OVERCOMING MATTHEW ARNOLD: ETHICS IN CULTURE AND CRITICISM by James Walter Caulfield, Reviewed by Lawrence Poston

By James Walter Caulfield
(Farnhanm, Surrey: Ashgate, 2012) 242 pages
Reviewed by Lawrence Poston on 2012-09-15.

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The germ of James Caulfield's new book lies in a well-known but seldom discussed sentence in the Introduction to Culture and Anarchy, where Matthew Arnold identifies himself as "a Liberal tempered by experience, reflection, and renouncement." Taking the last term as his principal one, Caulfield traces its origin to Christian ideas of renunciation, a sacrificial self-repression in the interests of others. He also links "renouncement" to two key terms in Culture and Anarchy -- Hebraism and conduct -- that he thinks should rank with Hellenism and culture in assessing Arnold's influence. He finds a strong pessimistic, even Schopenhauerian strain in Arnold's thought, and he promises an account of Arnold's rhetorical strategy of working through examples rather than sustained logical argument, a strategy for which Arnold was castigated by such "systematic" contemporaries such as Leslie Stephen and the ethicist Henry Sidgwick, as well as more recent literary critics and theorists. At the end of the book, acknowledging his particular indebtedness to Alan Grob (A Longing Like Despair: Arnold's Poetry of Pessimism [2002]) and James C. Livingston (Matthew Arnold and Christianity: His Religious Prose Writings [1986]), Caulfield restates his thesis: "pessimistic renouncement is the key to Arnold's entire oeuvre, both poetry and prose" (200).

Caulfield thus promises an Arnold who is neither the effete dandy-aesthete derided by the theoretically tough-minded, nor, as some on the Left have alleged, the covert defender of a bourgeois hegemony. This could be an Arnold who, without being a systematizer, is a far more rigorous moralist than he has been given credit for. And we do glimpse such an Arnold, particularly when, toward the end, Caulfield argues that Leslie Stephen's critique of Arnold seriously misreads both the man and his work. Noting that Stephen's agnosticism is not so very far removed from Arnold's final religious position, Caulfield interrogates those "athletes of logic" who find Arnold's lack of method itself effeminate and sentimentally aesthetic. Alluding to both the lyric and dramatic poetry, Caulfield argues that "what Stephen takes for a weakness or rhetorical limitation in Arnold's work is in fact its ethical hub" (196).

Caulfield has certainly done his homework, ranging widely in Arnold's poetry and prose (including the still somewhat neglected religious prose) and extending his scrutiny not only to Arnold's Victorian reviewers and subsequent scholarship on him but also to Arnoldianism in twentieth- and early twenty-first century cultural politics, aside from the vanishing New Humanists. Unfortunately, the very extent of that homework -- and its structural consequences for the book -- threaten to occlude a three-dimensional portrait of Arnold's achievement. Caulfield does not keep his eye on his subject. While the title and accompanying abstract (which serves as a kind of frontispiece to the volume) feature Matthew Arnold, most of the book follows the subtitle in offering a study of ethical criticism for which Arnold provides the occasion. The practical outcome is that Arnold disappears for pages at a time into a sprawling but repetitive bibliographical essay that invokes just about everyone but Arnold himself. Of six chapters, only the last two really bear on the project that Caulfield promises at the outset.

Despite the space lavished on Arnoldianism in general, Caulfield's key terms and their relationships are never quite fully teased out. Take for instance "pessimism," "renouncement," and "Liberal." Is pessimism always associated with altruism, and what gives the unsystematic Arnold (a description that Caulfield seems to credit) a claim to be a philosophical pessimist? As for the other two terms, the sentence from which they are drawn and which serves as an epigraph for this book privileges not "renouncement" (one of three key terms) but "Liberal," which is what Arnold said he was. Beyond the narrow question of party affiliation, "Liberal" is not an uncontested word, either for the Victorians or for ourselves. As J. Dover Wilson pointed out over seventy years ago in his edition of Culture and Anarchy (rptd. Cambridge 1960), Arnold's triad parodies the Liberal Party platform of "Peace, retrenchment, reform" (220n). The sentence exemplifies that satiric vein that allies Arnold with Newman (another avowed anti-systematizer, and no friend of Liberalism) and would seem to call for an examination of the original words, which Arnold's sentence silently displaces. But what did Arnold mean, or think he meant, by the term Liberal, and how does "renouncement" qualify his liberalism? And is Christian renouncement distinguishable from Stoic resignation, or what Arnold elsewhere portrays as Eastern quietism?

