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.

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