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The joyful stoic: A study of the poetry and the prose of Matthew Arnold

Stanley C Johnson, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


This dissertation studies select works by Matthew Arnold to see the contours of thought as to why and how he bequeathed a joyful stoicism as the sanest outlook in an uncertain world. His authorship forms a multi-fronted war fought for the survival of European civilization. As a critic, Arnold stands second to none in English. As a poet, Arnold’s elegiac voice is profoundly moving and reveals a deep interiority of self. ^ Jacques Barzun gives the famous dictum of Goethe: classicism is health and romanticism is disease (A Jacques Barzun Reader 172). Arnold’s authorship curbs the excesses of the English Romantics, while reestablishing the moral seriousness of Greek and Hebrew thought. In response to the Zeitgeist, including the mournful end of Christendom, Arnold posits a best self as the sole source for redemption. ^ Arnold’s conceptions of classicism and romanticism are derived from German sources, particularly Goethe. For Goethe, as for Schiller, Lessing, and Winckelmann, the Greeks reveal man in his highest state of perfection, with Apollo at the fore (Willoughby 7). Natural and literary laws derive from Aristotle. ^ This study rectifies certain challenges with Arnold: tracing the elusive best self through a range of works written over a thirty-year period, doing so in a vigorous style with little indulgence in theoretical jargon. It explores in depth the philosophic roots of Arnold’s stoicism in Sophocles, Aristotle, Aurelius, and Spinoza. It defends Arnold against common misrepresentations, both by contemporary and later critics. ^ Of particular interest is preserving Arnold from the current excesses of post-modernist thought. In the struggle between Apollo and Dionysus, Arnold embraces the Apollonian but has a profound respect for the Dionysian. Some prefer Arnold only for darkness, to which “Empedocles on Etna” makes an excellent response. Arnold was also more sympathetic towards religion than laodicean studies imply. However, his unorthodoxy itself presents a unique set of problems.^

Subject Area

Literature, Modern|Literature, English

Recommended Citation

Johnson, Stanley C, "The joyful stoic: A study of the poetry and the prose of Matthew Arnold" (2010). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI3398455.