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The Glory of English Prose / Letters to My Grandson By Stephen Coleridge Characters: 4105

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

My Dear Antony,

Though I do not myself rank Matthew Arnold among the great prose writers of England, yet, like all true poets-and he indeed was one of them,-he wrote excellent English prose.

It is true that he turned to poetry to express his finest emotions and thoughts, and he himself alludes to his prose writings thus: "I am a mere solitary wanderer in search of the light, and I talk an artless, unstudied, everyday familiar language. But, after all, this is the language of the mass of the world."

The chief note of all his teaching was urbanity. "The pursuit of perfection," he said, "is the pursuit of sweetness and light." "Culture hates hatred: culture has one great passion-the passion for sweetness and light."

This teaching, no doubt, leads to fields of pleasantness and charm, and not at all to the high places of self-sacrifice, or the austere peaks of martyrdom. Burning indignation against intolerable things, fierce denunciation of the cruelties and abominations of the world find no encouragement or sympathy from this serene, detached, and therefore somewhat ineffectual, teaching.

Sweetness and light would never have interfered with the slave trade, or fiercely fought beside Plimsoll for the load-line on the sides of ships.

We did not fight the Germans under the doctrine of sweetness and light.

It was a beautiful and edifying adornment for the drawing-room in times of Victorian self-satisfied peace, but was a tinsel armour for the battle of life, and entirely futile as a sword for combating wrong.

I am not sure that Matthew Arnold would not have called those who wrathfully slash about them at abominable evils, Philistines.

After all, the great men of action and the great writers of the world have been capable of harbouring great enthusiasms and deep indignations in their hearts; and these emotions do not emerge from a "passion for sweetness and light."

A better doctrine, Antony, is, I think, to try to push things along cheerfully but strenuously in the right direction wherever and wh

enever you can.

As a writer I think Matthew Arnold's best passage is to be found in the Preface to his Essays in Criticism:-

"Oxford. Beautiful city! So venerable, so lovely, so unravaged by the fierce intellectual life of our century, so serene!

"There are our young barbarians, all at play!

"And yet steeped in sentiment as she lies, spreading her gardens to the moonlight, and whispering from her towers the last enchantments of the Middle Age, who will deny that Oxford, by her ineffable charm, keeps ever calling us to the true goal of all of us, to the ideal, to perfection,-to beauty, in a word, which is only truth seen from another side?-nearer perhaps than all the science of Tübingen. Adorable dreamer, whose heart has been so romantic! who hast given thyself so prodigally, given thyself to sides and heroes not mine, only never to the Philistines! home of lost causes, and forsaken beliefs, and unpopular names, and impossible loyalties!... Apparitions of a day, what is our puny warfare against the Philistines, compared with the warfare which this Queen of Romance has been waging against them for centuries, and will wage after we are gone?"

As a man and a companion,[1] if you expected nothing but delightful humour, brilliant discourse, and urbane outlook upon everything, few could rival his personal charm; but he would never really join you in a last ditch to defend the right, or actually charge with you against the wrong, although in his poem "The Last Word," while not participating himself in such strenuous doings, he seems to yield a reluctant admiration to him who does so charge, and who leaves his "body by the wall."

Much has happened since Matthew Arnold poured his scorn upon the unregenerate Philistines; but let us remember, Antony, that thousands and thousands of these contemned neglecters of sweetness and light stood unflinchingly and died upon the plains of France that our country and its freedom should survive.

Your loving old



See my Memories, pp. 46-52 and 55.

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