Quarrels of an elegant Jeremiah

A LIFE OF MATTHEW ARNOLD by Nicholas Murray, Hodder & Stoughton pounds 20

For too long the British have taken a narrow and insular view of things. The old aristocratic elite and the new middle classes, that together run this country, are especially complacent, but the working class is, in its own way, almost as bad, and all are addicted to exaggerating the divisions between them. What we need is an orderly revolution, led from the political centre and pulling everyone in from the margins - a concerted act of institutional, moral and cultural renewal, which appeals to "our best selves".

These are the views of Tony Blair. That they are also those of Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) explains why he is one of the few 19th-century writers who still arouses strong feelings today.

Of course, it is important to preserve liberty and a spirit of individual enterprise, but we must look to the state to set standards and help the worst off, especially in the area of education. Even in an increasingly secular age, the Church has an important role to play as a moral and spiritual authority. Britain needs to enter the European mainstream where the value of education and culture is properly understood; then everything will be "sweetness and light".

Arnold's father, Thomas Arnold, historian, religious controversialist and the world's most famous headmaster, was a domineering figure, whose great shadow might easily have starved his eldest son of light. Fortunately, though, he seems to have gained a critical perspective on his father quite early on. This liberation gave the younger Arnold a playful self-confidence that some found smug, others charming. He learnt from his father, and was proud of him - the value that the son attached to forging an inclusive political community, for instance, owed a lot to Thomas Arnold's broad- church Anglicanism. But "Matt" was also able to see his father's limitations - he was strict, literal-minded, and earnest - and, he felt, go beyond them. It set the pattern for his life.

Arnold was born and brought up in the Thames Valley but the family spent their summer holidays in the Lakes. Wordsworth became a close family friend and remained probably the most important poetic influence on Matthew Arnold. Educated at his father's school, he was a clever child, and won a scholarship to Balliol. But he enjoyed himself too much at Oxford, where he gained a Second and a reputation as a dandified Francophile. One story, not repeated by Nicholas Murray, has him frolicking naked on a river's edge when a clergyman came up to remonstrate. "Is it possible," Matthew responded, "that you see anything indelicate in the human form divine?" It was an early skirmish in Arnold's life-long campaign to Hellenise his too-Hebrew countrymen.

Most of Arnold's poems, certainly the best pieces, were written in the decade after leaving Oxford. The most famous, like "Dover Beach" and "The Scholar-Gypsy", are still anthologised but the rest - all moons, rivers, graveyards and mountain-tops - are nowadays not much read. Murray, moreover, does not do much to persuade us that this should change. As he observes, Arnold seems to have been constrained by his notions of the appropriate subject matter for serious poetry and never found an outlet for the vivacity and playfulness that was such a feature of his prose.

Arnold was a handsome, convivial man with an attractive capacity for intellectual friendship with the opposite sex. While in Switzerland in 1848, he seems to have fallen in love with a woman whose identity has teased biographers ever since - the mysterious "Marguerite" he later celebrated in a series of poems. In the early 1850s Arnold married and, realising he could never hope to make a living as a writer, took on the job of Schools Inspector.

He and his wife lost three sons, but another and two daughters survived; Arnold doted on them as he doted, in a very English way, on his pets. Strangely enough he never rose high in the Civil Service, but his job, which took him all over Britain and abroad, gave him a remarkable breadth of experience and significantly shaped his views - especially about the importance of education to a democracy. As the first writer to make full use of the new railway network of the 1840s he probably knew England better than any intellectual before him: there was more of George Orwell to him than might first appear.

Arnold worked hard as an Inspector, but they treated civil servants differently in the 19th century, and he still found time to write. His first taste of public controversy came when he was elected Oxford Professor of Poetry in 1857, and his public lectures On Translating Homer gave full reign to his powers of ridicule. And he continued to write to the end of his life, championing in his later years a literary, rather than literal, reading of the Bible. But he produced his best works - Essays in Criticism and Culture and Anarchy - in his forties. As a poet Arnold wrote about isolation and loss; even his love poems are really elegies. But as a prose writer he thrived on public controversy: both the books just mentioned collected lectures and periodical pieces, many of which represent contributions to the literary and political quarrels of the moment. It is remarkable, in fact, that they read so well more than a century later.

Arnold was a Platonist with something close to an obsession for perfection, harmony and order. The critic's task was "to see the object as in itself it really is" - an ability that could only come through a long engagement with "the best that had been known and thought in the world". Arnold loved nothing better than to while away an hour or two giving the great writers of the world their exact rank. He remained utterly untouched by relativism or pluralism, and never saw the possible value in an oppositional culture, or the discordant note; he famously saw nothing in the Dissenting tradition but grimness and tea-shops, and devoted an uncharitable amount of time to attacking to the Dissenters' "philistinism", and their addiction to dissent for the sake of dissent. He believed completely in objective goodness, beauty, excellence - the Ancients knew how to attain to these things, and the job of the modern state, aided by the critic, was to help us do the same.

There was a similarly authoritarian colour to his politics; he believed in historical progress, but, a la Blair, of an orderly disciplined kind, and in the meantime he feared the unruly working class and opposed Home Rule for Ireland. This, indeed, is the conventional left-wing case against him: he looked to a narrow class-based conception of "culture" to shore up the social order in the way religion was no longer capable of doing. To make things worse, there was his tone and style. He could be funny at his own expense, but showed little mercy before his victim: some found what he called his "religion of culture" effete and superior.

Yet, as Murray argues, Arnold was not really a snob, or not simply so. He was a life-long Liberal, albeit "a liberal tempered by experience" who looked forward to an age of greater equality. The culture to which he was an apostle would be orderly but also universal, and to that extent democratic. But if he valued equality, he disliked the way in which the victims of injustice and oppression too often drew much of their identity from their experiences, making their marginality into a virtue. He was in fact an early critic of what Robert Hughes called "the culture of complaint", although Hughes detected it in the dissent of racial and sexual minorities, whereas Arnold located it in religious ones.

Murray's book offers a helpful, detailed run through Arnold's life. But it would have been good to learn a bit less about Arnold's earnings and holidays, and a little more about the background of the quarrels he was endlessly fighting, or about the emotional make-up of the man. Still, Murray is right when he argues that Arnold is an enduring figure, even if his book does not shed much light on why this is so. The "Elegant Jeremiah" has not lost his ability to offend, amuse and inspire; his insistence that Britain's problems are cultural, and more particularly have their roots in our class system, is perhaps more widely accepted now than ever before; reading Culture and Anarchy, you realise that, unpalatable as some of his views might be, no one today writes about who we are with such sweep, verve and insight.

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl

First look at Oscar winner as transgender artistfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month

TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel

film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
News
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
people
News
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Oscars
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
music
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
film
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
architecture
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower