The Letters of Matthew Arnold

About three decades ago I was researching Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) — poet, school inspector, literary, political, social, religious critic, and arguably the major literary figure of the Victorian age. Though there existed many editions of Arnold's poetry and a magisterial eleven volume edition of his prose works, his numerous letters awaited a definitive edition. As I needed to consult as many of his unpublished letters as possible, I betook myself for about week to the University of Virginia. There Cecil Lang who was working on a new edition of the letters kindly provided access to the photocopies of a vast collection of Arnold's correspondence. Some years later, Professor Lang published a comprehensive six volume edition of the letters. For my minor research project the photocopies I consulted were satisfactory, though I would have learned more if I had waited another decade or so for Lang's edition to appear. However, if I had held on until 2004 when the University of Virginia Press produced a digital version of Lang's edition, The Letters of Matthew Arnold, my analysis of Arnold's correspondence would have been much more fruitful. Of course, today with the proliferation of ebooks, the major digitization efforts of special collection and archive libraries, the growth of Google Books, HathiTrust and other digital book projects, the ready availability of databases with digital editions, scholars have easier access to digital versions of numerous major writers. For many such digital accessibility greatly facilitates research.

The aspect of Arnold in which I was particularly interested back in the 1980s pertained to his views of the Continent. Such views, and they were numerous, various and shifting, were expressed in many of his writings other than his letters. Still, his letters are replete with opinions on diverse aspects of foreign societies and they greatly amplify views found in his more formal and official writings. Arnold's interest in foreign societies is well-known — he was one of the nineteenth century's foremost comparative critics. In addition to his three official (to investigate educational practices) and numerous unofficial visits abroad, he wrote widely on topics concerning foreign nations, for example, the Italian question of 1859, Irish political and social history, England and the Irish University debate, American culture and society, General Grant, the role of the Academy in France, among many others. He composed numerous critical essays on foreign literary figures including Emerson, Goethe, Spinoza, Maurice de Guérin, Eugenie de Guérin, George Sand, Heinrich Heine, Joubert, Sainte-Beuve, Amiel, Leo Tolstoy, Joseph de Maistre. In this sphere of comparative literary criticism Arnold sometimes wrote on authors who were very little known to even the well educated in England. It is just that he is so often assigned a pioneering role in the field of comparative literature.

It is clear from his letters that going abroad was very congenial to Arnold. In a February 1864 letter to Richard Cobden Arnold wrote: "I have seen much of France, and have always said that I would infinitely rather, myself, be one of the peasants I have seen and talked to in the most backward parts of France, Bercy or Brittany, than one of the peasants I have seen and talked to in Buckinghamshire or Wiltshire" (Letters v. 2, p. 273). Arnold was pleased in 1859 to be appointed Foreign Assistant Commissioner to the Newcastle Commission to report on the elementary educational systems on the Continent. As he wrote to his youngest sister Fan: "I cannot tell you how much I like the errand—and, above all, to have the French district" (Letters v. 1, p. 412). Similarly, he was pleased to be sent abroad again in 1865, this time as an Assistant Commissioner to the Taunton Commission which was charged with examining England's endowed grammar schools. As he wrote on March 11, 1865 to his mother: "You know how deeply the Continent interests me—and I have here an opportunity of seeing at comparative leisure, and with all possible facilities given me, some of the most important concerns of the most powerful and interesting States of the Continent. It is exactly what I wanted; I did not want to be a Commissioner, I did not want to be Secretary; but I did want to go abroad, and to Germany as well as France" (Letters v. 2, p. 392) Twenty years later, in 1885, he was once again happy to be sent to the Continent, this time as an emissary of the Education Department. In a letter to his son Dick: "I should like it very much, because on one of these official tours one has the opportunity of learning so much" (Letters v. 6, p. 67). Even when the Continent was brought to England in 1869 Arnold was pleased expressing his pleasure that the Prince of Genoa was coming to live as one of the Arnold family while he attended Harrow school: "The Continent has so much interest for me that I should not at all dislike this connection with it" (Letters v. 3, p. 310). It is true that sometimes his wish to travel abroad seems to have been due more to the desire to avoid difficult times in England than to any intrinsic love of Continental life. In 1854 concern that Louis Napoleon's activities in the Crimea would be detrimental to English interests depressed him to the extent that he wrote to his wife of his longing to live quietly in Switzerland with her and the boys (Letters v. 1, p. 311).

In his letters Arnold referred over and over to political, social, economic, educational and religious aspects of his Continental neighbors. For example, he was impressed by the general equality of conditions prevailing among the French working classes. In a letter to his mother in 1859 Arnold wrote: "Of one thing I am convinced more & more—of the profoundly democratic spirit which exists among the lower orders, even among the Breton peasants. Not a spirit which will necessarily be turbulent or overthrow the present government—but a spirit which has irrevocably broken with the past, and which makes the revival of an aristocratic society impossible" (Letters v. 1, p. 446). Though Arnold in 1859 declared that he would like the Prussians to be "a little depedantified", he generally praised them for being endowed with the attributes of knowing things scientifically (Letters v. 1, p. 484). In a letter to his mother in July 1866, he commented: "The moment is altogether one of surpassing interest. How the revival of Germany would have excited dear Papa. What I have said in one of my Celtic papers,—the idea of science governing every department of human activity,—is the root and heart of Prussia's success at this moment" (Letters v. 3, p. 54). Moreover, the Prussians were by no means alone in displaying a tendency for science, for the Italians were also characterized by their scientific intellect: "through all Europe the movement is now towards science, and the Italian people is distinguished amongst all others by its scientific intellect—this is undoubtedly true: so that with the movement there now is among them there is no saying where they may go" (Letters, v. 2, p. 420). Italy and the Italians were especially congenial to Arnold: "Here in Italy one feels that all time spent out of Italy by tourists in France, Germany, Switzerland &c &c—is, human life being so short, time mis-spent" (Letters Vol. 2, p. 424)

