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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Arnold and his Style

By Theodore Whitefield Hunt (1844–1930)

[Born in Metuchen, N. J., 1844. Died in Princeton, N. J., 1930. Matthew Arnold as an English Writer.—The New Princeton Review. 1888.]

STUDENTS of Mr. Arnold’s poetry must be well aware of this undertone of sadness that runs like a sombre current below the visible level of his verse. Herein is one of those limitations of his poetic genius, whereby the spontaneity of his style is impaired, and the head waits not upon the heart. We cannot, therefore, expect to find in his poems free flexibility of movement, blitheness and buoyancy of spirit, and the impulse of deep emotion, in that the nature from which such poetic fruits are “furnished forth” is wanting. So is it in his prose. Seriousness is too often seen to give place to sadness, and to a sadness which is nothing less than Byronic and oppressive. Of the presence and the pressure of this weight upon him, Mr. Arnold himself is not always aware. There is a something in the sentence and the line—he scarcely knows what—that binds it to the earth and prevents its free excursion heavenward. In this profitless effort to lift the world from its lower tendencies by culture only; in this pursuit of perfection through imperfect agencies; in this almost cruel restriction of the spirit within the circle of the humanities; in this well-meant but unwise attempt to eliminate the supernatural from the problem of life,—in this, indeed, we have the fact of sadness and its sufficient explanation. The “sick fatigue and languid doubt,” which the author himself deplores, will never give place to that “sweet calm” of mind that he so craves, until the established relation of things is accepted, and Christianity takes rank above culture. This feature apart, the prose is marked by a solid and impressive earnestness which never tolerates the trifling, and is an order of prose especially timely in an age inclined so strongly as this to the frivolous in authorship. In this respect, if not so in others, Mr. Arnold’s style is Baconian and Miltonic, never descending to the plane of the charlatan for the sake of effect, but ever keeping aloft on the high table-land of thought and motive, among the sober-minded contributors to the cause of good letters.

If asked, as we close, what is the most useful service that Mr. Arnold has rendered, in his style, to modern England and America, we answer: the wide diffusion of the literary spirit, the emphasis of literature as a most important department of education and an essential factor in all national progress. This result he has accomplished, in part, by his unwearied exaltation of the mental above the merely material, and, in part, by his earnest endeavor to stimulate the people to the attainment of that culture which to him is the crowning principle of all literature and life. Nothing is more needed among the English-speaking peoples of to-day than the free circulation of this literary life. Despite such high literary antecedents and traditions, and the goodly number of English authors steadily at work along the old literary lines, so strong is the “stream of tendency” in the direction of commercialism, that special effort is needed to prevent its influx even into the centres of intellectual culture. This tendency is even more marked in what Mr. Emerson has called “this great, intelligent, sensual, and avaricious America.” If we inquire further into the extent and probable permanence of Mr. Arnold’s influence as a prose-writer, we must answer, first of all, that he cannot be consistently called a popular English essayist. There is not enough of the common or colloquial element in the style to give it currency among the great body of what he terms the middle class. That extreme æstheticism to which we have referred, as also his dogmatic independence and indifference of manner, would serve to narrow the circle of appreciative readers, while, even among the higher classes themselves, our author is read by many who read only to dissent. If we compare his essays, in this respect, with those of Lamb and Macaulay, the difference is marked in favor of the latter, and the difference is one between restricted and general circulation.

Mr. Arnold cannot be said to have formed a school, either in prose or verse. Whatever his constituency may be, they do not stand related to him as an organic body to an acknowledged leader, accepting his literary dicta without question, and devoting their energies to the dissemination of his teachings. Young men, especially, who, at first, are attracted to his style and committed to it as an unerring guide, come, at length, in their maturer judgment, to question where they have blindly accepted, and somewhat modify their allegiance. Mr. Arnold, in his “American Addresses,” refused to rank Mr. Emerson, as he also did Mr. Carlyle, among “the great writers” or “the great men of letters.” He used the word great as it is applicable to such historic authors as Plato and Cicero, Pascal and Voltaire and Bacon—writers “whose prose, by a kind of native necessity, is true and sound,” who have “a genius and an instinct for style.” From such a “charmed circle” as this, Mr. Arnold himself must be excluded. A representative writer of English prose, he is not so in the largest sense, as Cicero in Latin letters or De Quincey in English. Whatever the merits of his style may be, as we have discussed them, he has not that “vision and faculty divine” which belong to the eminently great prose-writer as to the eminently great poet. He does not see deep enough and far enough to pen oracular words for those who are waiting for them. Culture, as he conceived it, can never rise to the height of power. Criticism, as he applied it, can never be more than an elegant art; while style itself, as he illustrated it, can never be that inspiring procedure which we find it to be in the writings of the masters—in the poetry of Shakespeare or in the prose of Pascal. A cultured, an acute, and a dignified style is one thing, and marks the good writer. A profound, philosophic, comprehensive, and soul-stirring style is another and a grander thing, and marks the “great writer.” We have a style before us that pleases our taste, impresses our minds, corrects, in many instances, our erroneous judgments, and rebukes our natural tendencies to the lighter and baser forms of literature; and this is all. When the profoundest depths of our being are to be reached and roused; when we are to be uplifted to that sublime spiritual outlook of which Milton and Longinus speak; when we are to be so addressed and moved that the thoughts of the author take possession of us, and make us efficient factors in the world’s intellectual and moral advancement, then must we look elsewhere than here—to those supremely-gifted authors who are great of a truth, and who make us great as well, to the degree in which we hold reverential converse with them. That style is great, and that only, which is instinct throughout with the very spirit of power; which, while obedient to the laws of literary art, is immeasurably above all art, and, with all its marks of human origin and limitation about it, is seen to have, in its character and method, something that is supernal.