Matthew Arnold

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The free-thinking of one age is the common sense of the next.

Matthew Arnold (1822-12-241888-04-15) was an English poet, essayist and cultural critic. He also pursued a career as an inspector of schools.


  • Had Shakspeare and Milton lived in the atmosphere of modern feeling, had they had the multitude of new thoughts and feelings to deal with a modern has, I think it likely the style of each would have been far less curious and exquisite. For in a man style is the saying in the best way what you have to say. The what you have to say depends on your age. In the 17th century it was a smaller harvest than now, and sooner to be reaped; and therefore to its reaper was left time to stow it more finely and curiously. Still more was this the case in the ancient world. The poet's matter being the hitherto experience of the world, and his own, increases with every century.
    • Letter to Arthur Hugh Clough (December 1847/early 1848).
  • Who prop, thou ask'st in these bad days, my mind?
  • My special thanks, whose even-balanced soul,
    From first youth tested up to extreme old age,
    Business could not make dull, nor passion wild;
    Who saw life steadily, and saw it whole.
    • To a Friend (1849), line 9-12.
  • Others abide our question. Thou art free.
    We ask and ask — Thou smilest and art still,
    Out-topping knowledge.
  • The will is free;
    Strong is the soul, and wise, and beautiful;
    The seeds of god-like power are in us still;
    Gods are we, bards, saints, heroes, if we will!
  • Ennobling this dull pomp, the life of kings,
    By contemplation of diviner things.
  • We cannot kindle when we will
    The fire that in the heart resides,
    The spirit bloweth and is still,
    In mystery our soul abides; —
    But tasks, in hours of insight willed,
    Can be through hours of gloom fulfilled.
  • Calm soul of all things! make it mine
    To feel, amid the city’s jar,
    That there abides a peace of thine,
    Man did not make, and cannot mar.
  • With aching hands and bleeding feet
    We dig and heap, lay stone on stone;
    We bear the burden and the heat
    Of the long day and wish’t were done.
    Not till the hours of light return
    All we have built do we discern.
  • But often, in the world’s most crowded streets,
    But often, in the din of strife,
    There rises an unspeakable desire
    After the knowledge of our buried life;
    A thirst to spend our fire and restless force
    In tracking out our true, original course;
    A longing to inquire
    Into the mystery of this heart which beats
    So wild, so deep in us, to know
    Whence our lives come and where they go.
  • And long we try in vain to speak and act
    Our hidden self, and what we say and do
    Is eloquent, is well — but ’tis not true!
    • The Buried Life (1852), st. 6.
  • Resolve to be thyself; and know, that he
    Who finds himself, loses his misery.
    • Self-Dependence (1852), lines 31-32.
  • What shelter to grow ripe is ours?
    What leisure to grow wise?
    • Stanzas in Memory of the Author of "Obermann" (1852), st. 18.
  • Ah! two desires toss about
    The poet's feverish blood;
    One drives him to the world without,
    And one to solitude.
    • Stanzas in Memory of the Author of "Obermann" (1852), st. 24.
  • We, in some unknown Power's employ,
    Move on a rigorous line;
    Can neither, when we will, enjoy,
    Nor, when we will, resign.
    • Stanzas in Memory of the Author of "Obermann" (1852), st. 34.
  • What actions are the most excellent? Those, certainly, which most powerfully appeal to the great primary human affections: to those elementary feelings which subsist permanently in the race, and which are independent of time. These feelings are permanent and the same; that which interests them is permanent and the same also.
  • Strew on her roses, roses,
    And never a spray of yew.
    In quiet she reposes:
    Ah! would that I did too.
  • Her cabin’d, ample Spirit,
    It flutter’d and fail’d for breath.
    To-night it doth inherit
    The vasty Hall of Death.
    • Requiescat (1853), st. 4.
  • How thick the bursts come crowding through the leaves!
    Again — thou hearest?
    Eternal passion!
    Eternal pain!
  • Truth sits upon the lips of dying men,
    And falsehood, while I lived, was far from mine.
  • I am past thirty, and three parts iced over.
