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Matthew Arnold: Poetry & Criticism

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  • 0:00 Matthew Arnold Biography
  • 0:48 Matthew Arnold Poetry
  • 3:28 Matthew Arnold Criticism
  • 6:04 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Benjamin Gaines

Benjamin has his master's degree in literature and has taught writing in and out of academia.

Matthew Arnold was an English poet and critic during the Victorian period. In this lesson, learn more about his thoughts on the role that poetry as well as literary and cultural criticism should have in society.

Matthew Arnold Biography

Put simply, Matthew Arnold was a poet and literary critic whose influence continued long after his death. He was the son of the prominent English headmaster Thomas Arnold, an educator known for his influence on school reforms in the nineteenth century. His father's interest in education also manifested in young Matthew, who spent much of his life working as a professor or school inspector.

His time as a school inspector caused Matthew Arnold to travel a great deal, giving him a broad experience of England and continental Europe. At the same time, his constant analysis and judgment of schools and education gifted him with added perspective on society and learning. Today, Arnold is remembered both for his poetry and his literary and cultural criticism.

Matthew Arnold Poetry

'Dover Beach'

First, we'll look at 'Dover Beach.'

Matthew Arnold's poetry includes reflections on life, an appreciation for the culture and thought of classical antiquity, and contemplation of the shortcomings of modern life. One of the best examples of these themes is his poem 'Dover Beach.'

Dover Beach is set on the English side of the Strait of Dover, the point in England closest to continental Europe. The poem features a speaker addressing his beloved, describing the beautiful view of the waves and the sounds of the seashore. Arnold spent his honeymoon at Dover Beach, and while it was never directly addressed to his wife, the parallels between the poem and his own experiences certainly make it possible that this poem was at least partially addressed to her.

Initially, these poetic descriptions are picturesque, describing the captivating scale of nature. As the poem goes on, a certain sadness begins creeping into the description. The speaker talks about how the 'sea of faith' that once filled the world is now retreating like the tide. He speaks of its 'melancholy, long, withdrawing roar.' This reflects the recurring concern Arnold had about the state of belief in a world increasingly dominated by material interests.

By the end of the poem, the speaker calls upon his love to be true, claiming that the beautiful world before them lacks joy, love, peace, and all good things. Instead, these two lovers find themselves adrift in a dark, hopeless world where the more noble aspects of humanity are all but lost.

'To Margaret: Continued'

Next, we'll look at 'To Margaret: Continued.'

This pensive, sorrowful tone is typical of Arnold's poetry, much of which contemplated the lack of nobility and goodness in the world and the isolation of self. Another example of Arnold's exploration of alienation and loneliness appears in 'To Margaret: Continued.' In this poem, he explores the idea of humanity as a great collection of islands, each kept separate by the vast ocean. He speaks of 'A longing like despair' born of a feeling that once 'we were parts of a single continent.'

'Empedocles on Etna'

Finally, we'll take a look at 'Empedocles on Etna.'

Arnold's poem 'Empedocles on Etna' combines the themes of classical antiquity and sadness together. Written in blank verse, this poem is comprised primarily of un-rhymed lines. It explores the thoughts and feelings of the Greek philosopher Empedocles in the hours before his death. Arnold draws upon legends of Empedocles hurtling himself into an active volcano. In Arnold's interpretation, he does this in response to a loss of joy and purpose in life.

Matthew Arnold Criticism

Arnold's interest in classical antiquity is also found in his literary criticism. He placed great value on the poetry of classical sources like Homer, and he wrote about the need for modern poets to learn from the old masters. Modern life, in his view, was too focused on the material world. A return to noble characters and deep and serious epic poetry would serve to instruct the readers to be better, more contemplative people.

Some of the most influential components of Arnold's criticism are his thoughts on the purpose and method of criticism itself. He believed that a critic should be disinterested, meaning that personal preference and prejudice should be left outside criticism. A piece of literature should be examined on its own merits, without influence from the critic's own beliefs or values.

He believed that criticism should focus more on the work, and less on either the historical circumstances of it or the author's own experiences. Instead, the role of the critic was to discover and spread the best that is known and thought in the world, and thus to establish a current of fresh and true ideals. Because of this, he saw criticism itself as an important part of the existence of poetry, literature, and art in culture.

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