Book review by Roy E. Perry: “A Life of Matthew Arnold”

Editor’s Note:  In a culture that more and more devalues literature, Underground Nashville is, in some small way, trying to resist the tide. One way we do that is by featuring the book reviews of Roy E. Perry, as a means of directing you toward enriching, insightful books. In the following review, Mr. Perry—who wrote book reviews for The Tennessean and Nashville Banner for 30 years—reviews the new biography of 19TH century English poet Matthew Arnold.


A Life of Matthew Arnold
by Nicholas Murray
Reviewed by Roy E. Perry

In A Life of Matthew Arnold, Nicholas Murray describes Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) as a “conservative radical” who became famous not only for his poetry, but also, in later life, for his criticism of Victorian materialism—”the frantic getting and spending that had begun to characterize early-nineteenth-century England.”

Indeed, the biography is divided into two main parts: “The Making of the Poet” and “The Triumph of the Critic.” According to Murray, the critic in Arnold “triumphed” over the poet because, as Arnold perfected his prose, his poetic muse slowly departed from him.

Matthew Arnold’s most famous and best-loved poem is “Dover Beach.” His other poetry includes “The Scholar Gypsy,” “The Forsaken Merman,” and “Empedocles on [Mount] Etna.” His best poems are still anthologized today.

An accomplished ironist, Arnold was a major critic—of literature, life, religion, culture, and politics. His major works of criticism, Essays in Criticism and Culture and Anarchy are still studied in academia today.

Arnold realized he could not survive financially on the income of a poet-critic, so for 35 years he worked as an inspector of schools, using his spare moments to continue writing. Murray writes, “[Arnold’s] devotion to the cause of universal compulsory state education was total. By speaking out on educational matters and criticizing the politicians who were his employers he put his career at risk, but he believed so passionately in the cause of bringing education to the working class that he never counted the personal cost.”

Arnold was not without his critics. Fellow poet T. S. Eliot debunked Arnold’s liberal humanism as “an unwillingness to submit to orthodoxy in politics and religion.” A lifelong admirer of Swift and Voltaire, Arnold was a robust skeptic. He also was deeply influenced by the pantheistic philosopher Spinoza: “To him I owe more than I can say,” Arnold said.

Matthew Arnold was a prolific letter writer, and Murray mines the rich ore of Arnold’s correspondence to illustrate and document his portrait of Arnold’s career and basic philosophy of life. This “five-star” biography is, as one reviewer puts it, “An intimate and refreshing portrait of one of our greatest literary figures.” To produce this excellent biography, Gilbert Murray has done a tremendous amount of research. His writing style and choice of words are impressive. The volume contains 16 pages of photographs, copious end-notes, and a helpful index. Last but not least, the author offers a surprising interpretive twist on the meaning of “Dover Beach.”

For other book reviews by Roy E. Perry, please visit:

David M. (Dave) Carew is writer/editor of “Underground Nashville” and the author of the novels “Everything Means Nothing to Me: A Novel of Underground Nashville” and “Voice from the Gutter,” both now available at and Dave is also a freelance book editor, publicist, seminar and workshop leader, journalist, and advertising / marketing / public relations writer.

Everything Means Nothing to Me: A Novel of Underground Nashville by Dave Carew—which was praised by The Tennessean as “beautiful, haunting, powerful”—is now available in an all-new paperback edition. For more information, please visit and/or the page on Facebook:

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Editor’s Note: “Underground Nashville” covers artists, authors, musicians, poets, political figures, and other compelling people and happenings not typically covered by the mainstream Nashville media. It also presents reflections and commentary from an underground/indie perspective, offering “thoughts from the shadows of a great American city.”

Dave Carew


2 Responses to “Book review by Roy E. Perry: “A Life of Matthew Arnold””

  1. V Hart Says:

    I LOVE Matthew Arnold. I first read him in the 1978 and I felt like he could have written his poetry that very year. Bravo Dave on posting this great review!

  2. Says:

    Very good article. I absolutely appreciate this site. Thanks!

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