ARNOLD, Matthew (1822-1888)
Plaque erected in 1954 by London County Council at 2 Chester Square, Belgravia, London SW1W 9HH, City of Westminster
MATTHEW ARNOLD 1822-1888 POET AND CRITIC lived here
Matthew Arnold was a noted poet, writing in the same era as the Victorian greats Robert Browning and Lord Alfred Tennyson. However, it is as a literary and social critic that he is best remembered.
Arnold had no fixed abode in the capital until he moved to 2 Chester Square in Belgravia in late 1858 with his wife, Frances ‘Flu’ Lucy (1825–1901), and their family. Chester Square is a dignified series of stucco terraces built in the 1830s and 1840s as an afterthought to the ‘grand design’ of Belgravia, and number 2 reflects the relatively modest means of its occupant. Arnold wrote that the house was ‘a very small one, but it will be something to unpack one’s portmanteau for the first time since I was married, now nearly seven years ago’. The place was, he told his sister, ‘delightful inside, and very pleasant to return to, though at present I cannot quite forgive it for not being twenty miles out of London’.
By the time he moved to Belgravia, Arnold was already an established poet. His first verse collection, ‘The Strayed Reveler’, and Other Poems, had been published in 1849, and was followed by successes such as ‘Dover Beach’. He withdrew his long poem ‘Empedocles on Etna’ from print soon after its publication in 1852, but finally republished it 15 years later at the urging of Robert Browning.
He famously referred to poetry as ‘the dialogue of the mind with itself’, and later reflected that his own poems ‘represent, on the whole, the main movement of mind of the last quarter of a century’.
For the last 30 years of his life Arnold was better known as a critic than as a poet. Subsidising his literary efforts with work as an inspector of schools between 1851 and 1886, he ventured into the field of literary criticism with On Translating Homer (1861), a tilt at the pedantry and antiquarianism he saw as endemic in academia. While living in Chester Square, he had great success with the collection Essays in Criticism (1865), a landmark of its genre. Arnold was also a noted social and religious critic, producing his best-known work, Culture and Anarchy, in 1869.
He left ‘the dear little house’ in Chester Square in March 1868 for Harrow, in pursuit of better schooling for his sons. However, his time there was marred by tragedy, as two of his sons died within a short period of time. Arnold outlived them by some 20 years and moved to Painshill, near Cobham in Surrey.
He died of a heart attack in 1888 on his way to Liverpool docks, where he was due to meet his daughter on her return from America. Henry James and Robert Browning were among the mourners at his funeral, and he was fondly remembered by his Oxford tutor, Benjamin Jowett: ‘No-one ever united so much kindness and light-heartedness with so much strength. He was the most sensible man of genius I have ever known’.