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Book review / A melancholy roar for England

A Life of Matthew Arnold by Nicholas Murray, Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 20
At the time of the 1848 revolutions, the 25-year-old Matthew Arnold opined: "A 100 years hence the Continent will be a great united Federal Republic, and England, all her colonies gone, in a dull steady decay." The experiences of his mature years only served to confirm this vision. Arnold saw an England dedicated to a smug, soul-stifling short-termism, shackled by a class system which its immensely powerful aristocracy was determined to perpetuate. He saw it suppressing the cultures of the sister- countries of the United Kingdom, and, through its blend of blindness and contempt, incurring misery and violence in Ireland whose problems dominated the political agenda throughout his life. Even more curiously the name of England was, he realised, evoked to keep down the majority of its people.

Arnold's opposition here was practical as well as polemical. For 35 years he worked tirelessly as a Schools Inspector, devoted to the ideal of universal state education and, by means of personally conducted surveys, emphasising how England lagged behind France and Germany in both ideas and practices. As Nicholas Murray says in this timely and comprehensive biography, his was "an advocacy that today would make him seem too progressive by far".

What makes Matthew Arnold's lifelong beliefs the more remarkable and arresting is that he was born not only into a Britain of spectacular, indeed unprecedented, international and internal success, but into a very significant and comfortable section of it. He was the son of one of the architects of Victorian England as we understand it, Thomas Arnold of Rugby, and through him had access to almost any and every circle of the British establishment. His being the great doctor's son led to his becoming secretary to the Whig grandee, Lord Lansdowne, at the age of 24. He married the daughter of the eminent Judge Wightman, to whom he would for many years act as marshal on the circuit.

Interestingly Nicholas Murray reveals no stressful relation on Arnold's part to his father, family or social group; he even dismisses that reading of the great poem "Sohrab and Rustum", where a father unknowingly kills his son, as an expression of covert resentment by Matthew of Thomas. Two points can be inferred from Murray's portrait here. First, that the emotional security of Matthew's early years provided the base for his wide ranging and often bold and provocative sympathies.. Secondly, the Arnold circle itself contained the seeds of Matthew's inquiries and moral scrutinies.

A hundred-odd years on, Matthew Arnold has survived more as a poet than as a critic and thinker, something his perceptive wife predicted only months after his death. "Dover Beach", written at the time of his union with her, has come, as much as In Memoriam itself, to seem one of the great documents of the Victorian mind. Its evocation of the waves bringing "the eternal note of sadness in", its statement that "The Sea of Faith /Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore /Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl'd. /But now I only hear /Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar..", and its turning in the last stanza to personal love for consolation have been read as a kind of lyrical apology, if not credo, for reluctant agnosticism. But here again Murray brings a much-needed and informed freshness of insight. "Dover Beach", he says, is about the climate of contemporary life it is not just a personal testament. Arnold's views on Christianity were radical and unorthodox but he was not as, say, his admirers Thomas Huxley and George Eliot were, an unbeliever.

Arnold's biographer faces a problem in that he virtually ceased writing what he is best known for, poetry, at the age of 40, and yet fame and the demands and rewards of public life all came in the later years. Murray solves this by presenting Arnold from the first as a man engaged in a missionary task. He points out how often Arnold has been misrepresented by his detractors.

Culture and Anarchy, far from espousing elitism as has been declared, was written from the fear that an under-educated populace would be cynically exploited by the powers and entertainment brokers of the over classes. In fact Arnold was profoundly, viscerally anti-elitist, consistently attacking aristocraticism which he saw as a trenchant British disease. At the same time he refused to believe that those kept in conditions of literal and mental poverty were incapable of responding to serious art, which is a means of binding people together in awareness of their common heritage.

What was Arnold wrong about? Murray admires, greatly admires, but is also clear-sightedly analytical. Though an ardent champion of local government, Arnold had in many ways a very centralist approach to culture, in which the demarcation line between egalitarianism and a kind of benignly imposed conformism isn't always clear. He deserves our gratitude for his espousal of Celtic culture, but he was opposed to the use of the Welsh language which he thought helped to keep its society provincial.

Likewise, though outstanding among English intellectuals for his ceaseless insistence on English guilt over Ireland, and always among the first to attack restrictive measures, he opposed an independent Ireland which he believed would regret and suffer for its severance from the greater whole of Britain. Nevertheless even in these matters, his pronouncements were always made from a breadth of sympathy, a desire for people's fulfilment and happiness.

As a man he appears to have been singularly attractive - and, more than that, good. His son Dick said at his death: "My dear father... to his children he was not only the kindest, most indulgent of fathers, but the dearest, most intimate of friends as well." He was liked everywhere he went professionally. I can think of no better mentor for our own morally troubled times.

Profoundly English, he understood that to care about England means to improve the lot of the majority of English people and to assist the country to live in harmony and creative give-and-take with its neighbours. We don't need to ask what he would have thought of a society deliberately increasing the gulf between its rich and poor, and plagued by a popular press which doesn't seek to attack or redress this, but instead offers its readers 20 ways of being rude to the Germans.