Book review: Poet beached at Dover

A GIFT IMPRISONED: The Poetic Life of Matthew Arnold by Ian Hamilton, Bloomsbury pounds 17.99
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The Independent Culture
NOT SO very long ago people still read Matthew Arnold's "Sohrab and Rustum", "Thyrsis", "The Scholar-Gypsy" and his poems to Marguerite. Now his only guaranteed anthology piece is "Dover Beach". To Ian Hamilton, who has great affection for the poetry, this is no doubt dismaying. But what interests him isn't so much the decline of a posthumous reputation, but why Arnold, while still in his forties, had already settled for much less than he might have achieved - why in effect he gave up on poems and chose drudgery.

The answers go back to childhood, and his father, Dr Thomas Arnold, controversialist, disciplinarian and headmaster of Rugby school, from out of whose shadow even the toughest boy would have found it hard to escape. Young Matt, nicknamed "Crabby", coped with his father's domineering manner and strict regimes by cultivating a cool, languid, at times facetious manner. He was thought to be idle - and not especially bright. No one was more surprised than Dr Arnold when he won a scholarship to Balliol College.

The Doctor, needless to say, had been at Oxford, too, and was back there hard on his son's heels to give a series of lectures. As Matthew developed a taste for wine, cards and fancy clothes, contrasts were drawn between the earnest father and his feckless offspring. Matthew protested, knowing there was a serious side to him waiting to be expressed, perhaps in poetry. When his father died of a heart attack shortly afterwards, the poetry and seriousness, the "sad lucidity of soul", did slowly begin to emerge. But there was also some deeper malaise (the malaise of the child of an energetic father), which he never succeeded in defeating.

Ian Hamilton writes especially well about this next phase in Arnold's life, "poised between dandyism and melancholia". Arnold himself seems to have been aware that his various ambitions were hard to reconcile: to be a poet, yet also a "useful" citizen; to be true to his own "torpor", yet also as productive as his father had been. A temporary solution was found when he became Lord Lansdowne's Private Secretary, a sinecure for his social ambitions which also left him time to write. But the job was hardly useful. Nor did it offer scope for moral fervour. Nor, come to that, was it considered sufficiently dignified and well-paid to support a high-bred wife, as Matthew found when his proposal of marriage to Frances Lucy Wightman ("Flu" for short) met with opposition from her barrister father. After a brief hiatus, during which he ran off to Switzerland (scene of a previous flirtation, with the enigmatic, elusive and perhaps imaginary Marguerite), a solution was found. Matthew would become an Inspector of Schools, at pounds 700 a year. The marriage could go ahead.

By this time, he had published his first book of poems, setting himself against the current school of "Spasmodics" but offering little instead but quietism, world-weariness, doleful allusions to a richer past, and anguished musings on what was and wasn't required of a poet. He knew his weaknesses, confessing them in private to his sister Jane ("the poems stagger weakly & are at their wits end") and then flaunting them in the poems: he was, he said, "Weary of myself, and sick of asking / What I am and what I ought to be." The poems might have made more of a mark if they'd had some of the foppishness he'd been famous for in Oxford, or if they'd allowed themselves more (in Hamilton's phrase) "off-duty moments of forgetfulness". But his deeper problem, which passing time and a second book only made more intense, was knowing whether writing poetry could be justified at all. Was it not incompatible with his father's notions of duty and selflessness? Wasn't the "uncertain life" of the poet too much of a strain for a temperament like his? Besides, hadn't the world enough poems in it already?

Such doubt and introspection imprisoned Arnold. "I am past 30 and three parts iced over," he wrote to his friend Clough in 1853. By the time he reached 40 the process was complete, and he had embraced a life of propriety and public service. "I don't see what business he has to parade his calmness and lecture us on resignation when he has never known what a storm is, "one contemporary complained. This wasn't altogether fair. His courtship of Flu had had its fevers, for instance ("my wheels burned the pavement - I mounted the stairs like a wounded quaggha, the pulsations of my heart shook all Park Crescent") and he was later to suffer several painful setbacks and bereavements, including the loss of three children. But the mask of nonchalance and renunciation soon became his only expression, and it killed the verse. Though he lived on till his late sixties, and wrote his finest prose works in this period, he was long under the ice by then, walled in by rectitude, stiff as a corpse.

Attractively written, and attractively short, Ian Hamilton's book is less a biography than an essay on strangulation, persuasively showing (as Christopher Ricks once did with William Empson) why the poems gave out. Wry and deflationary, but never cheap or denigratory, Hamilton is interesting not only about Arnold but about his friends (notably Clough), family, favourite writers (George Sand among them) and the intellectual climate in which he worked. Above all, he has a poet's understanding of how poetry can sometimes wither before it's ripe.