This book started out as a cradle-to-grave biography of Matthew Arnold, but stops 20 years short of the grave. The cut-off point is significant: it divides Arnold the poet from Arnold the social and literary critic, a rupture that is to be regretted for various reasons. For one thing, Ian Hamilton is himself both a poet and (in that now rather quaint Victorian appellation) a man of letters, so that one such hybrid character might have cast some interesting light on another. For another thing, Arnold's poetry was never much more than solid upper-second stuff with the occasional touch of alpha, and even Hamilton finds it hard to enthuse over its threadbare language, second-rate angst, plangency of tone and attenuated stock of imagery. Arnold may have gradually "imprisoned" his poetic gift by turning to more practical affairs, as Hamilton claims, but the gift was fairly fragile even before it dwindled to nothing in the gaol of his social conscience. The fear of spontaneity which probably led him to send a lover (the "Marguerite" of the poems) packing also resulted in verses which even he recognised were a good deal too stiff jointed and voulu.
Some of the poetry is thus thinnish stuff for a critic as adroit as Hamilton to get his teeth into; there is something faintly incongruous about the way he plucks subtle insights from such lifeless academic exercises as Merope or "Balder Dead". The quality of the commentary is sometimes unsettlingly superior to its object, as when Hamilton speaks of Arnold's heroic posture as "at best a grim-jawed, pumped-up thing. Sky-high apostrophes, big brazen adjectives, mechanically strummed pentameters, gratuitous inversions...". He cites a Victorian critic who compared some of the rhythms of Merope to the noise of a stick being drawn along a railing, and comments shrewdly on the poetry's "scatter-gun display of exclamation marks, a sure sign of fake vigour". The book never really convinces us that its attraction to Arnold's poetry is much more than a private idiosyncrasy, as though Jacques Derrida were to betray a taste for topless darts.
Hamilton, then, is forced to forgo a full-dress biography because his subject finally abandoned poetry for prose, a prose which presumably does not enthral him. This is a little like ending a biography of T. S. Eliot with The Waste Land because you are not interested in the Anglican church. In any case, cutting Arnold off in his mid-forties is not the best way of understanding the poetry, since its full significance can only be judged by what he abandoned it for. Hamilton sees well enough that the kind of lyrical verse that Arnold could do best was exactly what he thought the age least demanded. The tremulous tones of the isolated self had to yield to the grander style of neo-classical epic, elevated, impersonal and architectonic in all the ways that Arnold himself was least capable of pulling off. But this was more than a matter of literary form. If Arnold suppressed some of his own early verse, it was because art in an age of social turbulence is meant to edify, not undermine. Its task is to sublimate anxiety, not reflect it. The Victorians found something politically subversive about gloom, which is one reason why they were unnerved by Thomas Hardy; and Arnold's early poetry, with its morbidly self-conscious, young-fogeyish sense of enervation, was part of the problem, not of the spiritually therapeutic answer. As Hamilton remarks, it was writing full of "in-between, provisional emotions - vague discontents, vague prohibitions, vague recollections of bygone ideals, lost certainties, old hopes..." If the dandyish son of Thomas Arnold of Rugby felt ontologically washed-up at the age of 30, what hope was there for his less privileged compatriots?
The hope, in fact, was the idea of Culture. Arnold's later prose writings mark the point where the notion of culture is in transit from the aesthetic to the anthropological. If culture was to be the antidote to political anarchy, then it must descend from Balliol to Balham, redefining itself as a means of civilising the nation rather than as the property of an elite. This set of alternatives was always somewhat spurious, since what counted as "quality of life" in the anthropological sense was still measured by the aesthetic judgement of the few. But it was now up to culture to unite and uplift the populace, thus taking over the role which a crisis-plagued religion had performed so supremely well in the past.
This was always a forlorn hope, since Jesus is popular in a way that Sophocles is not. Indeed in Literature and Dogma and God and the Bible, Arnold turned back to a suitably de-gutted, demythologised brand of Christianity, fearful that the blithe Hellenism of culture might dilute the Hebraistic zeal for doing some good in the world. In the meantime, however, culture would provide a corporate solution to individualist ills - one of which, so Arnold now considered, was his own earlier poetry, which had been content to reflect human estrangement in its content rather than transcend it in its form.
Arnold himself remained painfully caught between the aesthetic and the anthropological, half of his soul with the Oxford professorship of poetry and the other half of it with hearing ten-year-olds in Liverpool and Birmingham recite their multiplication tables. He had become an inspector of schools in 1851, one of a mere 20 such HMIs responsible for some 4,000 elementary schools throughout the country. He took the job partly because his sinecure as private secretary to Lord Lansdowne - "lackey to a Whig supremo", as Hamilton puts it - did not pay enough; partly because it promised to provide him with the sacred Carlylean labour which would give point to his listless existence; but also, surely, because it represented his own practical contribution to the cause of culture. As his father's son, Arnold dutifully buckled down to this dispiriting task, his enervation after a hard day's grind now more than modishly spiritual; but the vision of the scholar-gypsy testing Scouser urchins remains as surreal as the thought of Oscar Wilde as a traffic warden.
