- Matthew Arnold
In the recent past there has not been a great deal of scholarship offering new readings of individual works by Arnold, but Arnold's poetry and prose and his role as "the preeminent intellectual authority of late Victorian England" (in the words of Antony H. Harrison in his 1998 book Victorian Poets and the Politics of Culture)are being discussed in a remarkable variety of historical and cultural contexts.
Harrison himself, in a special edition of VP devoted to the "Spasmodic" school of poetry, gives us "Victorian Culture Wars: Alexander Smith, Arthur Hugh Clough, and Matthew Arnold" (42: 509-520), in which he discusses Arnold's negative assessment of the popular Smith and his disappointment with his old friend Clough, who defended Smith and the Spasmodics and in an 1853 review contrasted the originality and energy of Smith with the tired aestheticism of poets like Arnold. Harrison does not really attempt to rescue the reputation of Smith's poetry, with its overblown, sensational style, which is rarely read today. However, he emphasizes Clough's appreciation of the "profoundly democratic" quality of Smith's "transcendental realism" and he finds evidence of "class warfare" in Arnold's rejection of Smith as the representative of a potential new social order. Harrison connects Arnold's reaction to Smith with his problematic relationships with Tennyson and, especially, the Romantic Keats, whose influence on Arnold's own poetry made the Victorian uncomfortable. Harrison invites readers to take a new look at the cultural conflicts that influenced Arnold's important "Preface" of 1853.
Clough's 1853 essay was published in the North American Review, and Harrison suggests that the "radically democratizing impulse" it incorporates is especially appropriate for the American audience. Arnold's important relationship with America is well known, and two recent articles add to our understanding of its complexity. Amanda Adams' "The Uses of Distinction: Matthew Arnold and American Literary Realism" (American Literary Realism 37: 38-49) discusses the implications of the curious literary hoax associated with Arnold's American lecture tour of 1883-84. Taking advantage of Arnold's popular image as an arrogant, elitist "apostle of culture" who tended to [End Page 340] patronize unsophisticated Americans, the editor of the Chicago Daily News, angry at the rival Chicago Tribune for pirating his foreign news reports, wrote a bogus story about a very ill-natured account by Arnold of his visit to Chicago—which had supposedly appeared in the "Pall Mall Journal"—and through a devious scheme arranged to have it picked up by the Tribune. Adams deals with the American responses to the hoax after it was revealed: most interestingly, American intellectuals who had been less than approving of Arnold's views in the past were highly critical of those who had responded belligerently to what they took to be Arnold's insulting comments about Chicago and the American public. For example, the editors of the Nation and Harper's Weekly "chastised readers for their failure to recognize a weak imitation of Arnold's style, implying that an intimate familiarity with Arnoldian thinking was prerequisite to an appropriate rejection of it." Adams analyzes this response in terms of a "realist" aesthetic that continued to value hierarchical categories of critical judgment while promoting an egalitarian vision.
Adams is interested in Arnold in terms of his American reputation as a social critic rather than the influence of his individual literary or critical works, but Peter Norberg adds to what was already known about American Herman Melville's readings and use of Arnold's poetry and criticism in "Finding an Audience for Clarel in Matthew Arnold's Essays in Criticism" (Leviathan 6: 35-54). In deciding to write his own "modern epic," Melville was strongly influenced by Arnold's concept of the "grand style," and Norberg shows in detail how Melville "used Arnold's criticism to refine his own sense of poetic techniques." According to Norberg, Melville's clearly expressed interest in using the "grand style" to promote an Arnoldian "disinterested" perspective in Clarel should put to rest speculations by some critics that Melville meant to criticize Arnold in his poem by associating him with the unsympathetic character Derwent. On the...