  • Sanity — that is the great virtue of the ancient literature; the want of that is the great defect of the modern, in spite of its variety and power.
    • Preface to Poems (1854).
  • For rigorous teachers seized my youth,
    And purged its faith, and trimm’d its fire,
    Show’d me the high white star of Truth,
    There bade me gaze, and there aspire.
  • Wandering between two worlds, one dead,
    The other powerless to be born,
    With nowhere yet to rest my head,
    Like these, on earth I wait forlorn.
    • Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse (1855), st. 15.
  • The kings of modern thought are dumb.
    • Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse (1855), st. 20.
  • But each day brings its petty dust
    Our soon-chok’d souls to fill,
    And we forget because we must,
    And not because we will.
  • Peace, peace is what I seek and public calm,
    Endless extinction of unhappy hates.
  • With women the heart argues, not the mind.
    • Merope (1858), line 341.
  • Nations are not truly great solely because the individuals composing them are numerous, free, and active; but they are great when these numbers, this freedom, and this activity are employed in the service of an ideal higher than that of an ordinary man, taken by himself.
    • Democracy (1861).
  • It is a very great thing to be able to think as you like; but, after all, an important question remains: what you think.
    • Democracy (1861).
  • It is — last stage of all —
    When we are frozen up within, and quite
    The phantom of ourselves,
    To hear the world applaud the hollow ghost
    Which blamed the living man.
  • Cruel, but composed and bland,
    Dumb, inscrutable and grand,
    So Tiberius might have sat,
    Had Tiberius been a cat.
  • a peculiar recasting and heightening, under a certain condition of spiritual excitement, of what a man has to say, in such a manner as to add dignity and distinction to it.
  • The Celts certainly have it [style] in a wonderful measure.
    • On the Study of Celtic Literature (1867), Pt. 6.
  • The power of the Latin classic is in character, that of the Greek is in beauty. Now character is capable of being taught, learnt, and assimilated: beauty hardly.
    • Schools and Universities on the Continent (1868).
  • Below the surface stream, shallow and light,
    Of what we say and feel — below the stream,
    As light, of what we think we feel, there flows
    With noiseless current, strong, obscure and deep,
    The central stream of what we feel indeed.
    • St. Paul and Protestantism (1870).
  • Conduct is three-fourths of our life and its largest concern.
    • Literature and Dogma (1873), ch. 1.
  • And as long as the world lasts, all who want to make progress in righteousness will come to Israel for inspiration, as to the people who have had the sense for righteousness most glowing and strongest; and in hearing and reading the words Israel has uttered for us, carers for conduct will find a glow and a force they could find nowhere else.
    • Literature and Dogma (1873), ch. 1 .
  • The free-thinking of one age is the common sense of the next.
    • God and the Bible (1875).
  • Choose equality.
    • Mixed Essays, Equality (1879).
  • Inequality has the natural and necessary effect, under the present circumstances, of materializing our upper class, vulgarizing our middle class, and brutalizing our lower class.
    • Mixed Essays, Equality (1879).
  • For poetry the idea is everything; the rest is a world of illusion, of divine illusion. Poetry attaches its emotion to the idea; the idea is the fact. The strongest part of our religion today is its unconscious poetry.
    • Introduction to Ward's English Poets (1880).
  • Eutrapelia. "A happy and gracious flexibility," Pericles calls this quality of the Athenians...lucidity of thought, clearness and propriety of language, freedom from prejudice and freedom from stiffness, openness of mind, amiability of manners.
    • Irish Essays. A Speech at Eton (1882).
  • English civilization — the humanizing, the bringing into one harmonious and truly humane life, of the whole body of English society—that is what interests me.
    • Irish Essays. Ecce, Convertimur ad Gentes (1882).
  • That which in England we call the middle class is in America virtually the nation.
    • A Word More About America (1885).
  • What really dissatisfies in American civilisation is the want of the interesting, a want due chiefly to the want of those two great elements of the interesting, which are elevation and beauty.

