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Victorian Poetry 41.1 (2003) 93-111

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Crowd Management:
Matthew Arnold and the Science of Society

Gage McWeeny

Through the length and breadth of our nation a sense,—vague and obscure as yet,—of weariness with the old organisations ... works and grows. In the House of Commons the old organisations must inevitably be most enduring and strongest, the transformation must inevitably be longest in showing itself; and it may truly be averred, therefore, that at the present juncture the centre of movement is not in the House of Commons. It is in the fermenting mind of the nation; and his is for the next twenty years the real influence who can address himself to this.

Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy (1866-69)

The destinies of nations are elaborated at present in the heart of the masses, and no longer in the councils of princes.

Gustave Le Bon, The Crowd (1896)

GUSTAVE LE BON DECLARED IN HIS 1896 TEXT THAT THE COMING AGE WASTO be "The Era of the Crowd." Matthew Arnold's own handbook to crowd control, Culture and Anarchy, published in 1869, suggests however that Le Bon merely sensationalized elements already potent enough some thirty years earlier to occasion Arnold's polemic on behalf of culture. Energizing Arnold's claims that through culture's opposition to and suppression of anarchy lies the way not only to "perfection, but even to safety," "the era of the crowd" seems already to have arrived by the middle of the nineteenth century. While Arnold's sloganeering on behalf of culture produced such phrases as "the best that's been thought and said" and "sweetness and light," culture's antagonist, anarchy, has been a less conspicuous part of Arnold's critical legacy. As the above passage indicates, however, the power of the crowd figured by the mass "fermenting mind of the nation" should rightfully [End Page 93] be accorded a signal place in reading Culture and Anarchy, a text whose own apocalyptic tones resonate in the amplified echoes of Le Bon. 1

The "monster-procession" of the Reform League's demonstrations for an expanded franchise in July 1866, a demonstration that turned riotous after police refused the league access to Hyde Park, inspired Arnold to revise his initial lecture's title, "Culture and its Enemies," and give his series of essays the title of Culture and Anarchy upon publication in book form in 1869. Officially relegating the anarchic crowd to a wound in the social body, Arnold insists that the "best self " of culture, "enjoins us to set our faces against" "whatever brings risk of tumult and disorder," most egregiously, the "multitudinous processions in the streets of our crowded towns" (CA, p. 100). If these multitudinous meetings are to be put down, as Arnold insists, by the soothing effects of "culture," the crowd duly disperses, but does not quite disappear. Instead, in spite of a book intended to castigate and expel it as anarchic, the crowd scatters, only to regroup. The collective character of the crowd is manifest not only in "monster processions," but also in the men of culture who are "docile echoes of the eternal voice, pliant organs of the infinite will," and our "best self " by which "we are united, impersonal, at harmony" (CA, pp. 186, 99). Even as the crowd is to be banished, Arnold acknowledges its governing power as a figure for the social realm generally, the vast "fermenting mind" of the nation. Occupying a "centre of movement" that cannot be ignored, the crowd's status as both anarchy and the future of power for years to come impels in Arnold's work figurative efflorescences of a social force that can be acknowledged officially only in its suppression.

Arnold's well-known efforts to dispel the crowd in Culture and Anarchy, however, also run the risk of eclipsing other, earlier manifestations of the crowd in his work. While Culture and Anarchy is the site of the crowd's most infamous gathering in Arnold's corpus, reading the poetry of the years prior to his critical writings reveals that Arnold...