IN 1827 the headmastership of Rugby School fell vacant, and it became necessary for the twelve trustees, noblemen and gentlemen of Warwickshire, to appoint a successor to the post. Reform was in the air — political, social, religious; there was even a feeling abroad that our great public schools were not quite all that they should be, and that some change or other — no one precisely knew what — but some change in the system of their management, was highly desirable. Thus it was natural that when the twelve noblemen and gentlemen, who had determined to be guided entirely by the merits of the candidates, found among the testimonials pouring in upon them a letter from Dr. Hawkins, the Provost of Oriel, predicting that if they elected Mr. Thomas Arnold he would ‘change the face of education all through the public schools of England’, they hesitated no longer; obviously, Mr. Thomas Arnold was their man. He was elected therefore; received, as was fitting, priest’s orders; became, as was no less fitting, a Doctor of Divinity; and in August, 1828, took up the duties of his office.
All that was known of the previous life of Dr. Arnold seemed to justify the prediction of the Provost of Oriel, and the choice of the Trustees. The son of a respectable Collector of Customs, he had been educated at Winchester and at Oxford, where his industry and piety had given him a conspicuous place among his fellow students. It is true that, as a schoolboy, a certain pompousness in the style of his letters home suggested to the more clear-sighted among his relatives the possibility that young Thomas might grow up into a prig; but, after all, what else could be expected from a child who, at the age of three, had been presented by his father, as a reward for proficiency in his studies, with the twenty-four volumes of Smollett’s History of England?
His career at Oxford had been a distinguished one, winding up with an Oriel fellowship. It was at about this time that the smooth and satisfactory progress of his life was for a moment interrupted: he began to be troubled by religious doubts. These doubts, as we learn from one of his contemporaries, who afterwards became Mr. Justice Coleridge, ‘were not low nor rationalistic in their tendency, according to the bad sense of that term; there was no indisposition in him to believe merely because the article transcended his reason, he doubted the proof and the interpretation of the textual authority’. In his perturbation, Arnold consulted Keble, who was at that time one of his closest friends, and a Fellow of the same College. ‘The subject of these distressing thoughts,’ Keble wrote to Coleridge, ‘is that most awful one, on which all very inquisitive reasoning minds are, I believe, most liable to such temptations — I mean, the doctrine of the blessed Trinity. Do not start, my dear Coleridge; I do not believe that Arnold has any serious scruples of the UNDERSTANDING about it, but it is a defect of his mind that he cannot get rid of a certain feeling of objections.’ What was to be done? Keble’s advice was peremptory. Arnold was ‘bid to pause in his inquiries, to pray earnestly for help and light from above, and turn himself more strongly than ever to the practical duties of a holy life’. He did so, and the result was all that could be wished. He soon found himself blessed with perfect peace of mind, and a settled conviction.
One other difficulty, and one only, we hear of at this point in his life. His dislike of early rising amounted, we are told, ‘almost to a constitutional infirmity’. This weakness too he overcame, yet not quite so successfully as his doubts upon the doctrine of the Trinity. For in afterlife, the Doctor would often declare ‘that early rising continued to be a daily effort to him and that in this instance he never found the truth of the usual rule that all things are made easy by custom.
He married young and settled down in the country as a private tutor for youths preparing for the Universities. There he remained for ten years — happy, busy, and sufficiently prosperous. Occupied chiefly with his pupils, he nevertheless devoted much of his energy to wider interests. He delivered a series of sermons in the parish church; and he began to write a History of Rome, in the hope, as he said, that its tone might be such ‘that the strictest of what is called the Evangelical party would not object to putting it into the hands of their children’. His views on the religious and political condition of the country began to crystallise. He was alarmed by the ‘want of Christian principle in the literature of the day’, looking forward anxiously to ‘the approach of a greater struggle between good and evil than the world has yet seen’; and, after a serious conversation with Dr. Whately, began to conceive the necessity of considerable alterations in the Church Establishment.
