Could we be about to witness a Matthew Arnold revival after years of disparagement of his poetry by T S Eliot and those who came after him? The multiplicity of popular editions indicates that the poetry-reading public may have its own view on the matter; now his writings on culture, long the subject of caricature rather than analysis, are beginning to be read with understanding, as people grow bored with Theory. In the last couple of years there have been a long-awaited complete edition of Arnold’s letters, a new biography, and now Ian Hamilton’s absorbing biographical study of Arnold’s poetic career. Out of all this a truer and more just picture of Arnold as poet and critic ought to emerge.
In defiance of certain Arnold scholars who insist that it is wrong to split Arnold’s life into two parts – the poet, followed by the critic – Hamilton sets out to describe the making of Arnold the poet, his account ending around 1860. This is the point where most biographies gird themselves for an excursion into the world of religious polemic, cultural argument and social criticism. They occupied this busy writer’s life for the next twenty years, their most