Matthew Arnold

Member of The Hundred

Matthew Arnold
Birth and death
1822 - 1888
Profession details
Poet, Writer, School Inspector
Related place
Anne Wright and Charlotte Pepperell

Life in Elmbridge

Matthew Arnold lived in Cobham during his retirement, from 1873 to 1888. In one of his letters he describes the home of which he was so fond:

' The cottage we have got is called Pains Hill Cottage...the country is
more beautiful than the Chilterns, because it has heather and pines,
while the trees of other kinds in the valley of the Mole, where we are,
are really magnificent.'

Indeed, Arnold's correspondence contains many mentions of his charming surroundings:

'On Christmas Day we skated at Pains Hill - beautiful ice. Yesterday the weather changed to thaw. But my dear Fan, the havoc! The cork tree is a wreck; it has lost great limbs at the top and at the side'

'I took the dear dogs the Burwood round yesterday'

'It is a pleasant walk to the Cobham Station for the 5.7 train'

Arnold claimed to live a quiet life here but he entertained some of the leading literary figures of the day, including George Elliot and George Meredith. His link with Cobham is commemorated by 'Matthew Arnold Close' - a road near Painshill Park. 'Matthew Arnold Mixed School' in Staines, Middlesex is close to his birth place and also reflects his role as an educator.

Life outside Elmbridge

Matthew Arnold was born on Christmas Eve, 1822 at Laleham-on Thames, Middlesex. He was the second of nine surviving children and the eldest son of Rev. Thomas Arnold (1795-1842) and Mary Penrose Arnold (1791-1873). Thomas Arnold became the Headmaster of Rugby School in 1821 and was a famous advocate of a 'Christian Education '. Matthew Arnold went to his father's school in 1828 and went on to win a Scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford in 1841. He seems to have enjoyed a happy family life and made friends with Dorothy and William Wordsworth during holidays in the Lake District.

Matthew Arnold enjoyed student life and made lasting friendships, especially with his fellow poet, Arthur Hugh Clough. Arnold won the Newdigate prize for poetry in 1843 but failed to achieve the anticipated first class Honours Degree. He redeemed himself in 1845 by winning a fellowship at Oriel College, Oxford. Arnold could now concentrate on two of his passions: poetry and travel. A Francophile, Matthew Arnold was well versed in the culture and politics of France which would influence his views on teaching English Literature. In 1847 he became personal secretary to the Liberal peer, Lord Lansdowne. This post brought him into contact with high society and it was thanks to Lord Lansdowne's patronage that he secured a position as an inspector of schools in 1851. In the same year he married Frances Lucy (Flu) Wightman; the couple had six children, but three sons died between 1868 and 1872. They lived in Belgravia, Harrow on the Hill and finally Cobham.

Matthew Arnold's most enduring poetry was written before he was thirty. His first volume, ' The Strayed Reveller & other Poems ' was published in 1849 and the first collected edition, in two volumes came out in 1869. Stefan Collini (DNB, 2004) asserts that, ' the dominant note of his [Arnold's] best poetry is reflection on loss, frustration and sadness.' Indeed these themes are covered in his three most well known poems, 'Dover Beach', 'Stanzas from the Grand Chartreuse'and 'Empedocles on Etna'. In 'Dover Beach' (written during Arnold's honeymoon) he uses the image of the ebbing tide to suggest the trauma of loss of faith:

'And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.'

'Empedocles on Etna ' is thought to mirror Matthew Arnold's own inner struggles. Three characters including Empedocles struggle to make sense of life where religion can seem to be just a means of alleviating one's troubles. Standing on the lip of Etna's crater Empedocles finds himself to be:

'Nothing but a devouring flame of thought
But a naked eternally restless mind'

He throws himself into the volcano and seems to represent Arnold's inner strife at its most extreme.

Matthew Arnold was a Schools' Inspector for thirty five years. When he embarked on this task in 1851 there was no state school system as we understand it. There were elementary schools that received a yearly grant from the state and were meant to fulfil basic standards. Arnold was initially responsible for non-conformist schools across Central England and later for a small area around London. He found the drudgery of the work onerous and often disagreed with politicians - for example, he made known his opposition to the system of 'payment by results' to reduce public spending which was introduced in 1862. Promotion came late in Arnold's career - he was made a Senior Inspector in 1870 and Chief Inspector in 1884, just two years before his retirement. He visited schools and universities in France, Germany and Switzerland and his observations were published in 1868 in 'Schools and Universities of the Continent'.

Matthew Arnold is also renowned as a literary, social and religious critic. In, ' On Translating Homer ', published in 1861, he championed the study of Greek literature but advised that interpretations should not be literal but sensitive to the ideas and style of the work. ' Essays in Criticism ', published in 1865, became a standard text for literary criticism; he argued that criticism, well done, could influence all writing and thought in society. Arnold advocated the value of comparing English Literature with that of the classical world and with European work.

The key question which engaged Matthew Arnold as a social critic was how cultural and political pursuits were to be sustained in developing democracies, as these activities had mostly been the preserve of the aristocracy. He believed that a state education system could be the answer to this dilemma. In, his analysis of this issue in ' Culture and Anarchy: An Essay in Political and Social Criticism ', (1869), Arnold attacked the ' narrowness ' of English life and called the main social classes , 'Barbarians' (the aristocracy), 'Philistines' (the middle class) and 'Populace' (the working class). These terms have classical and Biblical origins and it was Arnold who did much to make known the term 'Philistinism' with reference to the English middle class which he believed was detrimentally influenced by the nonconformist sects.

Religion was the key subject of Arnold's writing between 1869 and 1877. He challenged the dogma that resulted from a literal interpretation of the Bible and the unimaginative nature of systematic theology (as represented by Puritanism). Arnold expanded on these ideas in, 'Literature and Dogma: an Essay towards the Better Apprehension of the Bible', (1873), where he argued for the Bible to be treated as a historical and literary text and put forward his concept of God as, 'a consciousness of the not ourselves....'. However, he still supported the notion of the Anglican Church as a Broad Church and believed that an established church was a force for good.

In the last ten years of his life Matthew Arnold continued to work hard. He published writings on Keats, Wordsworth and Byron and was keen to bring the the joys of literature to an expanding readership, following the Education Act of 1870 which made elementary education compulsory. He went on two lecture tours to America in 1883 and 1886 but these were not an unqualified success. He died of a sudden heart attack on 15 April 1888 in Liverpool as he made his way to the docks to meet his daughter Lucy who was returning from America.

Matthew Arnold remains well known today mainly because of his role as a critic. He is seen by many as the founding father of English Literature as an academic discipline in Higher Education and remembered for his advocacy of its teaching in relation to both classical and European literature. Matthew Arnold was a good humoured and charming man who loved champagne and elaborate waistcoats. He relished his role as a family man and was buried next to his three sons in the churchyard of All Saints in Laleham on Thames on 19 April 1888. Robert Browning and Henry James attended the funeral. Benjamin Jowett, the classicist, English scholar and theologian said of Matthew Arnold, ' No-one ever united so much kindness and light-heartedness with so much strength. He was the most sensible man of genius I have ever known' ( quoted by Stefan Collini, DNB, 2008).


  • Matthew Arnold, 'Dover Beach' in 'The New Oxford Book of English Verse', ed. Helen Gardner (Oxford University Press, 1972), p.703.
  • BBC4's 'A Poet's Guide To Britain' (2009).
  • Stefan Collini, 'Arnold, Matthew (1822-1888)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004).
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