All who knew him during these years were profoundly impressed by the earnestness of his religious convictions and feelings, which, as one observer said, ‘were ever bursting forth’. It was impossible to disregard his ‘deep consciousness of the invisible world’ and ‘the peculiar feeling of love and adoration which he entertained towards our Lord Jesus Christ’. ‘His manner of awful reverence when speaking of God or of the Scriptures’ was particularly striking. ‘No one could know him even a little,’ said another friend, ‘and not be struck by his absolute wrestling with evil, so that like St. Paul, he seemed to be battling with the wicked one, and yet with a feeling of God’s help on his side.’
Such was the man who, at the age of thirty-three, became headmaster of Rugby. His outward appearance was the index of his inward character; everything about him denoted energy, earnestness, and the best intentions. His legs, perhaps, were shorter than they should have been; but the sturdy athletic frame, especially when it was swathed (as it usually was) in the flowing robes of a Doctor of Divinity, was full of an imposing vigour; and his head, set decisively upon the collar, stock, and bands of ecclesiastical tradition, clearly belonged to a person of eminence. The thick, dark clusters of his hair, his bushy eyebrows and curling whiskers, his straight nose and bulky chin, his firm and upward-curving lower lip — all these revealed a temperament of ardour and determination. His eyes were bright and large; they were also obviously honest. And yet — why was it? Was it in the lines of the mouth or the frown on the forehead? — it was hard to say, but it was unmistakable — there was a slightly puzzled look upon the face of Dr. Arnold.
And certainly, if he was to fulfil the prophecy of the Provost of Oriel, the task before him was sufficiently perplexing. The public schools of those days were still virgin forests, untouched by the hand of reform. Keate was still reigning at Eton; and we possess, in the records of his pupils, a picture of the public school education of the early nineteenth century, in its most characteristic state. It was a system of anarchy tempered by despotism. Hundreds of boys, herded together in miscellaneous boarding-houses, or in that grim ‘Long Chamber’ at whose name in after years aged statesmen and warriors would turn pale, lived, badgered and overawed by the furious incursions of an irascible little old man carrying a bundle of birch-twigs, a life in which licensed barbarism was mingled with the daily and hourly study of the niceties of Ovidian verse. It was a life of freedom and terror, of prosody and rebellion, of interminable floggings and appalling practical jokes. Keate ruled, unaided — for the undermasters were few and of no account — by sheer force of character. But there were times when even that indomitable will was overwhelmed by the flood of lawlessness. Every Sunday afternoon he attempted to read sermons to the whole school assembled; and every Sunday afternoon the whole school assembled shouted him down. The scenes in Chapel were far from edifying; while some antique Fellow doddered in the pulpit, rats would be let loose to scurry among the legs of the exploding boys. But next morning the hand of discipline would reassert itself; and the savage ritual of the whipping-block would remind a batch of whimpering children that, though sins against man and God might be forgiven them, a false quantity could only be expiated in tears and blood.
From two sides this system of education was beginning to be assailed by the awakening public opinion of the upper middle classes. On the one hand, there was a desire for a more liberal curriculum; on the other, there was a demand for a higher moral tone. The growing utilitarianism of the age viewed with impatience a course of instruction which excluded every branch of knowledge except classical philology; while its growing respectability was shocked by such a spectacle of disorder and brutality as was afforded by the Eton of Keate. ‘The public schools,’ said the Rev. Mr. Bowdler, ‘are the very seats and nurseries of vice.’
Dr. Arnold agreed. He was convinced of the necessity for reform. But it was only natural that to one of his temperament and education it should have been the moral rather than the intellectual side of the question which impressed itself upon his mind. Doubtless it was important to teach boys something more than the bleak rigidities of the ancient tongues; but how much more important to instil into them the elements of character and the principles of conduct! His great object, throughout his career at Rugby, was, as he repeatedly said, to ‘make the school a place of really Christian education’. To introduce ‘a religious principle into education’, was his ‘most earnest wish’, he wrote to a friend when he first became headmaster; ‘but to do this would be to succeed beyond all my hopes; it would be a happiness so great, that, I think, the world would yield me nothing comparable to it’. And he was constantly impressing these sentiments upon his pupils. ‘What I have often said before,’ he told them, ‘I repeat now: what we must look for here is, first, religious and moral principle; secondly, gentlemanly conduct; and thirdly, intellectual ability.’
