According to Henley's "Prefatory," which self-deprecatingly descibes Views and Reviews (1890) as "less a book than a mosaic of scraps and shreds recovered from the shot rubbish of some fourteen years of journalism" (vi), this essay was "pieced together" from articles in London, Vanity Fair, The Athenaeum. In editing this text for the Victorian Web, I have retained orginal spelling and punctuation, and I included numbers in brackets to indicate page breaks in the print edition in order to enable users of VW to cite or locate the original page numbers. [GPL].

His Verse

Decorative Initial In every page of Arnold the poet there is something to return upon and to admire. There are faults, and these of a kind this present age is disposed to condone. The rhymes are sometimes poor; the movement of the verse is sometimes uncertain and sometimes slow; the rhythms are obviously simple always; now and then the intention and effect are cold even to austerity, are bald to uncomeliness. But then, how many of the rarer qualities of art and inspiration are represented here, and here alone in modern work! There is little of that delight in material for material's sake which is held to be essential to the composition of a great artist; there is none of that rapture of sound and motion and none of that efflorescence of expression which are deemed inseparable from the endowment of the true singer. For any of those excesses in technical accomplishment, those ecstasies in the use of words, those effects of sound which are so rich and strange as to impress the hearer with something of their author's own emotion of creation — for any, indeed, of the characteristic attributes of modern poetry — you shall [83/84] turn to him in vain. In matters of form this poet is no romantic but a classic to the marrow. He adores his Shakespeare, but he will none of his Shakespeare's fashions. For him the essentials are dignity of thought and sentiment and distinction of manner and utterance. It is no aim of his to talk for talking's sake, to express what is but half felt and half understood, to embody vague emotions and nebulous fancies in language no amount of richness can redeem from the reproach of being nebulous and vague. In his scheme of art there is no place for excess, however magnificent and Shakespearean — for exuberance, however overpowering and Hugoesque. Human and interesting in themselves, the ideas apparelled in his verse are completely apprehended; natural in themselves, the experiences he pictures are intimately felt and thoroughly perceived. They have been resolved into their elements by the operation of an almost Sophoclean faculty of selection, and the eftect of their presentation is akin to that of a gallery of Greek marbles.

His Failure

Other poets say anything — say everything that is in them. Browning lived to realise the myth of the Inexhaustible Bottle; Mr. William Morris is nothing if not fluent and copious; Mr. Swinburne has a facility that would seem impossible if it were not a living fact; even the Laureate is sometimes prodigal of unimportant details, of touches insignificant and superfluous, of words for words' sake, of cadences that have no reason of being save themselves. Matthew Arnold alone says only what is worth saying. In other words, he selects: from his matter whatever is impertinent is eliminated and only what is vital is permitted to remain. Sometimes he goes a little astray, and his application of the principle on which Sophocles and Homer wrought results in failure. But in these instances it will always be found, I think, that the effect is due not to the principle nor the poet's application of it but to the poet himself, who has exceeded his commission, and attempted more than is in him to accomplish. The case is rare with Arnold, one of whose qualities — and by no means the least Hellenic of them — was a fine consciousness of his limitations. But that he failed, and failed considerably, it were idle to deny. There is Merope to bear witness to the fact; and of Merope what is there to say ? Evidently it is an imitation Greek play: an essay, that is, in a form which ceased long since to have any active life, so that the attempt to revive it — to create a soul under the ribs of very musty death — is a blunder alike in sentiment and in art. As evidently Arnold is no dramatist. Empedocles, the Strayed Reveller, even the Forsaken Merman, all these are expressions of purely personal feeling — are so many [85/8s] metamorphoses of Arnold. In Merope there was no such basis of reality. The poet was never on a level with his argument. He knew little or nothing of his characters — of Merope or Aepytus or Polyphontes, of Arcas or Lilias or even the Messenger; at every step the ground is seen shifting under his feet; he is comparatively void of matter, and his application of the famous principle is labour lost. He is winnowing the wind; he is washing not gold but water.

His Triumphs

It is other-guess work with Empedocles, the Dejaneira fragment, Sohrab and Russsum, the Philomela, his better work in general, above all with the unique and unapproached Balder Dead. To me this last stands alone in modern art for simple majesty of conception, sober diectness and potency of expression, sustained dignity of thought and sentiment and style, the complete presentation of whatever is essential, the stern avoidance of whatever is merely decorative. [sic] indeed for every Homeric quality save rhythmical vitality and rapidity of movement. Here, for example, is something of that choice yet ample suggestiveness — the only true realism because the only perfect ideal of realisation — for which the [86/87] similitudes of the 'Ionian father of his race' are preeminently distinguished: —

'And as a spray of honeysuckle flowers
Brushes across a tired travelers face.
Who shuffles through the deep dew-moistened dust
On a May evening, in the darken'd lanes,
And starts him, that he thinks a ghost went by —
So Hoder brushed hy Hermod's side.'

