MatthewArnold (1822-88)

English poet, and literary and cultural critic. He was educated at Rugby, Winchester, and Oxford. As an inspector of schools from 1851, he travelled extensively throughout England and the Continent, observing not only the educational problems but also the social and cultural conditions, out of which was born his famous Culture and Anarchy in 1869. In this book and other places Arnold sharply criticized the provincialism, philistinism, sectarianism, and utilitarian materialism of the Victorian society.

From the time Friedrich August Wolf (1759-1824) maintained in Prolegomena ad Homerum (1795) that Homer’s works originally consisted of independent ballads in the form of short narratives, there appeared in succession translations of Homer in ballad form. The most representative was William Maginn’s “Homeric Ballads” published in The Fraser’s Magazine, founded in 1830 by himself and Hugh Fraser. F. W. Newman published The Iliad of Homer as a balladic translation in 1856. Arnold, as Oxford Professor of Poetry from 1857, attacked Newman and others in a series of lectures (3 November, 8 December 1860, and 26 January 1861), entitled “On Translating Homer”. The quotation below shows his basic stance on poetry and balladry:

Poets receive their distinctive character, not from their subject, but from their application to that subject of the ideas (to quote the Excursion)

On God, on Nature, and on human life,

which they have acquired for themselves. In the ballad-poets in general, as in men of a rude and early stage of the world, in whom their humanity is not yet variously and fully developed, the stock of these ideas is scanty, and the ideas themselves not very effective or profound. [For] them the narrative itself is the great matter, not the spirit and significance which underlies the narrative. Even in later times of richly developed life and thought, poets appear who have what may be called a balladist’s mind; in whom a fresh and lively curiosity for the outward spectacle of the world is much more strong than their sense of the inward significance of that spectacle. [“On Translating Homer”, On the Classical Tradition, The Complete Prose Works of Matthew Arnold 1, ed. R. H. Super (U of Michigan P, 1960) 210]

In his fourth lecture at Oxford on 30 November 1861, which was Arnold’s reply to Newman’s counterargument in Homeric Translation in Theory and Practice: A Reply to Matthew Arnold on 8 June 1861, Arnold quotes the last two stanzas from “Sir Patrick Spens” and states that ‘When there comes in poetry what I may call the lyrical cry, this transfigures everything, makes everything grand; the simplest form may be here even an advantage, because the flame of the emotion glows through and through it more easily.’ (“On Translating Homer”, On the Classical Tradition 209) Arnold published his first collection of poems The Strayed Reveller and Other Poems anonymously in 1849, in which is found one of his literary ballads, “The Forsaken Merman”. This is the story of a merman betrayed by a mortal woman, corresponding to the Danish ballad “Agnes and the Merman”. Except for 23 lines in the middle, the entire 143 lines consist of the merman’s monologue to his forsaken children. It is occupied with self-reflecting emotions, which may support Arnold’s conception of a ‘lyrical cry’ but loses the narrative impetus and momentum of the traditional ballad. (M. Y.)

Critical Essays 1  'Matthew Arnold and the Ballad' (in Japanese)
English and English-American Literature (8) 33-51. 1973.


1. The Forsaken Merman
2. St. Brandan