The Conflicting Viewpoints of Matthew Arnold

In reading “Dover Beach” and “Culture and Anarchy” together I was first and foremost impressed with Matthew Arnold’s range as a writer. Arnold takes the two sides of one issue and argues both ways of thought rather well, which unfortunately is where my main issue with these works of literature begins. Reading the pieces side by side paints Arnold as an unconvinced zealot whose opinions on modernity seem almost bi-polar as times.

His first thoughts on modernity are seen in “Dover Beach”  where he speaks as one in love with nature (sweet is the night air / from the long line of spray / where the sea meets the moon-blanched land), fascinated by spirituality (the sea of faith / was once too at the full / and round the earth’s shore) and deeply convinced that the lives of the ancients were in some way superior to any modern experience (Sophocles long ago / heard it on the Aegean).  These romantic notions stand in stark contrast to his brash and disillusioned way of speaking in “Culture and Anarchy.” 

In the ten years between “Dover Beach” and “Culture and Anarchy” it is my opinion that Arnold grew into somewhat of a modernist. He champions modern culture (through culture seems to lie our way, not only to perfection, but even to safety), rejects a great deal of religious ideals (it is not that Hellenism is always for everybody more wanted than Hebraism, but that it is more wanted), and the majority of the piece is focused on the examinations of modern culture rather than any remarks about nature.

Where I grow troubled as a reader is in noticing that Arnold defends both ideals incredibly well. This creates a lack of confidence in his actual convictions. For instance, if Arnold is merely arguing these issues and is saying whatever is necessary to prove his point, then of what value are his opinions? Unfortunately, I can find no indication that he supports one ideal over the other and must retire that query for another time.

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One thought on “The Conflicting Viewpoints of Matthew Arnold

  1. Well, Arnold does a good job of illustrating the sides of the argument he’s making. However, he comes down very clearly on the side of culture.

    When he says culture, he doesn’t mean “modern culture” as you seem to infer. It’s a nuanced argument that seeks to give Hellenism — the individual’s cultivation of sweetness and light, of appreciation for beauty and right understanding that had its highest expression in ancient Greece — a greater prominence than it already has in modern Britain, but not to do away with modern industriousness (generally categorized as Hebraism — the penchant for moral action without reflection). He is acknowledging that we need both Hellenism and Hebraism, not that Hebraism should be chucked out the window. So it’s not that he’s lacking in conviction, it’s just that the argument is synthetic and nuanced.

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