There can be no doubt that Dr. Arnold’s point of view was shared by the great mass of English parents. They cared very little for classical scholarship; no doubt they would be pleased to find that their sons were being instructed in history or in French; but their real hopes, their real wishes, were of a very different kind. ‘Shall I tell him to mind his work, and say he’s sent to school to make himself a good scholar?’ meditated old Squire Brown when he was sending off Tom for the first time to Rugby. ‘Well, but he isn’t sent to school for that — at any rate, not for that mainly. I don’t care a straw for Greek particles, or the digamma; no more does his mother. What is he sent to school for? . . . If he’ll only turn out a brave, helpful, truth-telling Englishman, and a Christian, that’s all I want.’
That was all; and it was that that Dr. Arnold set himself to accomplish. But how was he to achieve his end? Was he to improve the character of his pupils by gradually spreading around them an atmosphere of cultivation and intelligence? By bringing them into close and friendly contact with civilised men, and even, perhaps, with civilised women? By introducing into the life of his school all that he could of the humane, enlightened, and progressive elements in the life of the community? On the whole, he thought not. Such considerations left him cold, and he preferred to be guided by the general laws of Providence. It only remained to discover what those general laws were. He consulted the Old Testament, and could doubt no longer. He would apply to his scholars, as he himself explained to them in one of his sermons, ‘the principle which seemed to him to have been adopted in the training of the childhood of the human race itself’. He would treat the boys at Rugby as Jehovah had treated the Chosen People: he would found a theocracy; and there should be judges in Israel.
For this purpose, the system, prevalent in most of the public schools of the day, by which the elder boys were deputed to keep order in the class-rooms, lay ready to Dr. Arnold’s hand. He found the Praepostor a mere disciplinary convenience, and he converted him into an organ of government. Every boy in the Sixth Form became ipso facto a Praepostor, with powers extending over every department of school life; and the Sixth Form as a body was erected into an authority responsible to the headmaster, and to the headmaster alone, for the internal management of the school.
This was the means by which Dr. Arnold hoped to turn Rugby into ‘a place of really Christian education’. The boys were to work out their own salvation, like the human race. He himself, involved in awful grandeur, ruled remotely, through his chosen instruments, from an inaccessible heaven. Remotely — and yet with an omnipresent force. As the Israelite of old knew that his almighty Lawgiver might at any moment thunder to him from the whirlwind, or appear before his very eyes, the visible embodiment of power or wrath, so the Rugby schoolboy walked in a holy dread of some sudden manifestation of the sweeping gown, the majestic tone, the piercing glance, of Dr. Arnold. Among the lower forms of the school his appearances were rare and transitory, and upon these young children ‘the chief impression’, we are told, ‘was of extreme fear’. The older boys saw more of him, but they did not see much. Outside the Sixth Form, no part of the school came into close intercourse with him; and it would often happen that a boy would leave Rugby without having had any personal communication with him at all.
Yet the effect which he produced upon the great mass of his pupils was remarkable. The prestige of his presence and the elevation of his sentiments were things which it was impossible to forget. In class, every line of his countenance, every shade of his manner imprinted themselves indelibly on the minds of the boys who sat under him. One of these, writing long afterwards, has described, in phrases still impregnated with awestruck reverence, the familiar details of the scene: ‘the glance with which he looked round in the few moments of silence before the lesson began, and which seemed to speak his sense of his own position’—‘the attitude in which he stood, turning over the pages of Facciolati’s Lexicon, or Pole’s synopsis, with his eye fixed upon the boy who was pausing to give an answer’—‘the pleased look and the cheerful “thank you”, which followed upon a successful translation’—‘the fall of his countenance with its deepening severity, the stern elevation of the eyebrows, the sudden “sit down” which followed upon the reverse’— and ‘the startling earnestness with which he would cheek in a moment the slightest approach to levity’.
