The influence of the writers of classical antiquity upon Matthew Arnold's literary work
Regan, Miriam Elaine
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Matthew Arnold's contact with the classical came with his birth into a cultured, English family; his father, a Greek and Latin scholar, was greatly interested in classical antiquity, particularly in its history. Matthew's education was largely classical. He read and studied at Rugby and Oxford the works of the early Greek and Roman writers; which he found appealed very much to him. Early Greece produced some unparalleled writers, and the Romans imitated, and absorbed Greek ideals and thought. The Greek people of this ancient civilization lived simple, straightforward, clear lives, identifying the beautiful and the good; with a poetical view of the world which envisioned an ideal unattainable in reality. The philosophy by which they lived accepted life as it was, limited only by chance or Fate, and strove for harmony with it. This philosophy predisposed toward a serene view of life, to be lived in the sun, in the present, not tortured and denied for some problematical afterlife, obsessed by the idea of sin. Sin to them was disharmony, disorder, ugliness. It was their duty to live life to the utmost of the capabilities given them, ever seeking truth, in harmony with their world. The Periclean Age has been called The Golden Age, and it was this era that especially interested Matthew Arnold, who by disposition, inheritance, and training, was so receptive to these classical writers. He knew and loved them; they were his friends from childhood, whom he never neglected his whole life through. He devoted leisure time to reading them over and over again, making them part of his daily life, and also an important part of his literary work. The subject of his Rugby prize poem was a classical one, Alaric at Rome; and he won the Newdigate prize at Oxford with his Cromwell; these foreshadowing to some extent his genius, bent, and interests. It. does not appear that his first volume of poems, published when he was twenty-seven, was accorded the reception that it deserved for it was indifferently received; and so was his second volume as well. His third publication, under his own name, met with immediate and lasting success. Arnold's poetry is always characterized by thought; as for him, poetry must ever appeal to both heart and head. He was critical of his own work, withdrawing one of his poems, Empedocles on Etna, from his second published work, because he felt it did not satisfy the rules of the best poetry. His critical sense increased, and he turned to prose writing, so that most of his poetry is the product of his early life. Influenced as he was by classical thought and form, these are discernible in practically all of Arnold's writings. A true poet, who has often been a prophet in his prose works, and the most influential critic of his time, his place in literature, has risen with the passage of time. Arnold's unapproachable favorites among the classical writers were Homer and Sophocles, although he greatly enjoyed and was influenced by Hesiod, Virgil, Mareus Aurelius, Theoeritus, and others. The influence of these writers is reflected in both Arnold's poetry and prose. Classical modes of thought and feeling, as a striving for simplicity and harmony, for restraint and a certain severity, for peace and serenity are found in his writings. Other qualities that the ancients possessed and valued such as endurance, fortitude, and resigriation are found in his writings also, as well as an element of hope and consolation, self-knowledge, and to a great degree ethical and moral values. Fate and destiny play a prominent part in the writings of the ancients and in Arnold's work, too; while appreciation and enjoyment of nature and its beauties were common to the classical writers and Arnold also. Matthew Arnold applied classical ideas of form to his writings as well, particularly to his poetry, for he uses the tranquil conclusion, the epic order, the Homeric simile, and the pastoral. He also used a similar type of imagery. Arnold selected subjects from the mythology and the history of the ancients, and his work abounds in references to them. Such extensive use of the classical writings and their authors show his appreciation and love for them, as does the content of some of the poems. In reading his letters and notebooks one notes how often notations and remarks made by Arnold relate to the classics or the classical writers. The critics of Arnold's generation and of the modern world as well seem to be in agreement that the writers of classical antiquity exerted a strong influence upon Matthew Arnold's literary work. His poetry exhibits both imagination with modern ideas as well incorporated into his work. His literary criticism is penetrating and very fine, for he did more than criticize himself; he taught others how to criticize, and Paul says of him: "His best poetry, and his best prose, are among the choicest legacies bequeathed by the nineteenth century to the twentieth. If they belong to an age, they are the glory of it, for they show what golden ore it could extract, and hand down to the future, from the buried accumulations of the past."
Thesis (M.A.)--Boston University