Here is Homer's direct and moving because most human and comprehensive touch in narrative: —

'But from the hill Oof Lidsklalf Odin rose,
The throne, from which his eye surveys the world;
And mounted Sleipner, and in darkness rode
To Asgard. And the stars came out in heaven,
High over Asgard, tO light home the king.
But fiercely Odin gallop'd, moved in heart;
And swift to Asgard, to the gate, he came.
And terribly the hoofs Of Sleipner rang
Along the flinty floor of Asgard streets,
And the Gods trembled on tleir golden beds
Hearing the wrathful Father coming home —
For dread, for like a whirlwind Odin came.
And to Valhalla's gate he rode, and left
Sleipner; and Sleipner went to his own stall;
And in Valhalla Odin laid him down.'

And here — to have done with evidence of what is known to every one — here is the Homeric manner, large and majestic and impersonal, of recording speech: —

'Bethink thee, Gods, is there no other way? —
Speak, were not this a way, a way for Gods?
If I, if Odin, clad in radiant nrms
Mounted on Sleipner, with the warrior Thor
Drawn in his car heside me, and my sons
All the strong brood of Heaven, to swell my train,,
Should make irruption into Hela's realm
And set the fields of gloom ablaze with light,
And bring in triumph Baider back to Heaven?' [87/88]

One has but to contrast such living work as this with the 'moulderirg realm' of Merope to feel the difference with a sense of pain;

'For doleful are the ghosts, the troops of dead,
Whom Hela with austere control preside ';

while this in its plain, heroic completeness is touched with a stately life that is a presage of immortality. It is evident, indeed, that Arnold wrote Balder Dead in his most fortunate hour, and that Merope is his one serious mistake in literature. For a genius thus peculiar and introspective drama — the presentation of character through action — is impossible; to a method thus reticent and severe drama — the expression of emotion in action — is improper. 'Not here, O Apollo!' It is written that none shall bind his brows with the twin laurels of epos and drama. Shakespeare did not, nor could Homer; and how should Matthew Arnold?

His Prose

He has opinions and the courage of them; he has assurance and he has charm; he writes with an engaging clearness. It is very possible to disagree with him; but it is difiicult indeed to resist his many graces of manner, and decline to be entertained and even interested by the variety and quality of his matter. He was described as 'the most un-English of Britons,' the most cosmopolitan of islanders; and you feel as you read him that in truth his mind was French. He took pattern by Goethe, and was impressed by Leopardi; he was judiciously classic, but his romanticism was neither hidebound nor inhuman; he apprehended Heine and Marcus Aurelius, Spinoza and Sainte-Beuve, Joubert and Maurice de Guerin, Wordsworth and Pascal, Rachel and Sarah Bernhardt, Burke and Arthur Clough, Eliza Cook and Homer; he was an authority on education, poetry, civilisation, the Song of Roland, the love-letters of Keats, the Genius of Bottles, the significance of eutrapelos and eutrapelia. In fact, we have every reason to be proud of him. For the present is a noisy and affected age; it is given overmuch to clamorous devotion and extravagant repudiation; there is an element of swagger in sll its words and ways; it has a distressing and immoral turn for publicity. Matthew Arnold's function was to protest against its fashions by his own intellectual practice, and now snd then to take it to task and to call it to order. He was not particularly original, but he had in an eminent degree the formative capacity, the genius of shaping and developing, which is a chief quality of the French mind snd which is not so common among us English as our kindest critics would have us believe. He would take a handful of golden sentences — things wisely thought and finely said [89/90] by persons having authority — and spin them into an exquisite prelection; so that his work with all the finish of art retains a something of the freshness of those elemental truths on which it was his humour to dilate. He was, that is to say, an artist in ethics as in speech, in culture as in ambition. 'Il est donné,' says Sainte-Beuve,' 'de nos jours, à un bien petit nombre, même parmi les plus délicats et ceux qui les apprécient le mieux, de recueillir, d'ordonner sa vie selon ses admirations et selon ses goûts, avec suite, avec noblesse.' That is true enough; but Arnold was one of the few, and might 'se vanter d'etre resté fidèle à soi-même, à son premier et a son plus beau passé.' He was always a man of culture in the good sense of the word; he had many interests in life and art, and his interests were sound and liberal; he was a good critic of both morals and measures, both of society and of literature, because he was commonly at the pains of understanding his matter before he began to speak about it. It is therefore not surprising that the part he played was one of considerable importance or that his influence was healthy in the main. He was neither prophet nor pedagogue but a critic pure and simple. Too well read to be violent, too nice in his discernment to be led astray beyond recovery in any quest after strange gods, he told the age its faults and suggested such remedies as the study of great men's work [90/91] had suggested to him. If his effect was little that was not his fault. He returned to the charge with imperturbable good temper, and repeated his remarks — which are often exasperating in effect — with a mixture of mischievousness and charm, of superciliousness and sagacity, and a serene dexterity of phrase, unique in modern letters.


Henley, W. E. Views and Reviews: Essays in Appreciation. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons: 1890. 83-91

Overview W. E. Henley Matthew Arnold

Last modified 2003