Matthew Arnold

"[I]t was not thought that on any but an excellent subject could an excellent Poem be constructed,"1 says English poet and essayist Matthew Arnold. He didn't quite feel good poetry could save the world, but in his experience, it could be a salve to the world. Arnold was quite particular and definitely old-school "show, don't tell." His famous works span multiple genres, and his poems aim to practice what he preached. The themes in his writing reflect a man who wanted better for the world around him.

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    Matthew Arnold, Portrait of Matthew Arnold, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Matthew Arnold was an English poet and essayist from the Victorian Period.

    Matthew Arnold: Biography

    Matthew Arnold was born on December 24, 1822. Arnold was born into a middle-class Victorian home–his father was Thomas Arnold, a minister and famous headmaster credited with influencing the English educational curriculum at that time.

    Matthew Arnold's Biography
    Birth:24th December 1822
    Death: 15th April 1888
    Father:Thomas Arnold
    Mother:Mary Penrose Arnold
    Spouse/PartnersFrances Lucy (1851-1888)
    Cause of Death:Heart Failure
    Famous Works:
    • "Dover Beach"
    • "The Scholar-Gipsy"
    • “To Marguerite: Continued”
    Literary Period:Victorian

    Arnold won a scholarship to attend Oxford, graduating in 1844. As a young adult, he went through a rebellious phase of living as a "dandy," meaning he was into fashion and leisurely activities. He traveled to France and followed an actress from theater to theater to watch her perform.

    Eventually, Arnold settled down and found work as a school inspector so he could afford to get married and support a family. Though the work was not exciting, it allowed him to interact closely with the working class, influencing his social criticism.

    Arnold wrote poetry from when he was fairly young, winning an award at Rugby School for his poem “Alaric at Rome” in 1840. He continued writing and published his first books of poetry anonymously in 1849 and 1852. They received very little attention, but Arnold followed with a new volume in 1853 that was more popular. From 1857 into the 1860s, he was the Professor of Poetry at Oxford, noteworthy because he was the first to lecture in English instead of Latin.

    Arnold has been characterized as being overly serious. His views were influenced by the Ancient Greeks and Romans, whose writing styles he emulated. In addition, Arnold believed the society he lived in could learn much from ancient culture. He felt he was surrounded by chaos and a lack of morality, so Arnold admired the Ancients’ poise and clear thought.

    Eventually, Arnold transitioned from poetry to literary and social critique. True to his lifelong tangle with duality, although Arnold idolized the past, he is actually considered to be one of the most modern Victorians of his day. For example, Arnold saw religious faith as a communal bond. Though he was troubled by the blossoming lack of faith among his fellow citizens, he embraced that change was inevitable and suggested religious institutions evolve their teachings accordingly.

    Matthew Arnold, illustration of Arnold jumping, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Arnold's tendency to jump from one genre to the next was often the source of jokes.

    After publishing several critical works, Arnold visited the United States and Canada in 1883 and 1884 to lecture on education and democracy. He died of heart failure on April 15, 1888.

    Matthew Arnold's Famous Works

    Matthew Arnold was known for his poetry, criticism, and strong views about the characteristics of compelling poetry.

    Poems: A New Edition (1853)

    This book includes new selections and compiles most of what Arnold published in the two anonymous books of poetry he published first. In addition, Arnold explains the goals of his writing style in the Preface, which foreshadows his later switch to literary and social criticism.

    Culture and Anarchy (1869)

    Arnold disagreed with classifying culture by pertaining to an individual’s exposure to fine art, Greek, and Latin on the grounds that it was an elitist club. Instead, in Culture and Anarchy, he sought to redefine culture as applying to a whole group of people that shared similar intellectual interests and a desire to improve their world.

    Arnold observed the social unrest related to industrialization and class struggle between the three groups that made up society–the aristocracy, the middle class, and the struggling lower class. As a result, he argued that society’s main problem was that none of the groups considered the others’ issues and perspectives, leading to a divided community. His solution was to challenge each individual to strive to become part of a fourth group of people who valued the greater good over personal gain.

    Literature and Dogma (1873)

    Literature and Dogma is Arnold’s argument that religion is still relevant even though the scientific discoveries of the nineteenth century chipped away at its authority. He asserts that there is no way to verify the existence of God; however, religion provides moral structure and emotional support.

    As Arnold sees it, the solution is for religious institutions to acknowledge evidence that undermines religious doctrine. He argues that instead of taking the entire Bible literally, people should use critical thinking to read the Bible as being open to interpretation and recognize that some parts hold more value than others.

    Matthew Arnold: Poems

    Critics have called Arnold’s poetry gloomy and weighed down by his thoughts. Arnold respected Classical thought and admired the writing styles of Virgil and Sophocles. As a result, his poetry is characterized by its often detached tone. Other characteristics of Arnold’s poetry include budding modern techniques like experimentation with structure.

    “To Marguerite: Continued” (1852)

    “To Marguerite: Continued” is one of Arnold’s early poems. Likely inspired by John Donne’s famous line, “No man is an island,”2 Arnold uses a group of islands in the sea as a metaphor for humankind’s isolation and the auditory image of birdsong to express the longing people feel for an intimate connection.

    More “poetic” than many of his other works, “To Marguerite: Continued” relies on its imagery to express its despondent tone.

