Matthew Arnold

On this date in 1822, Victorian poet and critic Matthew Arnold was born in Laleham on the Thames. He graduated from Oxford in 1844. His father was Thomas Arnold, the inspiration for Tom Brown’s Schooldays and head of the famous school of Rugby. Arnold parted ways with Christianity sometime in his teens on intellectual and ethical grounds and became an agnostic. In “Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse,” he later wrote, “Rigorous teachers seized my youth / And purged its faith, and trimm’d its fire / Show’d me the high, white star of Truth.”

In 1851 he was appointed one of “Her Majesty’s Inspector of Schools,” a post he held for 35 years. That same year he married Frances Lucy. They would have six children. In 1852 he published his second volume of poems, Empedocles on Etna, and Other Poems, which religious critics sought to censor. Poems of Matthew Arnold was published in 1857, followed by other volumes. Arnold served for a decade as professor of poetry at Oxford. In his 40s he largely turned from poetry to critical writing. His Essays in Criticism came out in 1865.

Arnold’s freethinking was clearly delineated in Culture and Anarchy (1869), Saint Paul and Protestantism (1870), Literature and Dogma (1873) and Last Essays on Church and Religion (1877). In his poem, “Dover Beach,” he described “The Sea of Faith … Retreating.” Although he gently defined religion as “morality touched with emotion” and some detect a tinge of regret in his rejection of faith, he was an ardent critic of Christian doctrine and the bible.

“It is almost impossible to exaggerate the proneness of the human mind to take miracles as evidence, and to seek for miracles as evidence,” he wrote in Literature and Dogma. “Miracles do not happen,” he baldly wrote in the preface to the 1883 edition of Literature and Dogma. He died at age 65 of heart failure in 1888 while hurrying to meet his daughter, who was arriving on a train.

Freedom From Religion Foundation