To be rebuked, however mildly, by Dr. Arnold was a Potable experience. One boy could never forget how he drew a distinction between ‘mere amusement’ and ‘such as encroached on the next day’s duties’, nor the tone of voice with which the Doctor added ‘and then it immediately becomes what St. Paul calls REVELLING’. Another remembered to his dying day his reproof of some boys who had behaved badly during prayers. ‘Nowhere,’ said Dr. Arnold, ‘nowhere is Satan’s work more evidently manifest than in turning holy things to ridicule.’ On such occasions, as another of his pupils described it, it was impossible to avoid ‘a consciousness almost amounting to solemnity’ that, ‘when his eye was upon you, he looked into your inmost heart’.
With the boys in the Sixth Form, and with them alone, the severe formality of his demeanour was to some degree relaxed. It was his wish, in his relations with the Praepostors, to allow the Master to be occasionally merged in the Friend. From time to time, he chatted with them in a familiar manner; once a term he asked them to dinner; and during the summer holidays he invited them, in rotation, to stay with him in Westmorland.
It was obvious that the primitive methods of discipline which had reached their apogee under the dominion of Keate were altogether incompatible with Dr. Arnold’s view of the functions of a headmaster and the proper governance of a public school. Clearly, it was not for such as he to demean himself by bellowing and cuffing, by losing his temper once an hour, and by wreaking his vengeance with indiscriminate flagellations. Order must be kept in other ways. The worst boys were publicly expelled; many were silently removed; and, when Dr. Arnold considered that a flogging was necessary, he administered it with gravity. For he had no theoretical objection to corporal punishment. On the contrary, he supported it, as was his wont, by an appeal to general principles. ‘There is,’ he said, ‘an essential inferiority in a boy as compared with a man’; and hence ‘where there is no equality the exercise of superiority implied in personal chastisement’ inevitably followed.
He was particularly disgusted by the view that ‘personal correction’,as he phrased it, was an insult or a degradation to the boy upon whom it was inflicted; and to accustom young boys to think so appeared to him to be ‘positively mischievous’. ‘At an age,’ he wrote, ‘when it is almost impossible to find a true, manly sense of the degradation of guilt or faults, where is the wisdom of encouraging a fantastic sense of the degradation of personal correction? What can be more false, or more adverse to the simplicity, sobriety, and humbleness of mind which are the best ornaments of youth, and offer the best promise of a noble manhood?’ One had not to look far, he added, for ‘the fruits of such a system’. In Paris, during the Revolution of 1830, an officer observed a boy of twelve insulting the soldiers, and ‘though the action was then raging, merely struck him with the flat part of his sword, as the fit chastisement for boyish impertinence. But the boy had been taught to consider his person sacred, and that a blow was a deadly insult; he therefore followed the officer, and having watched his opportunity, took deliberate aim at him with a pistol and murdered him.’ Such were the alarming results of insufficient whipping.
Dr. Arnold did not apply this doctrine to the Praepostors, but the boys in the lower parts of the school felt its benefits, with a double force. The Sixth Form was not only excused from chastisement; it was given the right to chastise. The younger children, scourged both by Dr Arnold and by the elder children, were given every opportunity of acquiring the simplicity, sobriety, and humbleness of mind, which are the best ornaments of youth.
In the actual sphere of teaching, Dr. Arnold’s reforms were tentative and few. He introduced modern history, modern languages, and mathematics into the school curriculum; but the results were not encouraging. He devoted to the teaching of history one hour a week; yet, though he took care to inculcate in these lessons a wholesome hatred of moral evil, and to point out from time to time the indications of the providential government of the world, his pupils never seemed to make much progress in the subject. Could it have been that the time allotted to it was insufficient? Dr. Arnold had some suspicions that this might be the case. With modern languages there was the same difficulty. Here his hopes were certainly not excessive. ‘I assume it,’ he wrote, ‘as the foundation of all my view of the case, that boys at a public school never will learn to speak or pronounce French well, under any circumstances.’ It would be enough if they could ‘learn it grammatically as a dead language. But even this they very seldom managed to do. I know too well,’ he was obliged to confess, ‘that most of the boys would pass a very poor examination even in French grammar. But so it is with their mathematics; and so it will be with any branch of knowledge that is taught but seldom, and is felt to be quite subordinate to the boys’ main study’.
