Selected Criticism

Arnold, Matthew (1822–1888)
Kozlowski, Alan E.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Despite certain thematic affinities between the work of Whitman and the British Victorian poet and critic Matthew Arnold, including a belief in literature as a criticism of life, each had little to say about the other. What remains of their mutual comments, preserved in letters and conversations, is rather critical, stemming from the clash of Whitman's inclusiveness and originality against Arnold's advocacy of high culture and tradition.

Most characteristic of Arnold's attitude toward Whitman is his letter to W.D. O'Connor (1866) acknowledging receipt of O'Connor's The Good Gray Poet, written to defend Whitman after his dismissal as a clerk in the Indian Affairs Office. In the letter, Arnold states his doubt that the intervention of "foreign expostulators" will be able to effect Whitman's reinstatement. Arnold also states his belief that any public servant in a similar predicament in western Europe would meet a similar fate. Continuing as an advocate of high culture, he comments on the merits and demerits of Whitman's poetry as representative of American literature in general. While many in England found Whitman's poetical worth in his originality, Arnold finds Whitman in particular and American literature in general "displaying an eccentric and violent originality." Whitman and American literature must come "into the European movement," which will not impede America from being "an independent intellectual power" rather than "an intellectual colony of Europe" (qtd. in Perry 177–179). Mentioning Whitman in his article "Theodore Parker" (1867), Arnold believes each has "a genuine American voice, not an echo of English poetry," but that too much is made of this native strain (Arnold 12).

Whitman is similarly cool toward Arnold, comparing their antipathy to oil and water, saying "Arnold is inveterately one thing as I am another" (With Walt Whitman 4:37).


[Arnold, Matthew]. "Theodore Parker." Pall Mall Gazette 24 Aug. 1867: 12.

Blodgett, Harold W. Walt Whitman in England. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell UP, 1934.

Perry, Bliss. Walt Whitman: His Life and Work. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1906.

Traubel, Horace. "Whitman on His Contemporaries." American Mercury 2 (1924): 328–332.

———. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 1. Boston: Small, Maynard, 1906; Vol. 2. New York: Appleton, 1908; Vol. 3. New York: Mitchell Kennerley, 1914; Vol. 4. Ed. Sculley Bradley. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1953.


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