Much of the young Arnold's fashionably jaded posturing has indeed a Wildean or Anthony Blanche-like quality about it. This embyronic Victorian sage called his male friends "my love" and "darling", and struck most of those he encountered as a frivolous fop. What they noticed was his air of languid detachment, his aloofness from local passions, which would finally emerge as the celebrated "disinterestedness" of culture. His concept of culture was not in fact disinterested at all, as the modern literary left, for whom Arnold has been at once bete noire and straw target, has been at pains to point out. Roughly speaking, the idea of culture is that the aristocrats (or Barbarians) will transmit something of their mannerliness to an uncouth middle class (or Philistines), so that this class might in turn secure its hegemony over the loutish masses (or Populace). Arnold's writings on culture, like his literary criticism, are full of vacuous, high-minded pieties ("sweetness and light", "the best self", "harmonious perfection"), but his private correspondence betrays a rather less bland response to such questions as popular democracy. By 1860, he was drilling twice a week with the Queen's Volunteers and declaring his faith in such rifle corps as a bastion against plebeian discontent.
Arnold was envious of his old schoolfriend Arthur Clough, who was indeed a much finer poet, and scoffed at his republican zeal. When Clough was seized with revolutionary fervour in 1848, Arnold pointedly sent him a copy of the Bhagavadgita. He was always quick to recommend a lofty quietism when it suited his own political interests, and Hamilton is right to read Thyrsis, his elegy on Clough, as both complacent and condescending. Indeed smugness was a besetting vice of the man one fellow-Victorian dubbed Mr Kidglove Cocksure, and an Olympian disdain for prosaic particulars goes hand-in-hand with his archly ironic prose style. In the poems, as J. Hillis Miller points out, he is always either stifling for lack of air on a mountain-top or suffocating on the urban plains, unable to strike a balance between detachment and commitment, torn between the frenetic fragmentation of daily life and the impotent omniscience of seeing life steadily and seeing it whole.
Even so, the left have overhyped Arnold's political villainy. He sprang from a liberal, broad-church lineage, ferociously lampooned his own class of Philistines, sweated away in the service of working-class children, and had scant faith in the academic study of English literature. He also seems to have believed that he was dying on his feet, the victim of a weak heart, which makes his insouciance a little more admirable. Arnold comes near the end of a line of English literary thinkers who, in the absence of a fully-fledged sociology or political science, were forced themselves to assume the role of political sage or social commentator. If culture in the sense of producing art was to be possible, an inquiry into culture in the sense of the social conditions that might promote this goal was becoming increasingly necessary. Arnold displays the strengths of this very English brand of literary sociology, not least its anti-positivist preoccupation with the quality of social life, just as he betrays its limits: its high-toned moralising, its amateurish impressionism, its eye for the glib image, its substitution of irony for argument.
By the time of his death in 1888, the tradition of the dilettantish man of letters is giving way to the specialist intellectual journal and the professionalisation of academic discourse, even if Arnold's brand of off-the-peg literary sociology survived at least as far as George Orwell. It is as though Arnold is stranded somewhere between Herbert Spencer and Walter Pater, striving to fulfil the tasks of the former with the techniques and sensibility of the latter.
Hamilton is amusingly Lytton-Stracheyish on the revered Dr Thomas Arnold, with his "vague, sleeves-up utopia of Christian togetherness" and his gratitude to God for sending him such terrible chest pains. Matthew had a clumsy style of walking, the result of having to wear leg-irons as an infant, and his father, whom Hamilton bluntly calls a "fanatic", brutally nicknamed him Crab. One is grateful for nuggets of this sort, but it is hard in general to see the point of this enjoyable, compellingly readable study, given that Hamilton is not an assistant professor scrambling for tenure. Arnold was neither a great poet nor a particularly attractive character, and Hamilton seems deceived on neither score. His cultural thought still has an historical importance his poetry lacks, but this is just the aspect of him which this study is designed to avoid.
What was apparently first conceived of as heavy-duty biography, then, has turned out to be something curiously light-weight. Hamilton tells us in his preface that one impulse behind the book was the "intriguing puzzle" of the true identity of "Marguerite", but that whole episode is in fact rather cursorily treated - not surprisingly, since even those like Hamilton who think the matter worth looking into, a dubious proposition at best, have no clue as to who Arnold's elusive lover was, or indeed whether she existed at all. The poet's career is vividly, wittily sketched, but the social and intellectual background remains notably out of focus. This may not be much of a defect if one is writing a biography of the intellectual-backgroundless Paul Gascoigne - Hamilton's last book was entitled Gazza Agonistes - but one would expect rather more contextual padding in the case of a spiritually anguished Victorian sage. Like the universe, the book is full of intelligent life, but why it exists at all remains something of a mystery.
Terry Eagleton is professor of English literature, University of Oxford.
A Gift Imprisoned: The Poetic Life of Matthew Arnold
Author - Ian Hamilton
ISBN - 0 7475 3671 6
Publisher - Bloomsbury
Price - £17.99
Pages - 242