Nicholas Murray

Rare Case of a Poet who Doubted His Own Genius

A Gift Imprisoned: The Poetic Life of Matthew Arnold


Bloomsbury 252pp £17.99 order from our bookshop

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 noteworthy product being Culture and Anarchy.

Hamilton is interested in why Arnold stopped writing poems. He takes as his starting point Auden’s sonnet on the poet with its famous one-liner: ‘He thrust his gift in prison till it died.’ Arnold’s poetry did not simply dry up: he stifled it. The reasons for this, however, are far from straightforward. Hamilton recounts again the story of the poet’s father, Dr Arnold of Rugby, who perhaps strikes us now as a little mad, and who instilled a profound sense of duty, of a mission to make the world better, in the heart of every Arnold. But Hamilton believes that Matthew Arnold did not simply override his poetic gift in favour of responding to the call of duty as an Inspector of Schools and a public intellectual. He suggests that Arnold may actually have doubted his own talent from the start, and says that his book is ‘an attempt to animate certain key moments, or turning points, in Arnold’s passage from the poetic to the prose life of his later years’. He succeeds in this by focusing clearly on Arnold’s ambivalences and occasional confessions in letters to family and friends.

Arnold was a self-conscious critic of his own work who thought about its relation to his time and its needs. Perhaps he thought too much and in his poetry he certainly failed to obey the strictures he delivered as a critic, even as early as the famous Preface to his 1853 edition of poems. He tried to force his poetry into a classical mould and for years planned an ambitious poem on the subject of Lucrctius. Hamilton quotes, as an epigraph, Arnold’s all-too-revealing words on the planned hero of this doomed project: ‘It is a sad thing to see a man who has been frittered away piecemeal by petty distractions, and who has never done his best. But it is still sadder to see a man who has done his best, who has reached his utmost limits – and finds his work a failure, and himself far less than he had imagined himself.’

Had Arnold possessed a stronger conviction of the worth of his poetry he might have stayed with it and sacrificed himself to poetry more absolutely. There was in Arnold a fatal holding-back, a shrinking from extremity, which always made people feel that his public face of smiling equanimity, his maddening coolness in polemic, were a pose: behind them he had closed off certain avenues, stepped back from the abyss into which all true artists must stare. In his youth the dandyism and persiflage were part of this, a strategy of making space for himself that in some sense became permanent.

Hamilton’s style is relaxed and informal which makes this a highly readable book. It is not cluttered with academic references (one glancing mention of Eliot, no Leavis, no Trilling, no recent authorities) and the criticism is always biographical rather than formal but nonetheless acute. He notes, for example, the poems’ ‘steady drift towards conditions of numbed stasis, or capitulation. Habitually, his poems seemed to speak against themselves, to question their own right to have been written’.

The blurb promises a contribution to that long-running but wholly fruitless debate: the identity of Marguerite. Hamilton, in fact, has relatively little to say about this, and rightly so, for it is a pointless discussion. We do not know the identity of Marguerite and we never shall.

Hamilton succeeds in illuminating a subject that has clearly exercised his mind for many years. Readers of Arnold’s poetry will find this book an essential companion, for it covers the years that matter in his poetic life.

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