The Forsaken Merman (1849)

  • Come, dear children, let us away;
    Down and away below.
    Now my brothers call from the bay;
    Now the great winds shoreward blow;
    Now the salt tides seaward flow;
    Now the wild white horses play,
    Champ and chafe and toss in the spray.
    Children dear, let us away.
    This way, this way!
    • St. 1
  • Sand-strewn caverns, cool and deep,
    Where the winds are all asleep.
    • St. 3
  • Where great whales come sailing by,
    Sail and sail, with unshut eye,
    Round the world for ever and aye?
    When did music come this way?
    Children dear, was it yesterday?
    • St. 3
  • Singing, "Here came a mortal,
    But faithless was she:
    And alone dwell for ever
    The kings of the sea."
    • St. 7

Resignation (1849)

  • Fate gave, what Chance shall not control,
    His sad lucidity of soul.
    • l. 197
  • The World in which we live and move
    Outlasts aversion, outlasts love:
    Outlasts each effort, interest, hope,
    Remorse, grief, joy.
    • l. 215-218
  • Yet they, believe me, who await
    No gifts from Chance, have conquer’d Fate.
    • l. 248-249

Memorial Verses (1852)

  • Goethe in Weimar sleeps, and Greece,
    Long since, saw Byron’s struggle cease.
    • St. 1
  • Physician of the Iron Age,
    Goethe has done his pilgrimage.
    He took the suffering human race,
    He read each wound, each weakness clear —
    And struck his finger on the place,
    And said — Thou ailest here, and here.
    • St. 3
  • Wordsworth has gone from us — and ye,
    Ah, may ye feel his voice as we!
    He too upon a wintry clime
    Had fallen — on this iron time
    Of doubts, disputes, distractions, fears.
    • St. 4
  • Time may restore us in his course
    Goethe’s sage mind and Byron’s force;
    But where will Europe’s latter hour
    Again find Wordsworth’s healing power?
    • St. 6

Empedocles on Etna (1852)

  • Hither and thither spins
    The wind-borne mirroring soul,
    A thousand glimpses wins,
    And never sees a whole.
    • Act I, sc. ii
  • The sophist sneers: Fool, take
    Thy pleasure, right or wrong!
    The pious wail: Forsake
    A world these sophists throng!
    Be neither saint nor sophist-led, but be a man.
    • Act I, sc. ii
  • Thou hast no right to bliss.
    • Act I, sc. ii
  • We do not what we ought,
    What we ought not, we do,
    And lean upon the thought
    That chance will bring us through.
    • Act I, sc. ii
  • Nature, with equal mind,
    Sees all her sons at play
    Sees man control the wind,
    The wind sweep man away.
    • Act I, sc. ii
  • So, loath to suffer mute.
    We, peopling the void air,
    Make Gods to whom to impute
    The ills we ought to bear.
    • Act I, sc. ii
  • Is it so small a thing
    To have enjoy’d the sun,
    To have lived light in the spring,
    To have loved, to have thought, to have done;
    To have advanc’d true friends, and beat down baffling foes?
    • Act I, sc. ii
  • The day in his hotness,
    The strife with the palm;
    The night in her silence,
    The stars in their calm.
    • Act II

The Scholar Gypsy (1853)

  • Thee at the ferry Oxford riders blithe,
    Returning home on summer-nights, have met
    Crossing the stripling Thames at Bab-lock-hithe,
    Trailing in the cool stream thy fingers wet,
    As the punt’s rope chops round.
    • St. 8
  • Thou waitest for the spark from heaven! and we,
    Light half-believers of our casual creeds,
    Who never deeply felt, nor clearly will’d,
    Whose insight never has borne fruit in deeds,
    Whose vague resolves never have been fulfill’d;
    For whom each year we see
    Breeds new beginnings, disappointments new;
    Who hesitate and falter life away,
    And lose to-morrow the ground won to-day—
    Ah! do not we, wanderer! await it too?
    • St. 18
  • And amongst us one,
    Who most has suffer’d, takes dejectedly
    His seat upon the intellectual throne.
    • St. 19
  • O born in days when wits were fresh and clear,
    And life ran gaily as the sparkling Thames;
    Before this strange disease of modern life,
    With its sick hurry, its divided aims,
    Its heads o’ertax’d, its palsied hearts, was rife.
    • St. 21
  • Still nursing the unconquerable hope,
    Still clutching the inviolable shade,
    With a free, onward impulse brushing through,
    By night, the silver’d branches of the glade.
    • St. 22

On Translating Homer (1861)

  • The translator of Homer should above all be penetrated by a sense of four qualities of his author:—that he is eminently rapid; that he is eminently plain and direct both in the evolution of his thought and in the expression of it, that is, both in his syntax and in his words; that he is eminently plain and direct in the substance of his thought, that is, in his matter and ideas; and, finally, that he is eminently noble.
  • Of these two literatures, as of the intellect of Europe in general, the main effort, for now many years, has been a critical effort; the endeavour, in all branches of knowledge—theology, philosophy, history, art, science—to see the object as in itself it really is.
  • The grand style arises in poetry, when a noble nature, poetically gifted, treats with simplicity or with severity a serious subject.

