Can I have your autograph Mr. Arnold?

I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is normally included. This week, Matthew Arnold’s Essays on Criticism.

The February 9th edition of Harper’s Weekly, 1861, carried a lengthy report under the heading REVOLUTION IN NAVAL WARFARE. SHOT-PROOF IRON STEAMSHIPS. The news that the French were already building an armoured warship, La Gloire, had, it reported, led the British government to order the construction of HMS Warrior. Fast, capable of 14 knots, heavily armoured, 4 and 1/2 inch iron plates lined its oak sides, and heavily armed, 48 heavy 68 pounders, it would, the report stated, make clear that the British navy had “resolved to oppose to La Gloire a real sea-going ship of war; not a mere floating battery, nor a craft that would have to keep the land in sight, but a ship which should be fit to take the open sea, and, if need be, to bear the flag of old England once more to the enemy’s coasts.”

Four years later, The Lincolnshire Chronicle, on the 10th of March 1865, carried under the heading Literary Notices the following, “Mr Matthew Arnold carries to perfection the double faculty of delighting and exasperating his readers; but even those most opposed to his teaching and sensitive to his clever caprices, will rejoice that the Essays on Criticism, which appeared in several magazines, and by their ability challenged considerable attention, are now available in a permanent form.” Following his death in 1888, the Liberal statesman John Morley, then Chief Secretary for Ireland, spoke in the House of Commons noting that in “…the disappearance of that bright ornament of his time, I express for many on both sides of the House our sense of the loss of one who was a man of letters of the first eminence and distinction, who, besides that, was a public servant of the greatest usefulness, and who, finally, constantly showed a very keen and luminous insight into some of the most urgent social, intellectual, and political needs of his generation and his country.” The American literary critic Lionel Trilling in his 1939 book Matthew Arnold, writing of Arnold’s time as Oxford Professor of Poetry, described it as “revolutionary”, not the least revolutionary aspect being giving his lectures in English rather than Latin which his predecessors had done.

There is a risk in both of the examples above of simply being over-impressed by facts. But compared to the risks associated with leaving the top off a jar containing the Ebola virus or transporting high-level nuclear waste in cardboard boxes, the consequences are negligible. Perspective is everything. So, let us put Arnold on HMS Warrior. It is debatable whether he would have given the order to fire on La Gloire, given his declared admiration in the Essays on Criticism for French writers such as Maurice de Guérin, Joseph Joubert and the advantages gained by French culture from the Academie Française (central control as opposed to the dreaded and dreadful British provincialism). However, I would have given the order (he would not have wept, nor would he have reproached me – duty is duty after all – but he would have been conscious of the heavy symbolism as La Gloire was pounded into matchwood). But I would have given the order with a heavy heart as I would have wanted to have impressed the man who had given his three lectures On Translating Homer between November 1860 and January 1861 in the Taylor Institute Library, Oxford. Even more than pace the gun deck of the Warrior, I would have wanted to have sat in the front row and listened to him talk.

For that I would have willingly endured the contemptuous glances of the other men in the audience at my lack of side-whiskers (and very possibly from any women present also); I would have nodded unknowingly at the quotations in Greek, laughed in the wrong places, uttered “Hear, hear” in a way that showed I had not the slightest understanding of what  had been said and applauded before the end of the lecture just as I do when I think a piece of classical music has finished and it has not. It is very likely I would have even said to the embarrassment of those around me “Well worth £125″* – (the stipend paid annually to Arnold as Oxford Professor of Poetry and worth £9,160 in 2010 prices). Just as he spoke of the rapidity, the plainness, the directness and the nobility of Homer (all qualities lacking, he argued, in F.W.Newman’s 1856 translation of the Iliad), his own words carried those same qualities. “Few are those who can recall the graceful figure in its silken gown, the gracious address, the slightly supercilious smile” wrote G.W.E. Russell in 1904.

This is Literary Taste in all its glory. Reading the Essays in Criticism lets the middlebrow lift its head up and look the highbrow in the eye; it encourages a person to leave behind the provinces, make the journey to the metropolitan centre and yet still look on a literary career as just work. Someone, in other words, like Arnold Bennett.

Eheu fugaces labuntur anni (I found that in Wikipedia. I really don’t know any Latin). Within a decade HMS Warrior was superseded by the French steel battleship Le Redoutable and its rotating gun turrets. T.S. Eliot dismissed Arnold as being neither revolutionary nor reactionary. But I would still have pushed my way through the crowd on that afternoon in January 1861 and asked for his autograph.
A sturdy (8,5) is plotted and it’s full steam ahead for two novels by Hugh Walpole Mr. Perrin and Mr. Traill and The Dark Forest. 
Full steam ahead!
*Dr. Williams, President of Jesus College, said after a later lecture given by Arnold “The Angel has ended.” Which is slightly more poetic than my proposed comment.
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  1. I love your posts – they have a perfect amount of humour sprinkled in them! HMS Warrior is still pretty impressive in its permanent mooring at the historical dockyard at Portsmouth. A really good day out.

    • Thank you. I’ve tried being serious and all that happened was that my sister said she preferred me when I was funnier. I think I write what I would like to read. Like my dad, I want to be amused and informed. Usually in that order. I hope I can get to visit the old Warrior one day.

  2. BTW I have been doing a little reading up on Aldous Huxley for a post I’m thinking of writing and noticed something on his family tree displayed on Wikipedia. Did you know that Matthew Arnold was his Great Uncle on his mother’s side? See here:

    • Thanks for the information. Quite an illustrious family, between the Arnolds and the Huxleys! Looking forward to your post on Aldous Huxley.


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