The boys’ main study remained the dead languages of Greece and Rome. That the classics should form the basis of all teaching was an axiom with Dr. Arnold. ‘The study of language,’ he said, ‘seems to me as if it was given for the very purpose of forming the human mind in youth; and the Greek and Latin languages seem the very instruments by which this is to be effected.’ Certainly, there was something providential about it — from the point of view of the teacher as well as of the taught. If Greek and Latin had not been ‘given’ in that convenient manner, Dr. Arnold, who had spent his life in acquiring those languages, might have discovered that he had acquired them in vain. As it was, he could set the noses of his pupils to the grindstone of syntax and prosody with a clear conscience. Latin verses and Greek prepositions divided between them the labours of the week.
As time went on he became, he declared, ‘increasingly convinced that it is not knowledge, but the means of gaining knowledge which I have to teach’. The reading of the school was devoted almost entirely to selected passages from the prose writers of antiquity. ‘Boys,’ he remarked, ‘do not like poetry.’ Perhaps his own poetical taste was a little dubious; at any rate, it is certain that he considered the Greek Tragedians greatly overrated, and that he ranked Propertius as ‘an indifferent poet’. As for Aristophanes, owing to his strong moral disapprobation, he could not bring himself to read him until he was forty, when, it is true, he was much struck by the ‘Clouds’. But Juvenal, the Doctor could never bring himself to read at all.
Physical science was not taught at Rugby. Since, in Dr. Arnold’s opinion, it was too great a subject to be studied en par ergo, obviously only two alternatives were possible: it must either take the chief place in the school curriculum, or it must be left out altogether. Before such a choice, Dr. Arnold did not hesitate for a moment. ‘Rather than have physical science the principal thing in my son’s mind,’ he exclaimed in a letter to a friend, I would gladly have him think that the sun went around the earth, and that the stars were so many spangles set in the bright blue firmament. Surely the one thing needful for a Christian and an English man to study is Christian, moral, and political philosophy.’
A Christian and an Englishman! After all, it was not in the classroom, nor in the boarding-house, that the essential elements of instruction could be imparted which should qualify the youthful neophyte to deserve those names. The final, the fundamental lesson could only be taught in the school chapel; in the school chapel the centre of Dr. Arnold’s system of education was inevitably fixed. There, too, the Doctor himself appeared in the plenitude of his dignity and his enthusiasm. There, with the morning sun shining on the freshly scrubbed faces of his 300 pupils, or, in the dusk of evening, through a glimmer of candles, his stately form, rapt in devotion or vibrant with exhortation, would dominate the scene. Every phase of the Church service seemed to receive its supreme expression in his voice, his attitude, his look. During the Te Deum, his whole countenance would light up; and he read the Psalms with such conviction that boys would often declare, after hearing him, that they understood them now for the first time.
It was his opinion that the creeds in public worship ought to be used as triumphant hymns of thanksgiving, and, in accordance with this view, although unfortunately he possessed no natural gift for music, he regularly joined in the chanting of the Nicene Creed with a visible animation and a peculiar fervour, which it was impossible to forget. The Communion service he regarded as a direct and special counterpoise to that false communion and false companionship, which, as he often observed, was a great source of mischief in the school; and he bent himself down with glistening eyes, and trembling voice, and looks of paternal solicitude, in the administration of the elements. Nor was it only the different sections of the liturgy, but the very divisions of the ecclesiastical year that reflected themselves in his demeanour; the most careless observer, we are told, ‘could not fail to be struck by the triumphant exultation of his whole manner on Easter Sunday’; though it needed a more familiar eye to discern the subtleties in his bearing which were produced by the approach or Advent, and the solemn thoughts which it awakened of the advance of human life, the progress of the human race, and the condition of the Church of England.
