Poet Biographies

Matthew Arnold: The Life of a Cultural Critic

Matthew Arnold’s poetry revolutionized English literature with his introspective and thought-provoking works during the Victorian era. He was known for exploring themes of cultural decay, spirituality, and the pursuit of truth.

Matthew Arnold Portrait

Matthew Arnold is best remembered for his poem, Dover Beach.‘  It, along with several others, solidified Arnold’s place in the history of 19th-century poetry. But Arnold was not just a poet. He also wrote a number of prose works and published two collections of his essays, some of which were critical essays. He was also an esteemed lecturer and was appointed by Queen Victoria to travel around and inspect the conditions of schools in various countries. His wide array of literary exploits has earned him a great reputation among many scholars.

Life Facts

  • Matthew Arnold was born in December of 1822 in Laleham, Middlesex, England.
  • His first book of poetry was ‘The Strayed Reveller.’
  • He worked as one of her Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Schools.
  • In 1852, he published his second collection, ‘Empedocles on Etna, and Other Poems.’
  • Matthew Arnold died in Liverpool in April 1888.

Interesting Facts

  • In 1851, Arnold married Frances Lucy.
  • He was named a Professor of Poetry at Oxford University and lectured in English.
  • Arnold won a scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford University.
  • He wrote multiple essay collections.
  • Arnold went to the United States on two lecturing tours from 1883 to 1886.

Famous Poems

  • Growing Old is a piece full of questions, answers, and descriptions of what old age is actually like. The speaker asks an initial question in regards to what it’s like to grow old and then expands upon it in the following stanzas. There is a loss of physical beauty and strength as well as the mourning of expectations and goals one had when they were young. The poem concludes by describing how at the end of life, one will hate their body.
  • ‘Philomenais a four-stanza poem that was inspired by the Greek myth of Philomena. The poem follows a narrator who finds a nightingale in the woods and hears its song as one of mourning. The speaker talks directly to the bird, asking if it is still pained by the suffering it lived as a human woman, and then calls upon the Roman Christian Saint Eugenia to help remove some portion of Philomena/the nightingale’s agony.
  • ‘Dover Beach’ was published in 1867 in the volume entitled ‘New Poems.’ The poem is a dramatic monologue in which the speaker laments the loss of true Christian faith in England during the mid-1800s. He saw the way that science was becoming more and more important and felt the past slipping away. Throughout this poem, the speaker/Arnold crafts an image of the sea receding and returning to land with the faith of the world as it changes throughout time. The poem concludes pessimistically as the speaker expresses the fact that the beauty and happiness one may believe they are experiencing is not, in fact, real.
  • ‘Buried Life’ is another monologue, one in which the speaker tries to analyze his complex feelings. He remembers being struck by an uncontrollable sadness brought on by his lover. The next sections move through the way that “man” lives and how fate determines his inability to understand his own life. The speaker declares towards the end of the poem that everyone can and should look into their “buried life”. It is a place of peace.
  • Lines Written in Kensington Gardens’ describes a speaker’s experience within the confines of Kensington Gardens in London, England. The poem is eleven stanzas long and presents the theme of nature, elevating it over city life. The speaker emphasizes his appreciation for the natural world while marveling over the history of the gardens. He wishes he could take the calm he feels in the garden and bring it back to his everyday life. He prays to God to allow him to continue to feel the “calm soul” of living things when he returns to the city.

Early Life

Matthew Arnold was born in December of 1822 in Laleham, Middlesex, England. As a boy, Arnold attended Rugby School, where his father, Thomas Arnold, was a respected headmaster. He was quickly recognized as a talented student. During his time there, he won awards for his essay writing and Latin and English poetry. One of his award-winning works and his prize poem, ‘Alaric at Rome,’ was printed at Rugby.

