Decorative Initial Sainte-Beuve, one of Matthew Arnold's heroes, claims that "Style is the man," and it is true, even obvious, that many of Arnold's central ideas and approaches appear perfectly embodied in his characteristic manner of argument. As David J. DeLaura explains in Hebrew and Hellene in Victorian England, his magisterial study of the intellectual relations among Newman, Arnold, and Pater,

Arnold's instinct of course is never to argue directly, but to insinuate, to slip behind an opponent by undermining the opponent's type of argument. For example, the characteristic method of Literature and Dogma and God and the Bible is to meet all theological objectons by denying that metaphysical questions have any meaning. [88]

For anyone who takes the impassioned, essentially evangelical polemics of Carlyle and Ruskin as either charactertistically Victorian, or what he or she finds most attractive about Victorian intellectual prose, the work of Arnold, like that of his master Newman, can seem insincere, devious, and downright dishonest. To others who admire their restraint, their polish, their awareness of complex issues, they apperar somehow more mature and more gentlemanly. And in fact scholars of Victorian literature do tend to divide either into admirers of Carlyle and Ruskin or admirers of Newman and Arnold. (I find the Ruskinian, bull-in-the-china-shop approach more honest and appealing, but people I respect look to Arnold.)

Although surely as skillful a polemicist and propagandist of a vision as are Carlyle and Ruskin, Arnold seems to have had a fundamentally different attitude toward (1) the possibility of discovering or stating truth, (2) and the role of an intellectual elite, who had to withold painful truths from the masses. Part of Arnold's complex style of thought derives, according to DeLaura, from his encounter at Oriel College, Oxford, with with two essentially incompatible intellectual traditions —

at once liberal and conservative, poetic and rationalistic. To the Oxford Movement, above all to Newman, Arnold was to look for that temper of mind which he was to recommend as perhaps the chief substance of his critical and social essays. From the "Oriel Noetics," men like Whately and Hampden, Arnold learned the chief method of his religous criticism of the eighteen-seventies — the sharp distinction between the explicative language of theology and the syymbolic and "approximative" language of the Bible. [8]

Arnold, who seems to have lost his religous beliefs without the spiritual agonies experienced by Carlyle, Ruskin, and so many other Victorians, nonetheless always remained convinced that most other people, and certainly the masses, desperately needed religion. He also firmly believed that members of the cultural elite, which Coleridge termed the clerisy, must accommodate its ideas to the needs of society's needs for stability — that is, that he and others like him had to tell the truth without undermining the beliefs of others. In other words, whereas Ruskin and Carlyle were always ready to make waves, Arnold, who believed such straighfowardness to be vulgar and potentially irresponsible, embodies the injunction, "Sit down, and don't rock the boat."

Part of this basic attitude, part of his style of thought and action, comes directly from that distinction between intellectual discourse and poetry — a distinction that, for Arnold, often coincided with one between private and public speech: dangerous topics being permitted to members of an intellectual Oxford elite whereas more public, popular speech had different responsibilities. This distinction, of course, simply repeats Tractarian notions of Reserve, according to which the religious elite rightfully witholds from the endangered ordinary person spiritual truths or ideas that might be harmful. (In the twentieth century, Reserve reappears more than a little grotesquely in the power and privileges of the Communist Party.)

Given his combination of religious and intellectual agnosticism, Arnold tried to achieve a calm, non-polemical, gentlemanly stance — for the sake of the public:

Arnold, always tortuously conscious of his public stance and tone, looked to Newman above all others for the qualities of mind and the tone of public discourse which he not only sought to emulate but which were, to a large extent, the very substance of his message in the sixties. . . . Arnold whimself was to acknowledge in 1868, which in the midst of writing Culture and Anarchy, that Newman's influence was "mixed up with all that is most essential in what I do and say. In November 1871 Arnold, now deep in Literaure and Dogma, specified that Newman's effect "consists in a general disposition of mind rather than in a particular set of ideas." [37; emphasis added]

Arnold found himself forced to follow Carlyle and act as a Victorian prophet, but, turning to Newman for style and tone, he made himself into what a contemporary paper described as an "elegant Jeremiah." Although he clearly accepted almost none of Newman's deepest held religious beliefs, he idolized him and followed his lead where he could. Thus, "Arnold's religionizing of culture in the sixties had ample precedent in Newman's transference, almost verbatim, of the supernatural virtues in Oxford sermons to his description of secular education in Discourse V of The Idea of a University" [xiii]. Similarly, for his own conception of himself, for style and tone, Arnold transfers Newman's ideas of the true gentleman to the responsibilities and acts of the Carlylean sage.

Suggested Readings

Buckley, J. H. The Victorian Temper: A Study in Literary Culture. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1964.

DeLaura, David J. Hebrew and Hellene in Victorian England: Newman, Arnold, and Pater. Austin: U of Texas P, 1969.


Victorian Overview John Henry Cardinal Newman Matthew Arnold

Last modified 26 November 2006