At the end of the evening service, the culminating moment of the week had come: the Doctor delivered his sermon. It was not until then, as all who had known him agreed, it was not until one had heard and seen him in the pulpit, that one could fully realise what it was to be face to face with Dr. Arnold. The whole character of the man — so we are assured — stood at last revealed. His congregation sat in fixed attention (with the exception of the younger boys, whose thoughts occasionally wandered), while he propounded the general principles both of his own conduct and that of the Almighty, or indicated the bearing of the incidents of Jewish history in the sixth century B.C. upon the conduct of English schoolboys in 1830. Then, more than ever, his deep consciousness of the invisible world became evident; then, more than ever, he seemed to be battling with the wicked one. For his sermons ran on the eternal themes of the darkness of evil, the craft of the tempter, the punishment of obliquity, and he justified the persistence with which he dwelt upon these painful subjects by an appeal to a general principle: ‘The spirit of Elijah,’ he said, ‘must ever precede the spirit of Christ.’
The impression produced upon the boys was remarkable. It was noticed that even the most careless would sometimes, during the course of the week, refer almost involuntarily to the sermon of the past Sunday, as a condemnation of what they were doing. Others were heard to wonder how it was that the Doctor’s preaching, to which they had attended at the time so assiduously, seemed, after all, to have such a small effect upon what they did. An old gentleman, recalling those vanished hours, tried to recapture in words his state of mind as he sat in the darkened chapel, while Dr. Arnold’s sermons, with their high-toned exhortations, their grave and sombre messages of incalculable import, clothed, like Dr. Arnold’s body in its gown and bands, in the traditional stiffness of a formal phraseology, reverberated through his adolescent ears. ‘I used,’ he said, ‘to listen to those sermons from first to last with a kind of awe.’
His success was not limited to his pupils and immediate auditors. The sermons were collected into five large volumes; they were the first of their kind; and they were received with admiration by a wide circle of pious readers. Queen Victoria herself possessed a copy in which several passages were marked in pencil, by the Royal hand.
Dr. Arnold’s energies were by no means exhausted by his duties at Rugby. He became known not merely as a headmaster, but as a public man. He held decided opinions upon a large number of topics; and he enunciated them — based as they were almost invariably upon general principles — in pamphlets, in prefaces, and in magazine articles, with an impressive self-confidence. He was, as he constantly declared, a Liberal. In his opinion, by the very constitution of human nature, the principles of progress and reform had been those of wisdom and justice in every age of the world — except one: that which had preceded the fall of man from Paradise. Had he lived then, Dr. Arnold would have been a Conservative. As it was, his Liberalism was tempered by an ‘abhorrence of the spirit of 1789, of the American War, of the French Economistes, and of the English Whigs of the latter part of the seventeenth century’; and he always entertained a profound respect for the hereditary peerage. It might almost be said, in fact, that he was an orthodox Liberal. He believed in toleration too, within limits; that is to say, in the toleration of those with whom he agreed. ‘I would give James Mill as much opportunity for advocating his opinion,’ he said, ‘as is consistent with a voyage to Botany Bay.’
He had become convinced of the duty of sympathising with the lower orders ever since he had made a serious study of the Epistle of St. James; but he perceived clearly that the lower orders fell into two classes, and that it was necessary to distinguish between them. There were the ‘good poor’— and there were the others. ‘I am glad that you have made acquaintance with some of the good poor,’ he wrote to a Cambridge undergraduate. ‘I quite agree with you that it is most instructive to visit them.’ Dr. Arnold himself occasionally visited them, in Rugby; and the condescension with which he shook hands with old men and women of the working classes was long remembered in the neighbourhood. As for the others, he regarded them with horror and alarm. ‘The disorders in our social state,’ he wrote to the Chevalier Bunsen in 1834, ‘appear to me to continue unabated. You have heard, I doubt not, of the Trades Unions; a fearful engine of mischief, ready to riot or to assassinate; and I see no counteracting power.’
