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The long, withdrawing roar of Matthew Arnold

By Jane Garnett

Matthew Arnold is probably now most recalled for one phrase, the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of the Sea of Faith in his poem “Dover Beach” (first published in 1867), and for having written the lectures which were published serially and then in book form (1869) as Culture and Anarchy. Both are cited more than considered, and the nature of Arnold’s cultural project is often misunderstood. His poem is too readily taken as representative of a general crisis of faith, and his vision of culture has reductively been attached both to a conservative canon of English literature and to the educational arm of the welfare state. It has also been anachronistically and inappropriately absorbed into the “two cultures” science vs. humanities debate fuelled by C.P. Snow in the late 1950s. In fact, Arnold’s idea of culture was a much broader one, and was intended to be dynamic and dialogic. He identified the good of culture through refuting essentialisation of it. It was an approach, a habit of mind, rather than a subject area.

Anarchy, to Arnold, lay in lack of critical reflection. This led to the confusion of means and ends, and the privileging of the simple and dogmatic over the complex. He saw his contemporaries pursuing material wealth as an end in itself, and putting faith in the mechanisms by which government, society, churches, or industries operated, rather than reflecting on whether the machinery in fact activated or inhibited the underlying values which it should be serving. At a time when these values themselves were subject to debate, Arnold wanted people, rather than promoting or defending their individual or sectional interests, to think more about how the whole society could function harmoniously. His role as a critic was to help in developing criteria for action and to argue for culture as an active principle of engagement to combat anarchy.

On the one hand Arnold defined culture as an internal principle, a way of thinking, rather than as an external set of accomplishments or badge of prestige. Culture was a reflective process – a route towards perfection: “not a having and a resting, but a growing and a becoming.” This certainly involved intellectual self-development, including the development of an understanding of the will of God, as well as that of a moral and social passion for doing good. But the emphasis was on the ways in which the experience of contemplating perfection in these different registers — which he defined as sweetness and light/beauty and intelligence — would naturally enlarge and make flexible people’s minds. This was partly an argument for wider reading (which he personally regarded as a devotional discipline). He was also trying to make an imaginative case for exposing people to the narrownesses and complacencies of contemporary society. The serial publication meant that each essay was in part a response to the developing criticism. The side-swipes at particular critics, the conversational style, the accumulation and repetition of dialectical oppositions all represented a playing out of the critical purpose. The idea was to engage the reader in the tos and fros of the argument, to capture them in its immediacy.

On the other hand Arnold wanted to establish the fundamental importance of this conception of culture as the necessary basis for right action — as he put it, to make the will of God prevail. He argued that the English, especially in the mid-nineteenth century, were too practical, too inclined to act without thought, to confuse means and ends. His emphasis was on confronting difficulty, and here he cited Goethe: “to act is easy, to think is hard.” In returning again and again to this point, he was tackling accusations that the sort of cultural criticism which he was offering was impractical, dilettantish, even effeminate.

Like many of his contemporaries, he moved away from conventional dogmatic faith, but continued to frame his life religiously and to regard religious sympathy as culturally crucial. What he opposed was religion understood as mechanism or as sectional interest. Hence his critique of Protestant nonconformity, to which he was in many respects unfair, and of religious hypocrisy: the ways in which Protestantism could buttress materialism in the “gospel” of free trade economics. Analogously, he was not opposed to science or technology, but to scientism, to absolute claims made for scientific paths to truth. His repeated call was for cultural breadth of outlook and sympathy, and for constant vigilance as to the ways in which such breadth could be threatened by exaggerated particularism.  Hence the different connotations (sometimes confusingly) attached to his critical terms in different contexts, when the cultural balance seemed to be tipping too far one way or another.

In celebrating the study of Celtic literature, Arnold commented: “I don’t want to find myself everywhere”. The power of his own interpretative lens somewhat distorted this aspiration. But precisely because his argument about culture and anarchy was intentionally unsystematic and suggestive, the core challenges identified — of pluralism vs. integration, of how to attain social and moral harmony, whilst incorporating the enriching force of cultural variety — remain fresh. How can tendencies to cultural introversion be modified without loss of positive energy? How can relativism be avoided and hegemonies resisted? How can religious seriousness be treated seriously in a plural society? Arnold’s terms of cultural incorporation were controversial in his day, but his embrace of the creative force of this controversy in literary form retains its capacity to sharpen critical questions today.

Jane Garnett, Fellow and Tutor in Modern History, Wadham College, Oxford, and editor of the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Culture and Anarchy by Matthew Arnold.

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Image credit: Matthew Arnold, Project Gutenberg eText 16745. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.


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