3 FEBRUARY 1866, Page 9


AN essay by Mr. Matthew Arnold on the narrow and dimsighted views of the English middle class is like the visit of an intellectual angel, not unconscious of angelic graces, to the dull and earthly sphere of our political literature. In the new number of the Cornhill Magazine there is another, and perhaps the most perfect specimen yet published of Mr. Arnold's exquisitely polished English, his keen and delicate irony, his dogmatic mock humility, his airy scorn, his luminous exposition, and his entire in- difference to any but 93sthetic principles. We dull laborious critics cannot but think of him as he, having delivered his message, dis- appears again into upper air, with much the same kind of envy as the spectators of the pain and anguish of Prometheus in Shelley's poem thought of Mercury, the message-bearer of Jupiter, lightly coming and lightly going between the painless heavens and the painful Caucasus,— " See where the child of Heaven, with winged feet, Runs down the slanted sunlight of the dawn."

Mercury certainly did not manage any of his little diplomatic missions to earth with more graceful ease than Mr. Arnold, who brings to the English nation, "the weary Titan, with deaf ears and labour-dimmed eyes, "as he finely terms it, useless but beauti- ful messages, pointing out with the most exquisite precision and delicacy of insight the miseries of its actual position, and the beauty of the supernal world to which it has no access,—messages - the peculiar value and merit of which in the exalted messenger's own eyes is, that they do not even affect to suggest any mode of winning the heights from which he descends upon us. Mr. Arnold- engaged in the delivery of one of these messages is really a subject for artistic study. The unquestionable truth of the matter, the con- descending grace of the manner, the serene indifference to practical results, the dogmatism without faith, the didacticism without. earnestness, the irony without pain, the beauty without love which mark the message, are all equally remarkable.

Mr. Arnold has accused us as a nation, and our middle class especially,—most justly, as we believe,—of a wide-spread and pro- found Philistinism, by which he means, we suppose, that disposi- tion to measure all the world by the standard of our own narrow and often accidental usages and habits of life, which renders it impossible to us to appreciate the great ideas which influence other nations, or the customs,—even when not founded on ideas, founded on tastes and preferences quite as good as our own,— by which the life of Continental civilization is moulded. For this very just accusation, enforced with his own refined and light-flying banter, and perhaps, too, in no small measure for the Olympian superiority to our English narrowness of thought which Mr. Arnold displayed in his manner of criticism, Mr. Arnold has been beset by a host of bitter critics,—by a Saturday reviewer who maintained that England is the most logical of nations, and by a number of other censors who esteem the English middle class the best educated class in the world, and the most able to "penetrate through sophisms, ignore common-places, and give to conventional illusions their true value." Mr. Arnold had even once ventured to recommend Government inspection and a few great State schools as a remedy for what he thought the very defective middle-class schools, and to insist generally on some of the advantages accruing to French literature from the French Academy. He now repents himself bitterly for this very faint infraction of his rule never to recommend any practical measure whatever, and avows that in • breaking this rule he has fairly laid himself open to the censure he has incurred :—

" After a long and painful self-examination, I saw that I had been making a great mistake. I had been breaking one of my own cardinal rules : -the rule to keep aloof from practice, and to confine myself to the slow and obscure work of trying to understand things, to see them as they are. So I was suffering deservedly in being taunted with hawking about my noatrums of State schools for a class much too wise to want them, and of an academy for people who have an inimitable style already. To be sure, I had said that schools ought to be things of local, not State, institution and management and that we ought not to have an academy; but that makes no difference. I have been meddling with practice, proposing this and that, saying how it might be if we had established this or that. I saw what danger I had been running in thus intruding into a sphere where I have no business, and I resolved to offend in this -way no more. Henceforward let Mr. Kinglake belabour the French as he will, let him deseaibe as many tight merciless lips as he likes; henceforward let Educational Homes stretch themselves out in the Times to the crack of doom, let Lord Fortescue bewitch the middle class with ever new blandishments, let any number of Mansion Honaemeetings propound any number of patchwork schemes to avoid facing the real difficulty; I am dumb. I let reforming and instituting alone ; I meddle with my neighbour's practice no more. He that is unjust, let him be unjust still, and lie which is filthy, let him be filthy still, and he that is righteous, let him be righteous still, and he that is holy, let him be holy still."