The larger context in which these terms function is mapped out somewhat sketchily, though more space would have been available had the author not charged enthusiastically into the culture wars of the last quarter century. Much depends on whether a Victorian scholar will find Schopenhauer as useful a reference point as Arnold's British contemporaries. (In fairness, Caulfield does provide a brief but useful excursus into late Victorian interest in Schopenhauer.) The German philosopher certainly provides a useful analogue to Arnold's views, though he appears to have been known to Arnold himself through translation and commentary in English and French sources. But Caulfield's hit-and-miss approach to the Victorian scene leaves a number of nearer possibilities unexplored. Nothing in Arnold's poetry quite equals the genuinely philosophical pessimism of James Thomson's The City of Dreadful Night, and nothing that Caulfield cites from Schopenhauer comes as close to the heart of Arnold's project as the quiet strain of scientific pessimism in his old sparring partner, T. H. Huxley, or for that matter in the Broad Church Movement that Dr. Arnold's influence helped to father. And of Arnold's relationship to his Romantic antecedents, Caulfield has little to say, though Arnold's pessimism is in large part attributable to a particularly post-Wordsworthian as well as post-Christian awareness.

On the rare occasions when Caulfield supports his position with a close reading of Arnold, such as the infamous "Wragg is in custody" passage in "The Function of Criticism at the Present Time," he shows a critical capacity generally crimped by his own organizational scheme. To repeat, Chapters Five and Six offer most of what he really has to say about Arnold's achievement. But the insights are more local than comprehensive, with less critical yield that one might have expected from the promised overview of Arnold's rhetorical strategy. His lack of system was itself a satiric device, as Caulfield recognizes when he comments sensibly on Arnold's employment of ironic self-deprecation. If by repeating "Wragg is in custody" Arnold could critique the complacency and insularity of British boosters unwilling to face the facts of a recent child murder, he seldom bothered to waste logical argument on an unworthy opponent. In reviewing the yards of dreary literalism and overheated indignation that Caulfield has so capably assembled from more than a century of Arnold criticism, one suspects that what infuriated his Victorian contemporaries was not a lack of intellectual seriousness but his tone of amused disengagement, which made him such an elusive prey.

If Caulfield's reading of the prose misses its playful element, his response to the poetry is even more worrisome. To his credit, he is attentive to illuminating details of how Arnold's prose and poetic ventures often dovetail. Thus the speaker's "sad lucidity of soul" at the end of "Resignation" surely describes a state of mind necessary to the polemicist who, like Arnold, has ultimately serious and not merely playful objects in view. But Caulfield too often treats poetry as simply an alternative source for evidence of the sort he mines from the prose. Nowhere does he allow for the likelihood that questions of dramatic form may problematize this evidence. It is certainly true that Arnold does not provide the historical detail and unconscious self-revelation of a fictionalized speaker that one encounters in Browning or even the more generalized clues of a Tennysonian monologue by a mythical (rather than historical) figure such as Ulysses or Tithonus. Nonetheless there are different voices in Arnold's poetry, and it is incautious to assume that they all represent Matthew Arnold in different keys.

My discomfort with this study may lie in facts to which we are not privy. The book lacks any preface or defining statement of its intellectual origins or personal indebtedness. Densely footnoted, however, it reads like a doctoral dissertation that has undergone little if any revision for publication, rather as if it had been written for a demanding but somewhat unruly dissertation committee whose disparate members all had to be placated. But while dissertations must expose their overhead apparatus to scrutiny, publication requires that as much as possible of the power grid be laid underground. A second problem is that tell-tale signs of insufficient oversight are evident in an inadvertent repetition (14-15 and 128-29), and in citation; in both the text and the bibliography, Raymond Williams' The Country and the City (Oxford 1973) has become The Town and the City. The author says that " Fausta," Arnold's name for his sister in the poetry, "means lucky" (144), but whatever the source of his etymology, Arnold was almost certainly depending on its Goethean overtones.

Overcoming Matthew Arnold shows very real merit. The author is thorough; he has a doable and useful thesis in view; he even exhibits touches of humor. But the effect of this uneven and fitfully insightful book suggests that experience, reflection, and renouncement are critical tools of no mean importance to anyone who hopes to grasp one of the most fascinating -- and slippery -- of the Victorians.

Lawrence Poston is Professor of English Emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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