- Matthew Arnold
Book-length studies of Arnold have not been numerous in recent years, but I see that Kate Campbell's Matthew Arnold has been published recently by Northcote in its "Writers and Their Work" series, and I will discuss it in next year's essay. Also I want to mention that Stefan Collini's Matthew Arnold: A Critical Portrait has just been reissued by Oxford's Clarendon Press. Originally published in 1988, Collini's book has been for the past two decades a popular introductory text on Arnold and—along with other works such as Linda Ray Pratt's Matthew Arnold Revisited (Twayne, 2000), Lawrence W. Mazzeno's Matthew Arnold: The Critical Legacy (Camden House, 1999), and my own Matthew Arnold: A Literary Life (Macmillan, 1998)–well suited for use in university graduate seminars on Victorian literature.
The 1994 edition of Collini's book (the one reissued) is especially interesting for an "Afterward" in which he expresses regret that his sympathetic portrait of Arnold had been misconstrued by those who did not understand that he does not necessarily agree with all of Arnold's "zealous champions" and has no "wish to defend all of Arnold's particular judgements or tastes" or sympathy with those who seek to appropriate Arnold in order to "add a historical veneer to an intransigent anti-modernism." Collini's methods are consistent with Arnold's characteristically "disinterested," "unsystematic" search for the "best ideas" without strict adherence to one's political [End Page 302] affiliations. In fact, Collini was one of the twentieth-century scholars who emphasized the significance of Arnold's literary persona, his tone, his voice. According to this view, Arnold's critical voice is one of the most significant innovations in nineteenth-century English letters; however, although Collini is careful to concede his own appreciation for political thought and to qualify his claims for culture while persistently defending the value of cultural discourse, over the years he has been attacked as being "politically incorrect" by those who would identify him with what they believe to be a reactionary, "Arnoldian" point of view. Among the book chapters focusing on Arnold in last year's publications is "Matthew Arnold, Culture and the Intellectual" in Angie Sandhu's Intellectuals and the People (Palgrave Macmillan), and indeed Collini figures prominently in her assessment of those who insist on the "ordinariness" of intellectuals today but stop short of "challenging the material and theoretical conditions that maintain the authority and power of the intellectual." Rejecting the views of those who believe in the concept of "universal truth" as embodied in, for example, ancient Greek poetry, Sandhu argues that Arnold's insistence on the distinction between culture and politics obscures "the power and authority that his prescriptions granted to the English middle classes" and like the Marxist critics who preceded her, she attacks the idea of "intellectual autonomy" (in the tradition of Arnold's "best self"), assuming that Arnold's legacy of culture essentially privileges the bourgeoisie. According to Sandhu, "a degraded working class was essential to the entire mission of pursuing excellence since excellence was, Arnold was sure, eminently lacking in those who expressed a class identity."
Sandhu's strident attack on "Arnoldian culture" may seem a tangential issue in a discussion of scholarship that emphasizes Arnold's poetry, but as illustrated by several of the publications discussed below, current scholarship routinely combines references to Arnold's poems and his critical essays in ways that do not admit of an easy generic dichotomy between poetry and critical prose, and, as pointed out before in this annual essay, Arnold's literary criticism in any case focuses consistently on poetry.
A blurb on the back cover of Collini's book describes Arnold as "the leading critic and essayist of the Victorian age and the author of the period's most haunting poems of melancholy and loss," and surely among those haunting poems the best known is "Dover Beach," which remains a very popular poem today, perhaps the most popular Victorian poem of all. Two years ago, I discussed Ian McEwan's use of the poem in his 2005 novel Saturday, and interpretations of that use by Elaine Hadley...