After this act of mock retractation, he, rims on through many pages in a very skilful defence of his former position, that the English, especially the middle class,. are blinded by ignorance and narrow, prejudices to the -great ideas of their time ; that they have lost intellectual and political weight on the Continent by this narrowness ; that they do not care for any but industrial culture, ignoring intellectual culture, .and love of beauty ; that "your middle-class man thinks it the highest pitch of development and civilization when his letters-are carried twelve times a day from Islington to Camberwell and from Camberwell to Islington, and if railway trains run to and fro between them every quarter of an -hour," thinking it "nothing that the trains only carry him from an illiberal dismal life at Islington to an illiberal dismal Meat Camberwell, and that the letters only tell him that such is the life there." Then Mr. Arnold again reiterates. with new emphasis and deeper satire than ever his resolve not to be mixed up with prac- tical life and its details :—

" The old recipe, to think a little more and bustle a little less, seemed to me still the beat recipe to follow. So I take comfort when I find the Guardian reproaching me with having no influence; for I know what influence means,—a party, practical proposals, action ; and I say to myself : 'Even suppose I could get some followers, and assemble them, brimming with affectionate enthusiasm, in a committee-room at some inn; what on earth should I say to them ? what resolutions could I propose ? I could only propose the old Socratic common-place, Know thyself ; and how blank they would all look at that!' No; to inquire, perhaps too curiously, what that present state of English development and civiliza- tion is, which according to Mr. Lowe is so perfect that to give votes to the working class is stark madness ; and, on the other hand, to be less sanguine about the divine and saving effect of a vote on its possessor than my friends in the committee-room at the 'Spotted Dog,'—that is my inevitable portion. To bring things under the light of one's intel- ligence, to see how they look there, to accustom oneself simply to regard the Marylebone Vestry, or the Educational Home, or the Irish Church Establishment, or our railway management, or our Divorce Court, or our gin-palaces open on Sunday and the Crystal Palace shut, as &man4 dities—that is, I am sure, invaluable exercise for us just at present Let all persist in it who can, and steadily set their desires on introduc- ing, with time, a little more soul and spirit into the too,-too solid flesh of English society."

So writes the angelic doctor of our own time, and while it is impos- sible for any one to admire the delicate thrusts of his satire at our limited English institutions and almost vulgar English belief in the infinite value of those limited institutions, more than we do, we cannot extend our admiration either to the godlike messenger himself, or to the means which he uses, or to his ostentatious abstinence from other means which he repudiates, for our further enlightenment. As for him, our instructor, there is far -too much of the Epicurean gods about him to inspire any sympathy. The dogmatism which is natural to the tempe5ament of the earnest practical zealot is in him perverted into alliance with the tem- perament of the calm, purely contemplative thinker. No doubt there is a sincere desire to see things as they are about Mr. Arnold, and as a consequence his discriminations are so delicate, and his thoughts, many of them, so true. But then he regards the power of seeing things as they are as the monopoly of a class ; and indeed, arrived at as he arrived at it, it must always be the mono- poly of a class. There are two ways of getting at almost all true

