Matthew Arnold was born in Laleham-on-the-Thames, sixteen miles west of London, the eldest son of
Thomas Arnold, historian and headmaster of
Rugby School. The family moved to Rugby in 1828 (6) when Thomas Arnold took up his post as headmaster at the school. The future poet,
Arthur Hugh Clough, became a pupil in 1829 (7), and, though four years older than Matthew Arnold, became a lifelong friend and correspondent. At this time the family began to spend their summers in the Lake District, and in 1830 (8) Matthew Arnold first met the poet
He was sent back to Laleham as a boarder at his uncle John Buckland’s preparatory school in 1831 (9), where he continued for a year. He then returned home to be tutored along with his younger brother, Tom, by Herbert Hill, a cousin of the poet
His father had a holiday house built at Fox How between Ambleside and Rydal in the Lake District on a twenty acre site suggested by Wordsworth, which the Arnold family continued to use until the 1920’s.
The Fox How Magazine
From 1838 (16) to 1842 (20) the Arnold children produced a twice yearly
Fox How Magazine, featuring poetry by Matthew.
He was sent to Winchester in 1836 (14), and Rugby School in 1837 (15), then entered
Balliol College, Oxford (1841, 19) on a scholarship unexpectedly won against the considerable opposition of 33 other candidates. His brother Tom wrote of him at this time : ‘During those years my brother was cultivating his poetic gift carefully, but his exuberant, versatile nature claimed other satisfactions. His keen bantering talk made him something of a social lion among the Oxford men, he even began to dress fashionably.’
Death of father
His father died suddenly in 1842 (20).
Teaching and travel
He got a second in his final examinations, to the considerable disappointment of his family. After leaving Oxford he taught at Rugby School for a time. In 1845 (23) he studied for and was awarded a fellowship at
Oriel College, and for the next two years was very much free to do as he pleased, continuing to read widely, travelling in Wales, Ireland and France, staying a while in London, and writing poetry.
He was given the position of private secretary to
Lord Lansdowne in 1847 (25), mainly due to the peer’s high regard for his father, and worked for the next four years at Lansdowne House in Berkeley Square, receiving generous holidays from his employer, during which he travelled widely on the Continent.
First published poetry
He published his first book of poetry,
The Strayed Reveller and Other Poems, anonymously in 1849 (27). Rossetti commented on the volume in
The Germ, finding a lack of passion, and remarking that the verse might almost be read as prose. Arnold continued to compose and theorise about poetry.
The inspector of schools
In 1851 (29) he was appointed to a position as inspector of schools by Lansdowne, an occupation to which he devoted a large part of his energies for the next 35 years.
His new financial security allowed him to marry Fanny Lucy (Flu) Wightman, the daughter of a judge who would bear him six children, three of whom died in childhood.
Empedocles on Etna and Other Poems in (1852, 30), again anonymously, and
Poems (1853, 31), under his own name, with selected poetry from his earlier works and with a preface in which he began to outline his critical theories on poetry.
Poems, Second Series appeared in 1855 (33). In 1857 (35) he was elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford, a post he held for the next ten years, and, in the same year, he published the blank verse tragedy
Merope, condemned generally as a stiff imitation of Sophocles.
Criticism began to take a more important place in his output, and he published his
Lectures on Translating Homer in 1861 (39), followed by Last Words on Translating Homer in 1862 (40) and
Essays on Criticism in 1865 (43), most of his writings appearing initially as individual essays in periodicals. His
New Poems of 1867 (45) had sold 1000 copies by the following year, and was praised by both
Theology and social theory
He began devoting his attention to social and theological subjects, and
Literature and Dogma (1873, 51), which addressed the then huge market for religious publications, and dealt with the contemporary concerns of religious faith and the perceived crisis of Christianity, sold more than 100,000 copies. His
Last Essays on Church and Religion (1877, 55) included the essay The Church of
England, first delivered as a lecture to the London Clergy at Sion College at the invitation of
Henry Milman, in which he berated them for their obsequiousness to the landed and propertied classes, pointing out that such attitudes had no place in the Christian religion. He concluded his writings on religion with the observation that he believed Christianity would survive because the teachings of Christ addressed issues central to the moral experience of mankind.
In 1883 (61)
Gladstone offered him a pension of £250 a year, which he accepted, though he took it to mean simply that Gladstone did not intend for him to gain promotion.
Lectures in the USA
He had doubts about his abilities as a public speaker, but nevertheless made two lecture tours to the USA, which were promoted by
Richard D’Oyley Carte and sponsored by
Andrew Carnegie. The lectures were published later as
Discourses in America (1885, 63). Macmillan brought out a three volume edition of his poems, which were now outselling his prose works, in 1885 (63).
He died suddenly in 1888 (66) whilst walking with his wife to catch a tram in Liverpool to meet his daughter, who was arriving on a boat from the USA.
Matthew Arnold Biography : Links
Elizabethan poets :
17th century poets
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Percy Bysshe Shelley
George Gordon, Lord Byron
Alfred Lord Tennyson