The Functions of Criticism at the Present Time (1864)

  • For the creation of a masterwork of literature two powers must concur, the power of the man and the power of the moment, and the man is not enough without the moment.
  • Critical power...tends to make an intellectual situation of which the creative power can profitably avail itself. It tends to establish an order of ideas, if not absolutely true, yet true by comparison with that which it displaces; to make the best ideas prevail.
  • There is the world of ideas and there is the world of practice; the French are often for suppressing the one and the English the other; but neither is to be suppressed.
  • Burke is so great because, almost alone in England, he brings thought to bear upon politics, he saturates politics with thought.
  • The notion of the free play of the mind upon all subjects being a pleasure in itself, being an object of desire, being an essential provider of elements without which a nation's spirit, whatever compensations it may have for them, must, in the long run, die of inanition, hardly enters into an Englishman's thoughts.
  • I am bound by my own definition of criticism: a disinterested endeavour to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world.

Essays in Criticism, first series (1865)

  • Whispering from her [Oxford's] towers the last enchantments of the Middle Age...Home of lost causes, and forsaken beliefs, and unpopular names, and impossible loyalties!
    • Preface
  • Poetry is simply the most beautiful, impressive and wisely effective mode of saying things, and hence its importance.
  • Philistine must have originally meant, in the mind of those who invented the nickname, a strong, dogged, unenlightened opponent of the children of the light.
    • Heinrich Heine
  • On the breast of that huge Mississippi of falsehood called History, a foam-bell more or less is no consequence.
    • Literary Influence of Academies

Thyrsis (1866)

  • Are ye too changed, ye hills?
    See, ’tis no foot of unfamiliar men>
    Tonight from Oxford up your pathway strays!
    Here came I often, often, in old days;
    Thyrsis and I; we still had Thyrsis then.
    • St. 1
  • And that sweet city with her dreaming spires,
    She needs not June for beauty’s heightening.
    • St. 2
  • He went; his piping took a troubled sound
    Of storms that rage outside our happy ground;
    He could not wait their passing, he is dead!
    • St. 5
  • The bloom is gone, and with the bloom go I.
    • St. 6
  • Yes, thou art gone! and round me too the night
    In ever-nearing circle weaves her shade.
    I see her veil draw soft across the day,
    I feel her slowly chilling breath invade
    The cheek grown thin, the brown hair sprent with grey;
    I feel her finger light
    Laid pausefully upon life’s headlong train; —
    The foot less prompt to meet the morning dew,
    The heart less bounding at emotion new,
    And hope, once crush’d, less quick to spring again.
    • St. 14
  • Hear it, O Thyrsis, still our tree is there!—
    Ah, vain! These English fields, this upland dim,
    These brambles pale with mist engarlanded,
    That lone, sky-pointing tree, are not for him;
    To a boon southern country he is fled,
    And now in happier air,
    Wandering with the great Mother’s train divine
    (And purer or more subtle soul than thee,
    I trow, the mighty Mother doth not see)
    Within a folding of the Apennine.
    • St. 18
  • Why faintest thou! I wander’d till I died.
    Roam on! The light we sought is shining still.
    Dost thou ask proof? Our tree yet crowns the hill,
    Our Scholar travels yet the loved hillside.
    • St, 24

Dover Beach (1867)

  • The sea is calm tonight.
    The tide is full, the moon lies fair
    Upon the straits;—on the French coast the light
    Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
    Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
    • St. 1
  • Listen! you hear the grating roar
    Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
    At their return, up the high strand,
    Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
    With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
    The eternal note of sadness in.
    • St. 1
  • The sea of faith
    Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
    Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
    But now I only hear
    Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
    Retreating, to the breath
    Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
    And naked shingles of the world.
    • St. 3
  • Ah, love, let us be true
    To one another! for the world, which seems
    To lie before us like a land of dreams,
    So various, so beautiful, so new,
    Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
    Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
    And we are here as on a darkling plain
    Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
    Where ignorant armies clash by night.
    • St. 4

The Last Word (1867)

  • Creep into thy narrow bed,
    Creep, and let no more be said!
    • St. 1
  • Let the long contention cease!
    Geese are swans, and swans are geese.
    • St. 2
  • Charge once more, then, and be dumb!
    Let the victors, when they come,
    When the forts of folly fall,
    Find thy body by the wall.
    • St. 4

Rugby Chapel (1867)

