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  • Beyond the Death of the Author: Matthew Arnold’s Two Audiences, 1888–1930
  • Bill Bell (bio)

My poems represent, on the whole, the main movement of mind of the last quarter of a century, and thus 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.

—Matthew Arnold to his mother, June 1869

Much has recently been written about the legitimizing role of the critical establishment in the formation of canons of taste. In the pages that follow I would like to concentrate on anthologization of a very specific kind: that is, the way in which, within a single writer’s oeuvre, certain texts (and even fragments of text) are over time given priority over others (apparent in the language of the “seminal,” the “major” and the “minor,” the “best” and “worst,” the “representative work”), the process, in other words, by which a particular image of the author becomes historically perpetuated in and through the selection of texts after his death.

Remarkably, modern reputation studies have often neglected the material text in the study of authorial reputation, preferring instead to treat influence as primarily a discursive phenomenon. Among the questions that a study of textual production might bring to bear are: What titles of an author were in circulation? How many copies were being distributed at any given moment? Who read him? Why? and How? The case of Matthew Arnold presents us with a particularly interesting example of these principles at work, not only because of the sheer diversity of the textual output that he left behind but also because the moment of his death so narrowly precedes the [End Page 155] crucial period in the 1890s that might itself be said to have brought to a crisis certain issues surrounding notions of aesthetic taste.

When Matthew Arnold died in 1888, it was clear there was going to be trouble. It is difficult now to imagine the problems faced by the few brave critics who then took it upon themselves to evaluate the significance of his large corpus, some of which had been out of print for decades. In accordance with critical convention, the task facing his obituary writers was to give coherent form to an otherwise complex tangle of texts: poetry, criticism, theology, educational writings, social critique. Arnold had written on everything from Ordnance Survey maps to translations of Homer. And now that the man was dead, it was necessary to say something definitive about the Author. By far the most widely discussed issue after his death was the form that his future canon would take. In earnest, critics began to offer predictions of the Arnoldian works that would be read by generations who inhabited some far-off time, perhaps not realizing that they were in the very process of helping to determine that canon themselves.

In 1888 there was almost universal agreement that, while the general reader knew Arnold by the populist controversies for which he had regrettably abandoned literature proper, his poetry was written for, and could only really be appreciated by, a select audience. More than one critic went back to Swinburne’s 1867 review in the Fortnightly, in which it was remarked that “a strong personal tone of character stamped and ingrained into a man’s work, if more offensive at first to the mass, is likelier to find favour before long in the sight of some small body or sect of students.” 1 So distinct and individual was Arnold’s poetry, according to the Cambridge don A. C. Benson, that he was “never likely to be a popular author,” even less so since his was “a poetry which it requires a special initiation to comprehend.” 2 Never a popular poet, Arnold (maintained Frederic Harrison) had always appealed “to those who thirst for the pure Catalian spring, inspired by lofty thoughts, who care for . . . ‘high seriousness.”‘ 3 Even Leslie Stephen, who perhaps half ironically included himself among the “Philistines” of Arnold’s readership, asserted that Arnold had written “for a small class of cultivated people.” 4 By far the strongest expression of the exclusivity of Arnold’s poetic...

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