discriminations,—the mode of calm and leisurely intellectual sur- vey, and the mode of -upward-labouring faith,—by the clue of pure thought, -and by the clue of moral sympathy,—by the practice of an intellectual gymnastic, andbytracking home the-higher instincts of the spirit. -All the recent political blunders of which Mr. Arnold convicts the great English middle class, such as the vulgar policy-of threatening Italy with the letter of the treaty of Vienna before her war of emancipation, and vindicating what she had done directly our alarm at the aggressive attitude of France was removed, or railing against the Northern States while their success seemed impos- sible and wishing to fraternize with them directly it was certain,— of all these blunders he convicts them from his serene station above the clouds of their dull atmosphere. Bat others have convicted them of the same blunders from a far less elevated and yet far" more hopeful position in the very midst of that zone of prejudice and custom-blinded intelligence, by the mere force of that genuine sympathy with freedom which overpowers, even without dispelling, the cautious fears of selfish conservatism. Mr. Arnold in his re- fmed intellectual culture only cares to point out the blunders of the great middle class. But we venture to say that those blunders will never be removed by revelationssuoh as his,—which, while they charm the purely literary taste,of all true culture, fall like melting snow-flakes, keying absolutely no impression, on the minvaf the .Philistincs he is criticizing. Does Mx. Arnold suppose that "the young man from the-country," to whom with exquisitasraillery he -likens this dense class of money-getters, in the following passage, mould leel in the very least degree -disturbed by hie criticism, or -even underetana its drift ? Of course he does not. But he pours in his running fire of intellectual grapeshot without the slightest desire to show anything except the enormous chasm which sepa- rates his intelligence from that of the class he is criticizing :—

"1 wonder-if there can be anything offensive in calling one's-country- man a young man from the country. I hope-not ; and if- not, --should say, for 'the-benefit of these who have seen-Mr.-John Parry's amusing entertainment 'that- England and-Englishmen, holding forth on some great crisis in a foreign country,—Poland, say, or Italy,—are apt to have on foreigners very much the effect of :the young man from the country, who talks to :the .housemaid.after she has upset the perambu- lator. There is a terrible crisis, and the discourse of the young man -from the country, excellent in itself, is felt not to touch the crisis vitally. Nevertheless on he goes ; the -perambulator lies a wreck, the child screams, the nursemaid wrings her hands, the old gentleman storms, the policeman gesticulates, the crowd thickens ; still that astonishing young man talks on, serenely unconscious that he is =tat the centre of the situation."

Nothing can be snore exquisitein satire than that. And nothing can be less calculated to awaken the British "young man from the cows- to the vital element in the crisis -which he so obtusely ignores. What might be felt, however, by far blunter minds than this angelic critic's, is the vulgar selfishness of the young man's absorption in his own irrelevant remarks, —remarks indeed-which can usually be only satirically spoken of as "excellent in themselves," quite apart from their "not touching the crisis vitally." Mr. Arnold had probably just as little sympathy-with those who wished to rouse-the middle clam, through their moral feeling, to some true intelligence of the issue in America, as he had with the selfish middle-class insulation of feeling itself. All he saw was the idea at work in the Northern States, and the stupid vacancy of the English mind with respect to that idea. But in the trite means by which that might have been remedied, and perhaps was partially remedied,—the stirring up of English moral feeling against a gigantic moral • iniquity,—he felt as little interest as the torpid class he denciunces. if you look for ittyba may.always find a way by which men with torpid minds may bestirred, through their conscience, into true moral and therefore also intellectual' discriminations. But Mr. Arnold does not care for-such a . process. He prefers contemplating blankly the.gulf between him and the =cultured , people he pities. He exults in the intellectual paces which he displays before them, and -to the -beauty .and 'delicately .graduated variety, of which they are simply blind. He is .,almost supercilious in his disdain for their -clumsy and heavy tread. " Let them that be filthy be filthy still," is too accurate an expression of his grand uncon- cern. If we, the "dim common populations," get a blessing from -Mr. Arnold at all, it will only be as Jacob obtained it from the angel who wrestled with him "till the breaking of the day." He has to spontaneous blessing to bestow on the class whose culture he despises ; and as that culture begins to light up their sky he would only find a reason in it for leaving thorn,—" let me go, for the day breaketh." Yet they might wring a blessing from him which it is not in his angelic intellect to offer. But if they do, it will bp through their own earnestness, and not through his compassion. I°