  • Coldly, sadly descends
    The autumn evening. The Field
    Strewn with its dank yellow drifts
    Of wither’d leaves, and the elms,
    Fade into dimness apace,
    Silent;—hardly a shout
    From a few boys late at their play!
    • St. 1
  • O strong soul, by what shore
    Tarriest thou now? For that force,
    Surely, has not been left vain!
    • St. 4
  • What is the course of the life
    Of mortal men on the earth?—
    Most men eddy about
    Here and there—eat and drink,
    Chatter and love and hate,
    Gather and squander, are raised
    Aloft, are hurl’d in the dust,
    Striving blindly, achieving
    Nothing; and, then they die—
    Perish; and no one asks
    Who or what they have been,
    More than he asks what waves
    In the moonlit solitudes mild
    Of the midmost Ocean, have swell’d,
    Foam’d for a moment, and gone.
    • St. 6
  • Therefore to thee it was given
    Many to save with thyself;
    And, at the end of thy day,
    O faithful shepherd! to come,
    Bringing thy sheep in thy hand.
    • St. 9
  • Radiant with ardour divine!
    Beacons of Hope ye appear!
    Languor is not in your heart,
    Weakness is not in your word,
    Weariness not on your brow.
    • St. 12

Culture and Anarchy (1869)

  • The whole scope of the essay is to recommend culture as the great help out of our present difficulties; culture being a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world; and through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits, which we now follow staunchly but mechanically, vainly imagining that there is a virtue in following them staunchly which makes up for the mischief of following them mechanically.
    • Preface
  • Our society distributes itself into Barbarians, Philistines, and Populace; and America is just ourselves, with the Barbarians quite left out, and the Populace nearly.
    • Preface
  • I am a Liberal, yet I am a Liberal tempered by experience, reflexion, and renouncement, and I am, above all, a believer in culture.
    • Introduction
  • Culture is then properly described not as having its origin in curiosity, but as having its origin in the love of perfection; it is a study of perfection.
    • Ch. I, Sweetness and Light
  • Greatness is a spiritual condition worthy to excite love, interest, and admiration; and the outward proof of possessing greatness is that we excite love, interest, and admiration.
    • Ch. I, Sweetness and Light
  • The pursuit of perfection, then, is the pursuit of sweetness and light. He who works for sweetness and light, works to make reason and the will of God prevail. He who works for machinery, he who works for hatred, works only for confusion. Culture looks beyond machinery, culture hates hatred; culture has one great passion, the passion for sweetness and light.
    • Ch. I, Sweetness and Light
  • The men of culture are the true apostles of equality.
    • Ch. I, Sweetness and Light
  • Everything in our political life tends to hide from us that there is anything wiser than our ordinary selves.
    • Ch. III, Barbarians, Philistines, Populace
  • The governing idea of Hellenism is spontaneity of consciousness; that of Hebraism, strictness of conscience.
    • Ch. IV, Hebraism and Hellenism

Essays in Criticism, second series (1888)

  • The best poetry will be found to have a power of forming, sustaining, and delighting us, as nothing else can.
    • The Study of Poetry
  • Coleridge, poet and philosopher wrecked in a mist of opium.
    • Byron
  • A beautiful and ineffectual angel [Shelley], beating in the void his luminous wings in vain.
    • Byron
  • It is important, therefore, to hold fast to this: that poetry is at bottom a criticism of life; that the greatness of a poet lies in his powerful and beautiful application of ideas to life — to the question: How to live.
    • Wordsworth, originally published as "Preface to the Poems of Wordsworth" in Macmillan's Magazine (July 1879)
  • The crown of literature is poetry.
    • Count Leo Tolstoi


  • The same heart beats in every human breast.
    • The buried Life.
  • To thee only God granted
    A heart ever new:
    To all always open;
    To all always true.
    • Switzerland. Parting.
  • There is no better motto which it [culture] can have than these words of Bishop Wilson, “To make reason and the will of God prevail.”
    • From Culture and Anarchy.
  • The pursuit of the perfect, then, is the pursuit of sweetness and light.
    • From Culture and Anarchy.


  • Things and actions are what they are, and the consequences of them will be what they will be: why, then, should we desire to be deceived?"
    • Joseph Butler, Human Nature and Other Sermons "Sermon VII" quoted in Arnold's St. Paul and Protestantism


  • But whatever the deity which satisfied Arnold's personal experience may have been, the religion which he gives us in Literature and Dogma and God and the Bible is neither Deism nor bare Pan-Deism, but a diluted Positivism. As an ethical system it is in theory admirable, but its positive value is in the highest degree questionable. Pascal's judgment upon the God who emerged from the philosophical investigations of Rene Descartes was that He was a God who was unnecessary. And one may with even greater truth say that the man who is able to receive and live by the religion which Arnold offers him is no longer in need of its help and stimulus. To be able to appreciate an ethical idealism a man must himself be already an ethical idealist.
    • William Harbutt Dawson, Matthew Arnold and His Relation to the Thought of Our Time (1904, republished 1977), p. 256 (1977 ed.) ISBN: 0849206480; (1904 ed.) ASIN: B0006ADKGA.

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