Modern Elements in Matthew Arnold

Matthew Arnold is a product of  Victorian age marked by social unrest, disbelief,  material prosparity and spiritual decline. But his poetry shows hardly anything in common with his  well known contemporaries. His poetry is often seen as transitory between Wordsworthian romanticiam and more pessimisstic modernism. Now we will evaluate the elements of modernism in Arnold’s poetry.
         As a modern poet,  Arnold is very much critical of life in his poetry. To him, poetry is “the criticism of life”.  While Dryden and Pope take poetry as “spirit of life”; and Wordworth as  “spontaneous  overflow ”  of life.
           In an 1869 letter to his mother, Arnold himself admits modernism in his poetry. He says 
“My poems present, on the whole, the main movement of mind of  the last quarter of a century.” (Lang:1996-2001)                                                                                                  
Here  ‘last quarter ‘ means the time of Queen Victoria, and ‘the main movement’  suggests  the emergence of modernism.
            One of the product of Arnold’s  literary itinerancy is ‘Dover Beach’  thought to be one of the first poetic examples of modrnism. The poem makes its own journey  from a peaceful, romantic landscape to a modern crisis of faith. The  traditional certainties recede with the sea.
The setting of the poem is very much romantic, as the poem begins with
            “The sea is calm to-night
The tide is full, the moon lies fair .”
Usually sea beach is a kind of source of happiness, but it is totally reversal to Arnold. The Dorer Beach is an elegiac poem, though unconventional, not lamenting any death but here works a sense of loss, loss of faith.
            “The sea of faith
Was once too, at the full and round earth’s shore ”
But, the poet says,
            “Now I only hear
Its melancholy,  long,  withdrawing roar
Retreating to the breath ”
 Arnold here means that once the world was full of faith, But now doubt , disbelief , scepticism and agonosticism heve conspired to roll back the wares of faith from the world. Therefore,  he is now  full of  melancholy  and considers  the present condition as  ‘naked shingles  of the world’  like twenteenth century Eliotic Wast Land.
           In this poem, another modern element,   feeling of melancholy,  has also been evident. Actually such kind of feeling is in the very nature of Arnold, as he himself says,
“I believe a feeling of melancholy  is the basis of my nature  and my  poetics ” (Letter to Arther Hugh Claugh, 1853)
Hudson (1993:274) comments,
“Most of his personal poetry is steeped in the melancholy spirit of an era of transition.”
Its keynote is struck in the Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse :
“Wandering between two worlds, one dead,
The other powerless to be born ;”
           Again, this melancholy leads Arnold to suffer loneliness, alienation and rootlessness. This modern element in literature has a Marxian, Christian and Existentialist connotation. The Marxists consider machine as the cause of man’s isolation; the Christians the original sin; and the Existentialists the experiance  of man.  Arnold’s Rugby Chapel presents such isolation and the aimlessness.
            “Most men eddy about
Here and there eat and drink striving blindly , achieving
Nothing ; and , then they die
            These lines also poresent a picture of modern life which is similar to the view of “Absurdity” .  Camus  says in the Myth of Sioyphus,
“In a universe that is suddenly deprived of  illusions  and light, man feels a sranger... This divorce  between man and his life ...truely constitutes the feeling of Absurdity .”
Kenneth Allott in1954 comments on Arnold’s modern treatment of psychological and emotional conflicts, the uncertainty of purpose, above all the feeling of disunity within oneself or of the individual's estrangement from society
"If a poet can ever teach us to understand what we feel, and how to live with our feelings, then Arnold is a contemporary."

            Modern literature questions and criticises life. Arnold holds that “poetry is at bottom a  criticism of life ” and that “the greatness of a poet lies in the powerful application of  ideas to life. (Wordsworth by Arnond).
Arnold questions the excessive romanticism and optimism of the age. He criticises the material and industrial advancement of the time which has brought ‘soullessness’, ‘crudity’, ‘vulgarity’ and ‘plebeianism’, and ‘loss of faith’. The poet in  The Scholar Gypsy laments on
            “...this strange disease of modern life;
            With its sick hurry, its divided aim,
            It heads o’ertax’d, its palsied hearts.”

The key concept of modernism is innovation and to create something new. Arnold, a modern poet, introduced the ‘free verse’ in English poetry.  Moreover, his introduction of the ‘verse libre ’ was also attributed to ‘the desire to be different’.

The modern poetry is intellectual. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Arnold is an intellectual poet. This is later evident in Eliot who makes his poetry intentionally difficult to have the readers excercise their intellect.

In spite of his using modern elements in his poetry,  Arnold could not avoid using romantic elements in his poetry, though in a different way from other Romantic poets.

Arnold has used nature in his poetry .  But his attitude differs from that of Wordsworth .  Wordsworth  upholds the beauty and greatness of nature , cosiders it to be the personification of  the divine spirit. On the contrary,  his descriptions are often picturesque, and marked by striking similes. However, at the same time he liked subdued colours, mist and moonlight.

Like Keats, Arnold’s Scholar Gypsy hs escaped from he diseased world to ideal world which is depicted in the following lines
“Free from sick fatigue, the languid doubt,
Which much to have tried, in much been baffled, brings
O Life unlike to ours!”
            Moreover, we notice Arnold’s imaginative power, scenic description, individualism, supernatural element as in The Forsaken Merman and some other poems.      
           To draw the conclusion, we must now claim that Matthew Arnold is a precursor of Modernism: elements of modernism is dominant in his poetry. He also uses romantic elements in his poetry. Therefore,  Arnold can be considered the bridge between Romanticism and Modernism. His use of symbolic landscapes was typical of the Romantic era, while his skeptical and pessimistic perspective was typical of the Modern era. Above all, he is more modern than romantic.

Works Cited:

Lang, Cecil Y. (editor), The Letters of Matthew Arnold. Charlottesville and London: The University Press of  Virginia, 1996-2001. Volume 3, p. 347.
Hudson, William Henry. An Outline History of English Literature. London: G. Bell & Sons, Ltd. 1993.


  1. This article is very informative and each idea is supported by textual references which makes it easy to construe.

    1. Thank you very much for your compliment.

  2. good

    what about his traditional narratives?