Arnold's repeated advocacy to his compatriots to examine aspects of Continental nations had the goal of helping them inculcate a wider and deeper perspective and to develop an international awareness rather than a mere national one. He wished the English to become more cosmopolitan in outlook and practice; to become imbued with a greater feeling for international, as opposed to mere domestic, currents, particularly in intellectual life; to display, in short, an increased awareness that England, though important, still occupied only part of the world's stage. Arnold himself was essentially a European or Continental thinker and this was the natural result of his extensive comparative studies carried out in literature as well as in actual foreign travel and practical experience. As early as March 1848 there was evident in a letter to his sister Jane Martha both his manifest concern with England's declining condition and his belief that in the future European nation states would draw together: "I am not sure but I agree in Lamartine's prophecy that 100 years hence the Continent will be a great united Federal Republic, and England all her colonies gone in a dull steady decay" (Letters v. 1, p. 97). He displayed keen foresight though the Common Market and later the European Union took a little longer than a hundred years to come into being.

It is sometimes asserted that Arnold was so depreciatory of English society and so enamored of things Continental that he wished his compatriots to become as much as possible like other nationalities such as the French and Germans. However, Arnold, though convinced that the English, and especially her middle classes, had to be changed, did not hold that the answer lay in their becoming quasi-Germans or quasi-Frenchmen. For example, philistinism, in Arnold's opinion, was not exclusive to the English. The Germans came in for stern criticism at the time he was touring their country during his work for the Taunton Commission. In a letter to his mother from Berlin dated July 5, 1865, he described Germany as "the most bourgeois of nations: that is exactly the definition of them, and they have all the merits and defects which this definition implies" (Letters v. 2, 434). A little over two months later we read in a letter from Dresden to Wyndham Slade: "I shall never come to Germany again, partly because all time passed in touring anywhere in Western Europe, except Italy, seems to me, with my present lights, time misspent, partly because the Germans, with their hideousness and commonness, are no relief to one's spirit but rather depress it. Never surely was there seen a people of so many millions so unattractive" (Letters v. 2, p. 454).

Arnold saw his work as a comparativist not merely as pinpointing faults in English education and civilization but, more important, as making proposals how borrowing judiciously from abroad would help in the reformation of the domestic situation. Moreover, it was the adoption of a "kind of European accent", in the words of Henry James, which Arnold felt would benefit England's middle classes in their transformation from what he considered to be their blinkered, narrow, provincial world-view to a broader, more embracing, tolerant, and cultured outlook. Intellectual insularity may have been pardoned when England really did lead the world but that day was now past; other countries and other peoples had much to offer in a diversity of spheres and much was to be gained from comparative study. It was now time for the middle classes and the rest of the English to learn from the best European practice and to persuade them of this, Arnold devoted much of his life.

The Letters of Matthew Arnold, Cecil Lang's authoritative edition, is one of the excellent Rotunda digital editions produced by the University of Virginia Press. BC Libraries have purchased or subscribed to numerous other digital editions of the works of famous authors, for example Adams Papers Digital Edition; Bertolt Brechts Werke; Digital Karl Barth Library; Dolley Madison Digital Edition; Emily Dickinson's Correspondences: A Born-Digital Textual Inquiry; Goethes Werke im WWW; Kafkas Werke im WWW; Letters of Christina Rossetti; Papers of Alexander Hamilton; Papers of Eliza Lucas Pinckney and Harriott Pinckney Horry; Papers of George Washington; Papers of James Madison; Papers of Thomas Jefferson; Schillers Werke im WWW; Voltaire Electronic. Particularly helpful is the database Past Masters which provides access to definitive editions in digital format of the works of many seminal figures in the history of the humanities, including published and unpublished works, articles and essays, reviews and correspondence. Titles include Aquinas: Collected Works; Aristotle: Complete Works; Austin: Works; Bentham: Works; Berkeley: Works; Brontë: Letters; Coleridge: Collected Letters; Descartes: Oeuvres Complètes; Dickens: Letters; Gaskell: Works; Hume: Complete Works and Correspondence; Kierkegaard: Journals and Papers; Locke: Correspondence; Newman: Letters and Diaries; Peirce: Collected Papers; Royce: Works; Smith: Works and Correspondence; Swift: Correspondence; Synge: Collected Letters; Tennyson: Letters; Wordsworths: Collected Letters; Yeats: Collected Letters. To access all the foregoing and other digital editions of famous authors please check Holmes and the Research Databases page.

Brendan Rapple
Collection Development Librarian