Arnold won a scholarship and attended Balliol College, Oxford University, starting in 1841. Arnold’s father died a year later, in 1842. The following year Arnold’s poem, ‘Cromwell,‘ won the 1843 Newdigate Prize, which is awarded to students at Oxford for the Best Composition in English verse by an undergraduate. In 1847, Arnold earned a place as the private secretary to Lord Lansdowne, the elderly Whig statesman.

Early Career

After Arnold graduated from Oxford, he went on to publish his first book of poetry, ‘The Strayed Reveller.’ A year later, he published a number of memorial pieces about William Wordsworth. One of these was ‘Poems of Wordsworth,’ published in 1879.

In 1851 Arnold was married to Frances Lucy, daughter of a Justice of the Queen’s Bench. He was unable to support a family on his current wages and was appointed as one of Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Schools. This was a position he would hold for a number of years, but not one he enjoyed. It did allow him to travel throughout England and continental Europe. One of these countries was Switzerland, a period of travel in which the lyrics associated with Marguerite in ‘Switzerland‘ was supposed to have come from. He also managed to visit various other European countries, such as France, Germany, and Holland.

In 1852, he published his second collection, ‘Empedocles on Etna, and Other Poems.’ The next collection was released in 1853 and was titled ‘Poems: A New Edition.’ These works established Arnold’s reputation.

In 1857, he was named a Professor of Poetry at Oxford University. He was the first instructor in this position to deliver his lecture in English rather than Latin and would hold this position for the rest of his life. He became known for his excellently executed lectures that would translate classic works from all-time greats, such as Homer. In 1861, he had a series of these lectures called On Translating Homer.

Arnold was also responsible for a number of dramatic poems, such as ‘Merope,’ which was published in 1858. The classical tragedy drew heavily from classic Greek myth and has been considered an important literary work.

Later Life and Death

It was in the mid-60s that he published the collections of his last essays, which were critical works, such as Essays in Criticism: First Series. It appeared in 1865, alongside Culture and Anarchy in 1869, and was followed many years later by Essays in Criticism: Second Series, after Arnold’s death in 1888. These works reflected the core beliefs of the Victorian era.

In his later life, Arnold went to America on two lecturing tours from 1883 to 1886 after experiencing further financial issues. Matthew Arnold died in Liverpool in April 1888 after succumbing to heart failure while running for a tram.


Religion was also at the center of a lot of his works. It is said that a source of great anxiety for Arnold was his own religious doubts; in several essays, he looked at establishing the truth of Christianity. He discussed the dogma of religious sects such as the Church of England, Protestantism, and Puritanism. He was also known for his combative views towards the ways of society. He was considered a social critic, attacking modern civilization. He is known for calling the aristocracy ‘Barbarians,’ the middle class ‘Philistines,’ and had criticism of the ‘Populace.’

Influence from other Poets

The poetical works of Matthew Arnold were notably influenced by the works of writers such as the poems of William Wordsworth and John Keats.


What is Matthew Arnold famous for?

Matthew Arnold was known for his wide array of literary pursuits, such as poetry, social criticism, essays, and lectures. The 19th-century writer was remembered mostly for his poem ‘Dover Beach.’

How old was Matthew Arnold when he died?

Matthew Arnold passed away at the age of 65. He died in Liverpool in April 1888 from heart failure after running for a tram.

Was Matthew Arnold a liberal?

Yes, Matthew Arnold was a liberal. He was a member of the Liberal Party in the United Kingdom, and he believed in the principles of individual liberty, equality, and social justice. He was also a strong advocate for education and culture, and he believed that these were essential for the development of a strong and healthy society.

Was Matthew Arnold religious?

Matthew Arnold started his life as a religious man; however, as can be seen in his criticisms of religion in his work, he gradually leaned toward being agnostic.

How many kids did Matthew Arnold have?

Matthew Arnold had six children during his lifetime. He had four sons and two daughters.

William Green Poetry Expert
Will created Poem Analysis back in 2015 and has a team of the best poetry experts helping him analyze poems from the past and present. Although he has a background in Automotive Engineering, having worked for McLaren testing supercars, Will has a keen eye for poetry and literature.
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