MATTHEW ARNOLD: A Life by Park Honan


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Disappointing. Arnold may or may not be ""the Victorian who matters the most,"" but Honan's attempt to prove that generous claim simply doesn't come off. Nor does this hefty, much-researched work tell us very much more about Arnold the man than Lionel Trilling's literary biography (1939), which towers over it in critical intelligence. True, Honan does bring a wealth of new documentation to his subject--apropos, for instance, of the mysterious ""Marguerite"" (Mary Claude), to whom Arnold addressed a number of important poems. And Honan uses the holograph text of Arnold's letters, whereas Trilling and most other Arnoldians stuck with George Russell's somewhat mutilated edition of the correspondence. But none of this adds up to the rich, compelling story that's potentially there, although Honan is on much firmer ground in dealing with Arnold's maturity--his marriage, exhausting years as a school inspector, and culminating achievement in cultural criticism--than he is in his spasmodic, uncertain treatment of Arnold's youth. Honan's worst lapse, however, comes in his overall assessments, where he substitutes easy superlatives for careful analysis. He pronounces some good but not extraordinary lines in ""The Strayed Reveller"" as beautiful as anything in Comus. The end of ""Dover Beach,"" he writes, contains ""the most deeply felt seventeen lines ever written by a modern English poet."" The interesting but distinctly dated God and the Bible ""has not been superseded."" And, oddest of all perhaps, Arnold ""was, and remains, one of the few modern thinkers to propose a comprehensive attitude to life."" Honan's scholarship is genuine, and students of the Victorian period will find him indispensable--until someone comes along to give them, and the general public, the full-bodied, definitive life of Arnold that this book is trying to be.

Pub Date: July 1st, 1981
Publisher: McGraw-Hill