    “The Scholar-Gipsy” (1853)

    Based on a story by Joseph Glanvil published in 1661 about an Oxford student who abandons his studies to live with a Romani group. Though he initially joins them to escape modernity, he learns they have a unique perspective and wisdom he wants to study and eventually share with the world. Arnold crafts his elegy around the story as if the student has become a legend and immortal figure to whom the speaker addresses a warning so he will avoid contact with modern society that will corrupt him.

    An elegy is a solemn meditation, usually written about someone who died.

    Arnold subverts traditional elegies in “The Scholar-Gipsy.” Unlike typical elegies that create a sense of continuity between past and present with commentary on shared values, the speaker in this poem cautions the scholar that the past is a much better place than the present state of the world.

    “Dover Beach” (1867)

    Arnold’s most famous poem is probably “Dover Beach.” What starts as a poem about a honeymoon soon morphs into a dramatic monologue with a lyrical poem lilt. A lone speaker addresses his lover about the beautiful landscape outside of their window, but the view becomes a brooding battleground in a war between science and faith.

    A dramatic monologue is a poem that offers a view into the speaker’s psyche while they describe a situation or event.

    Lyric poetry uses literary devices to express personal thoughts with a musical slant.

    “Dover Beach” is a prime example of Arnold’s play with rigid form, and it is considered an early prototype of free verse. Throughout the poem, he disrupts rhythm and rhyme to emphasize the turmoil he’s expressing.

    Free verse poetry does not follow structural rules.

    Matthew Arnold: Themes

    Although Arnold’s writing style changed with time, he tended to explore a common set of themes. The nineteenth century brought significant discoveries within the scientific community that rocked the religious foundation and caused uncertainty. In addition, industrialization sparked a shift in focus from the community to the individual. Arnold grew up in an increasingly materialistic and conflicted world and decided it was his duty to acknowledge the turbulence and offer solutions. Like his structure, Arnold's themes anticipated future Modernist subjects.


    The speakers in Arnold’s poetry are on the outside looking in. They seem to have a bird’s-eye view of the conflict that plagues society, and there is a tension between their desire to avoid the trouble and a yearning to enjoy communal bonds.

    Science versus faith

    There is often a resentful tone toward science in Arnold’s poetry. Science is blamed for causing a loss of religious faith, which Arnold sees as one of the reasons society is falling apart. Arnold doesn’t doubt science, but he does regret that it put cracks in the faith that held society together.

    Self versus society

    There is a conflict in Arnold’s poems between self-interest and societal duties, between personal desire and religious morals. Arnold admires the ethics of classical thinkers from Greek and Roman philosophy and the arts. He includes them as characters in his poetry to create an image of the stoic values he admires as being timeless.

    Matthew Arnold: Quotes

    Arnold had no trouble speaking his mind and often found himself in the middle of controversy as a result.

    Poetry [is] a criticism of life under the conditions fixed for such a criticism by the laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty. 3

    Arnold defines poetry as a conversation about life that has the power to record and reflect civilization. He argues that as poets explore all aspects of what it means to be human, they are creating a permanent space for society to know itself.

    We mortal millions live alone. (Line 4)

    This famous line from “To Marguerite: Continued” pretty well sums up the best of Matthew Arnold’s poetry. The juxtaposition of “millions” and “alone” creates a powerfully haunting image in five simple words. The period at the end of the sentence is a play with a structure that contrasts with the commas that end the lines that surround it, forcing the reader to stop and contemplate his words. The line’s subject matter discusses Arnold’s running theme of isolation.

    O born in the days when wits were fresh and clear,

    And life ran gaily as the sparkling Thames;

    Before this strange disease of modern life,

    With its sick hurry, its divided aims (Lines 201-204)

    The speaker in “The Scholar-Gipsy” argues that the scholar became immortal because he submerged himself in holy faith that gives energy rather than drains it. These lines illustrate of the struggle between religion and the emptiness of the modern world science helped create that Arnold takes issue with.

    Matthew Arnold - Key takeaways

    • Matthew Arnold was a nineteenth-century Victorian poet and essayist.
    • Arnold's interactions with the working class influenced his social criticism.
    • Arnold's writing style and themes resembled what would later become part of the modern movement.
    • Arnold believed religion was important because it helped form a communal bond.
    • Arnold believed poetry had the power to record and reflect civilization.


    1. Arnold, Matthew. "Author's Preface." Poems: A New Edition. 1853
    2. Donne, John. "Meditation XVII." 1623
    3. Arnold, M. 1880. Introduction. In: Ward, T.H. The English Poets. 1880
    Frequently Asked Questions about Matthew Arnold

    Who was Matthew Arnold?

    Matthew Arnold was an English poet and essayist from the Victorian Period.

    What is a common theme of Matthew Arnold's poems?

    A common theme of Matthew Arnold's poems is isolation.

    What is Matthew Arnold known for?

    Matthew Arnold was known for his poetry, criticism, and strong views about the characteristics of effective poetry.

    What are the characteristics of Matthew Arnold's poetry?

    Characteristics of Matthew Arnold's poetry include an often detached tone and budding modern themes and techniques like experimentation with structure.

    How does Matthew Arnold define poetry?

    Arnold defines poetry as a conversation about life that has the power to record and reflect civilization. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Matthew Arnold believed which group was a part of society?

    Because it experiments with meter and rhyme, it has been argued that "Dover Beach" is an early example of 

    "Balder Dead" is Arnold's interpretation of a story from which mythology?


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