Victorian Literature Matthew Arnold
Stefano Evangelista
  • LAST REVIEWED: 09 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 02 March 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0004


Matthew Arnold (b. 1822–d. 1888) is one of the most influential writers of the Victorian age. After receiving a Classics degree from Oxford and spending a brief spell in Paris, Arnold spent most of his life working as a schools inspector. He was elected to the Oxford Professorship of Poetry in 1857. Arnold was an author of both poetry and criticism. His verse includes: The Strayed Reveller and Other Poems (1847), Empedocles on Etna, and Other Poems (1852), and New Poems (1867), as well as the classical verse tragedy Merope (1858). Together with Tennyson and Browning, Arnold has been held by critics as one of the representative poets of his age because of his poetry’s difficult negotiations of the legacy of Romanticism and its clear expression of the Victorian zeitgeist, evident, for instance, in the analysis of religious doubt contained in one of his most famous poems, “Dover Beach.” His prolific prose canon includes cornerstones of 19th-century intellectual and critical history such as On Translating Homer (1861), Essays in Criticism (1865) and Culture and Anarchy (1869). The influence of Arnold’s literary, social, and religious criticism has been immense. His work appears so representative of the Victorian age because of its constant effort to understand and scrutinize modernity. Like many other Victorian authors, however, Arnold suffered a period of neglect and hostility in the early 20th century; but his works are now once again recognized as classics and attract a great deal of critical attention both from literary scholars and cultural historians.

General Overviews

In recent decades scholars from different disciplines, such as literature, history, and cultural studies, have been attracted by different aspects of Arnold’s thought; this interest is reflected in several concise and reliable overviews of his work. Good starting points are Neiman 1968 and the more recent Collini 1988, both of which provide historicist readings that take in a broad range of texts within Arnold’s oeuvre and present him as both literary author and thinker, although the emphasis is on the latter in both cases. Bush 1971 is an accessible survey of the writings, with more emphasis on their literary value. Going back in time, Trilling 1939 is an authoritative, classic overview that pays close attention to Arnold’s literary achievement. Madden 1967 has a more specialized focus on aesthetic consciousness and presents Arnold as representative of his age. Of the several collections of secondary criticism on Arnold, Allott 1975 is a particularly good starting point, as it contains essays by well-known Arnold scholars who introduce specific areas of his thought and work. DeLaura 1973 does a similar job, but it brings together selected essays from the early reception until the 1970s. The Arnoldian (now Nineteenth-Century Prose) was a journal entirely devoted to Arnold and his circle, which is especially useful for reviews and bibliographical information.

  • Allott, Kenneth, ed. Matthew Arnold. London: G. Bell and Sons, 1975.

    This anthology brings together major Arnold scholars and provides an accessible overview of Arnold’s work. It contains a chronology and particularly useful chapters that deal with poetry, criticism, social and political thought, religion and the classics. A good starting point for students.

  • The Arnoldian. 1975–1990.

    This journal started as the Arnold Newsletter, then became The Arnoldian from 1975 to 1990, and later became Nineteenth-Century Prose. The Arnoldian was entirely devoted to Arnold’s works, publishing brief articles, reviews, and bibliographic information. Even in its broader new incarnation, though, the journal still publishes many essays of interest to Arnold scholars.

  • Bush, Douglas. Matthew Arnold: A Survey of His Poetry and Prose. New York: Collier, 1971.

    An accessible and wide-ranging introduction to Arnold in the form of a survey of his oeuvre. It is strong on contextual close readings of the literary works.

  • Collini, Stefan. Arnold. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

    An engaging and concise study that offers an authoritative starting point for students and researchers. The focus is on Arnold’s distinctive literary “voice”; from this starting point Collini moves through Arnold’s vast oeuvre, selectively, covering both poetry and critical writings but with a strong emphasis on the latter.

  • DeLaura, David J., ed. Matthew Arnold: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1973.

    Collects essays by noted Arnold scholars, some of which focus on broad aspects of his work (elegy, religious poetry, etc.), others on individual writings. It contains a reprint of T. S. Eliot’s essay on Arnold and Pater.

  • Madden, William. Matthew Arnold: A Study of the Aesthetic Temperament in Victorian England. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1967.

    This comprehensive study reads Arnold’s work as representative of the 19th-century reflection on the aesthetic consciousness. It is divided into sections that explore, respectively, the formative years, the poems, and the criticism.

  • Neiman, Fraser. Matthew Arnold. New York: Twayne, 1968.

    Drawing largely on the letters, this study offers an engaging historicist introduction to Arnold as thinker and literary author.

  • Trilling, Lionel. Matthew Arnold. London: Allen and Unwin, 1939.

    Although now somewhat old-fashioned in places, this book remains a classic and one of the most thorough and influential critical studies of Arnold. It is available in several more recent reprints.

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