This review is taken from PN Review 25, Volume 8 Number 5, May - June 1982.QUEST FOR JUSTICE
A new life of Matthew Arnold is an opportunity to reconsider a number of puzzles about him: in particular, the relation of his writings to his life and his times. For a poet so highly rated as a critic, there is something curiously elusive about his mind. Even Trilling never got to the heart of Arnold. Perhaps his case is like that of Eliot: a body of criticism obscurely but essentially related to his own poems, and without the lasting substance that its apparent authority and its thrilling ramifications seemed to promise. If indeed both of them as critics are more subjective, and more intimately related to their times than we at first thought, that may be a gain to us, not a loss. There has surely been no third critic as interesting as Eliot and Arnold in the last hundred and fifty years.
Is that because of the vast and ranging scope of their minds, or because they were great poets? What is it that puts Robert Graves and Edmund Wilson into a lower category? And why did each of them to some extent dry up as a poet? In both cases, this is a question of biography, not of general principle. Arnold's life was laborious, his work grinding, and the deaths of his children and his wife's sufferings terribly darkened his last years. It was the deaths of his sons in 1868 and 1872 that marked the end of his time as a poet. Biographers ...
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