English poet Matthew Arnold had two lives. In his youth, he was an impassioned lyric poet. In his later years, he was Victorian England’s best-known social prophet, educational reformer, and literary critic. Arnold’s poetic life that gave us ” Dover Beach,” ”The Scholar-Gipsy,” and ”Empedocles on Etna”—was effectively over by the age of forty, when he began to devote all his energies to “purposeful” prose composition. As Auden said, he ”thrust his gift in prison till it died.” From the very start, though, Arnold had viewed his poetry-writing self as irresponsible, delinquent. As the eldest son of Dr. Arnold of Rugby, the great shaper of Victorian morality, his destiny—he knew—was inescapable. He had been born to ”make a difference” to the age in which he lived.For about twenty years, however, Matthew Arnold made efforts to resist his destiny as a social moralist, and this book is the story of that losing battle. As a biographical narrative, A Gift Imprisoned confronts a number of intriguing puzzles. Chief among these, of course, is the much-pondered Marguerite. Who was she: a dream-girl, an invention born of too much exposure to the novels of George Sand, or a real person met in Switzerland in 1848? Then there is Dr. Arnold himself: a devitalizing ogre or an inspiration? And, overarchingly, there is the matter of Arnold’s attitude to his own gifts as a poet: Why did he so early on abandon the poetic life and settle for three decades of drudgery as an inspector of elementary schools? Was it really a fierce love of duty that took him down this path—or was it, rather, that he all along had insufficient faith in his own talent? And this leads to the question that matters most of all: How much faith do we and should we have in his talent?In this compelling study, Ian Hamilton brings his own formidable gifts and his lifelong passion for his subject to bear on one of the most mysterious literary figures of the last century—and a figure who still fascinates today. The result is a biography of rare originality and significance.
Matthew Arnold, who wrote some of the most beautiful poetry of the Victorian period, with lyrics that are peculiarly appropriate to the alienated longeurs of modern existence, should, it seems, enjoy a higher reputation today. Yet he distrusted his own poetic genius and effectively stifled it after its early blossoming. He devoted his maturity instead to writing worthy but unexciting prose criticism. His motives, and the extraordinary tension between passion and repression in the poetry he did write, are both excellently explored in Ian Hamilton's critical biography. The title of the study comes from W.H. Auden's assessment of Arnold's career: "He thrust his gift in prison till it died." Hamilton outlines that prison--the Victorian upbringing, the unhappy love affair that was beyond the pale of 19th-century convention and was thus abandoned, and the painful retreat from poetry--the one thing Arnold did best, deftly and wittily. Read Arnold's "To Marguerite--Continued" (surely the bleakest and most beautiful statement of hopeless love in the language); then read this book for its expertly sketched account of the life behind the poetry. --Adam Roberts