celtic essay, however, is of particular interest : for here is the prose-bridge which leads us to the poetry of Matthew Arnold. All lovers of poetry know the remoteness of Arnold from "that diviner air that poets breathe," in his appreciations of Keats and Shelley : but here, certainly, we recognise in what Dryden calls "the other harmony," the voice which we listen to with so much pleasure when it comes vivid in music and light---the voice that began with the haunting strains of The Strayed Reveller and closed in the anthem-tones of a noble ode.
The news of, Matthew Arnold's death caused a thrill of poignant regret, not only throughout these islands, but among all English-speaking peoples. As a literary and philosophical critic he had so long been one of the most familiar figures in our midst, he had so greatly moulded and influenced the finer minds of two generations, and he had so identified himself with the great conservative movement---for such it really was---of culture versus radically democratic tendencies, that to many it seemed as if the helmsman had left the vessel which he, and he alone, had been able skillfully to pilot. And yet Matthew Arnold was not in the truest sense a popular man. He did not influence, and never could have influenced, the mass of the people. He wished to be a social regenerator, but, consciously or unconsciously, he always stood aloof from, always showed his superiority to, those whom he wished to help and uplift. Two or three years before his death he received a letter from a working man, in which it was pointed out to him that the reason why his words received so little attention among the masses, the reason why his gospel of "sweetness and light" was so much ignored, was that both man and gospel seemed too far removed from common humanity. The author of Culture and Anarchy could not see this. He had always been so keenly interested in everything appertaining to the welfare of his species that to be told he was a mere doctrinaire was something he did not at all relish. But he wrote to his correspondent, and assured him that he was mistaken, adding for himself that the longer he lived, and the more he thought over the problems of life, the more fully he recognised that the aims of democracy were futile and its methods harmful, and that the only hope of the elevation of the masses, as the hackneyed phrase runs, lay in a gradual growth of culture. Arnold omitted to explain what he meant by culture, and probably his correspondent remained as much in the dark as before. This omission was very characteristic of the man. He was ever addicted to over-confidence in, to self satisfaction with, words which lie stamped more or less with a special significance of his own---"culture," "sweetness," "light," "Philistine," and the like. He was unable, latterly at any rate, to perceive that "Culture" was a mere empty shibboleth to many people. He hoped and believed that it had all the magic properties of "Open Sesame." To him it meant so much, ernbraced so much, that he could not understand how it could to some signify nothing in particular---perhaps at most a good general education. It was this intellectual aloofness, combined with the always perceptible keenly critical spirit, and the prevailing conception of him as a serene but unenthusiastic mentor, that made him admired more than loved. Henry James, however, has given expression (I think while Matthew Arnold was alive) to the views of his more ardent admirers. "They owe," he says---and by "they " he means all discreet and discriminating lovers of contemporary literature---"they owe a debt of gratitude for his admirable exariaple for having placed the standard of successful expression, of literary feeling and good manners, so high. They never tire of him---they read him again and, again. They think the wit and humour of Friendship's Garland the most delicate possible, the luminosity of Culture and Anarchy almost dazzling, the eloquence of such a paper as the article on Lord Falkland in the Mixed Essays irresistible. They find him, in a word, more than any one else, the happily proportioned, the truly distinguished man of letters. When there is a question of his efficacy, his, influence, it seems to me enough to ask one's self what we should have done without him, to think how much we should have missed him, and how he has salted and seasoned our public conversation, In his absence the whole tone of discussion would have seemed more stupid, more literal. Without his irony to play over its surface, to clip it here and there of its occasional rustiness, the life of our Anglo-Saxon race would present a much greater appearance of insensibility."
Having quoted from Henry James, I am tempted to quote further, and select this fine and just estimate of Arnold as a poet:
"Splendour, music, passion, breadth of movement and rhythm, we find in him in no great abundance ; what we do find is high distinction of feeling (to use his own word), a temperance, a kind of modesty of expression, which is at the same time an artistic resource---the complexion of his work ; and a remarkable faculty for touching the chords which connect our feelings with the things that others have done and spoken. In other words, though there is in Mr. Arnold's poems a constant reference to nature, or to Wordsworth, which is almost the same thing (sic !), there is even a more implicit reference to civilisation, literature, and the intellectual experience of man. He is the poet of the man of culture, that accomplished being whom he long ago held up for our consideration. Above all, he is the poet of his age, of the moment in which we live, of our "modernity," as the new school of criticism in France gives us perhaps licence to say. When he speaks of the past, it is with the knowledge which only our own time has of it. With its cultivated simplicity, its aversion to cheap ornament its slight abuse of meagreness for distinction's sake, his verse has a kind of minor magic and always goes to the point---the particular ache, or regret, or conjecture, to which poetry is supposed to address itself. It rests the mind, after a good deal of the other poetical work of the day---it rests the mind, and I think I may add that it nourishes it."
Certainly, his indirect influence---generally in the instance of great writers, more potent than a more immediate one---has been almost incalculable. Through other intellects, by channels innumerable, he materially helped to mould contemporary thought, not only in matters literary, but in social ethics and religion. No other critic, and perhaps few poets save Wordsworth and Coleridge, have so fully realised and endorsed the observation of Aristotle, that "the superiority of poetry over history consists in its possessing a higher truth and a higher seriousness."
"The breath and finer spirit of all knowledge that is what Wordsworth called poetry, and what Matthew Arnold quotes with keen appreciation, in a famous essay. But Arnold speaks even more emphatically than Wordsworth : he claims for poetry a supreme destiny as well as a high function "the spirit of comfort for the coming generations." The future of poetry, he wrote, is immense,* "because in poetry, where it is worthy of its high destinies, our race, as time goes on, will find an ever surer and surer stay. There is not a creed which is not shaken, not an accredited dogma which is not shown to be questionable, not a received tradition which does not threaten to dissolve. Our religion has materialised itself in the fact, in the supposed fact ; it has attached its emotion to the fact, and the fact is failing it. But for poetry now "he idea is everything ; the rest is a world of illusion, of divine illusion. Poetry attaches its emotion to the idea ; the idea is the fact. The strongest part of our religion to-day is its unconscious poetry. . . . *In his General Introduction to Ward's English Poets.
Without poetry, our science will appear incomplete ; and most of
what now passes with us for religion and philosophy will be replaced by poetry. Science, I
say, will appear incomplete without it. For finely and truly does Wordsworth call poetry
'the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all science,' and what is a
countenance without its expression? The day will come when we shall wonder at ourselves
for having trusted to them, for having taken them seriously ; and the more we perceive
their hollowness, the more we shall prize 'the breath and finer spirit of knowledge '
offered to us by poetry."
Not here, O Apollo,
Yet it is needful to remember that in the sphere
of poetry, as in the domain of the spiritual, "in my Father's house are many
mansions." It is Matthew Arnold's distinction, that his is one of the most vigorous
and beautiful minds that, finding expression in rhythmic beauty, have confronted the
narrowing horizons of life : that he confronts them with fearlesss outlook, with noble
resignation, with an austere hopefulness which, to many scarce worth the sacrificial pain
wherewith that remnant is won or maintained, is at least sanely measured and sanely