On the whole, his view of the condition of England was a gloomy one. He recommended a correspondent to read ‘Isaiah iii, v, xxii; Jeremiah v, xxii, xxx; Amos iv; and Habakkuk ii’, adding, ‘you will be struck, I think, with the close resemblance of our own state with that of the Jews before the second destruction of Jerusalem’. When he was told that the gift of tongues had descended on the Irvingites at Glasgow, he was not surprised. ‘I should take it,’ he said, ‘merely as a sign of the coming of the day of the Lord.’ And he was convinced that the day of the Lord was coming —‘the termination of one of the great aiones of the human race’. Of that he had no doubt whatever; wherever he looked he saw ‘calamities, wars, tumults, pestilences, earthquakes, etc., all marking the time of one of God’s peculiar seasons of visitation’. His only uncertainty was whether this termination of an aion would turn out to be the absolutely final one; but that he believed ‘no created being knows or can know’. In any case, he had ‘not the slightest expectation of what is commonly meant by the Millennium’. And his only consolation was that he preferred the present Ministry, inefficient as it was, to the Tories.
He had planned a great work on Church and State, in which he intended to lay bare the causes and to point out the remedies of the evils which afflicted society. Its theme was to be, not the alliance or union, but the absolute identity of the Church and the State; and he felt sure that if only this fundamental truth were fully realised by the public, a general reformation would follow. Unfortunately, however, as time went on, the public seemed to realise it less and less. In spite of his protests, not only were Jews admitted to Parliament, but a Jew was actually appointed a governor of Christ’s Hospital; and Scripture was not made an obligatory subject at the London University.
There was one point in his theory which was not quite plain to Dr. Arnold. If Church and State were absolutely identical, it became important to decide precisely which classes of persons were to be excluded, owing to their beliefs, from the community. Jews, for instance, were decidedly outside the pale; while Dissenters — so Dr. Arnold argued — were as decidedly within it. But what was the position of the Unitarians? Were they, or were they not, members of the Church of Christ? This was one of those puzzling questions which deepened the frown upon the Doctor’s forehead and intensified the pursing of his lips. He thought long and earnestly upon the subject; he wrote elaborate letters on it to various correspondents; but his conclusions remained indefinite. ‘My great objection to Unitarianism,’ he wrote, ‘in its present form in England, is that it makes Christ virtually dead.’ Yet he expressed ‘a fervent hope that if we could get rid of the Athanasian Creed many good Unitarians would join their fellow Christians in bowing the knee to Him who is Lord both of the dead and the living’. Amid these perplexities, it was disquieting to learn that ‘Unitarianism is becoming very prevalent in Boston’. He inquired anxiously as to its ‘complexion’ there; but received no very illuminating answer. The whole matter continued to be wrapped in a painful obscurity, There were, he believed, Unitarians and Unitarians; and he could say no more.
In the meantime, pending the completion of his great work, he occupied himself with putting forward various suggestions of a practical kind. He advocated the restoration of the Order of Deacons, which, he observed, had long been ‘quoad the reality, dead; for he believed that ‘some plan of this sort might be the small end of the wedge, by which Antichrist might hereafter be burst asunder like the Dragon of Bel’s temple’. But the Order of Deacons was never restored, and Dr. Arnold turned his attention elsewhere, urging in a weighty pamphlet the desirability of authorising military officers, in congregations where it was impossible to procure the presence of clergy, to administer the Eucharist, as well as Baptism. It was with the object of laying such views as these before the public —‘to tell them plainly’, as he said, ‘the evils that exist, and lead them, if I can, to their causes and remedies’— that he started, in 1831, a weekly newspaper, “The Englishman’s Register”. The paper was not a success, in spite of the fact that it set out to improve its readers morally and, that it preserved, in every article, an avowedly Christian tone. After a few weeks, and after he had spent upon it more than £200, it came to an end.
