A Very Short Biography of Matthew Arnold
An interesting introduction to Arnold’s life
Matthew Arnold (1822-88) is best-remembered as a poet, although very few of his poems remain widely known. ‘Dover Beach’ is the most famous of these. But he led a curious life and has left us with some lasting legacies, so in this post we intend to offer a very short biography of Matthew Arnold, taking in the highlights of his life and work.
Matthew Arnold was born in Surrey, England on Christmas Eve 1822, the son of Thomas Arnold, influential and celebrated schoolteacher and Headmaster of Rugby School, where young Matthew studied. Thomas Arnold would later be immortalised in the Thomas Hughes classic Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857). Arnold – Matthew, that is – had to wear leg braces for two years during his childhood to correct crooked legs. He went on to study Classics at the University of Oxford, where he became lifelong friends with another poet, Arthur Hugh Clough, who had also been at Rugby School. Arnold would later praise Oxford in his poetry as the ‘city of dreaming spires’, a phrase still often used to describe the city.
Arnold’s father was a pioneering schoolmaster, and education was clearly in the Arnold blood. In 1851, Matthew Arnold became an inspector of schools, a job he would have until a few years before his death. It was around this time that Arnold, while on his honeymoon at Dover, has the idea for his most famous poem, ‘Dover Beach’, which depicts the decline of religious faith in England using the metaphor of a retreating tide. He would not publish this poem until 1867. It was in 1867, too, that he began publishing a series of essays that would become his most influential prose work, Culture and Anarchy (1869). In this book, Arnold argued that people should be educated in the Bible, and in literature more generally, as a way of making them behave better and have a greater sense of their identity and the country they belonged to. England, Arnold said, was losing its way and lapsing into philistinism, and culture – poetry included – was a way of saving the country from itself.
Arnold gave up writing poetry several decades before his death, as he was dissatisfied with what he’d written. In 1869, he wrote to his mother:
My poems represent, on the whole, the main movement of mind of the last quarter of a century, and thus they will probably have their day as people become conscious to themselves of what that movement of mind is, and interested in the literary productions which reflect it.
He was, however, elected Professor of Poetry at his alma mater, the University of Oxford, in 1857. He died in 1888.
Matthew Arnold is best-remembered for ‘Dover Beach’ and so has a reputation for being something of a gloomy and serious poet, and it’s true that there aren’t many lighter moments in his good poetry. But he represents the mood of his time better than many of his contemporaries, with the possible exception of Tennyson. And as well as penning ‘Thyrsis’, his celebrated elegy for the death of his old friend Arthur Hugh Clough, Arnold also wrote elegies for his pet dog Geist and his canary Matthias. His great-nephew was Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World.
We hope you found this very short biography of Matthew Arnold helpful. You can continue to explore his life and work by reading his classic poem, ‘Shakespeare’.
Further reading and sources: Michael Schmidt, The Lives Of The Poets.
Image: Matthew Arnold cartoon by Frederick Waddy, 1872; Wikimedia Commons.