Altogether, the prospect was decidedly discouraging. After all his efforts, the absolute identity of Church and State remained as unrecognised as ever. ‘So deep’, he was at last obliged to confess, ‘is the distinction between the Church and the State seated in our laws, our language, and our very notions, that nothing less than a miraculous interposition of God’s Providence seems capable of eradicating it.’ Dr. Arnold waited in vain.
But, he did not wait in idleness. He attacked the same question from another side: he explored the writings of the Christian Fathers, and began to compose a commentary on the New Testament. In his view, the Scriptures were as fit a subject as any other book for free inquiry and the exercise of the individual judgment, and it was in this spirit that he set about the interpretation of them. He was not afraid of facing apparent difficulties, of admitting inconsistencies, or even errors, in the sacred text. Thus he observed that ‘in Chronicles xi, 20 and xiii, 2, there is a decided difference in the parentage of Abijah’s mother;’— ‘which’, he added, ‘is curious on any supposition’. And at one time he had serious doubts as to the authorship of the Epistle to the Hebrews. But he was able, on various problematical points, to suggest interesting solutions.
At first, for instance, he could not but be startled by the cessation of miracles in the early Church; but upon consideration, he came to the conclusion that this phenomenon might be ‘truly accounted for by the supposition that none but the Apostles ever conferred miraculous powers, and that therefore they ceased of course, after one generation’. Nor did he fail to base his exegesis, whenever possible, upon an appeal to general principles. One of his admirers points out how Dr. Arnold ‘vindicated God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his son and to the Jews to exterminate the nations of Canaan’, by explaining the principles on which these commands were given, and their reference to the moral state of those to whom they were addressed — thereby educing light out of darkness, unravelling the thread of God’s religious education of the human race, and holding up God’s marvellous counsels to the devout wonder and meditation of the thoughtful believer’.
There was one of his friends, however, who did not share this admiration for the Doctor’s methods of Scriptural interpretation. W. G. Ward, while still a young man at Oxford, had come under his influence, and had been for some time one of his most enthusiastic disciples. But the star of Newman was rising at the University; Ward soon felt the attraction of that magnetic power; and his belief in his old teacher began to waver. It was, in particular, Dr. Arnold’s treatment of the Scriptures which filled Ward’s argumentative mind, at first with distrust, and at last with positive antagonism. To subject the Bible to free inquiry, to exercise upon it the criticism of the individual judgment — where might not such methods lead? Who could say that they would not end in Socinianism? — nay, in Atheism itself? If the text of Scripture was to be submitted to the searchings of human reason, how could the question of its inspiration escape the same tribunal? And the proofs of revelation, and even of the existence of God? What human faculty was capable of deciding upon such enormous questions? And would not the logical result be a condition of universal doubt?
‘On a very moderate computation, Ward argued, ‘five times the amount of a man’s natural life might qualify a person endowed with extraordinary genius to have some faint notion (though even this we doubt) on which side truth lies.’ It was not that he had the slightest doubt of Dr. Arnold’s orthodoxy — Dr. Arnold, whose piety was universally recognised — Dr. Arnold, who had held up to scorn and execration Strauss’s Leben Jesu without reading it. What Ward complained of was the Doctor’s lack of logic, not his lack of faith. Could he not see that if he really carried out his own principles to a logical conclusion he would eventually find himself, precisely, in the arms of Strauss? The young man, whose personal friendship remained unshaken, determined upon an interview, and went down to Rugby primed with first principles, syllogisms, and dilemmas. Finding that the headmaster was busy in school, he spent the afternoon reading novels on the sofa in the drawing-room. When at last, late in the evening, the Doctor returned, tired out with his day’s work, Ward fell upon him with all his vigour. The contest was long and furious; it was also entirely inconclusive. When it was over, Ward, with none of his brilliant arguments disposed of, and none of his probing questions satisfactorily answered, returned to the University to plunge headlong into the vortex of the Oxford Movement; and Dr. Arnold, worried, perplexed, and exhausted, went to bed, where he remained for the next thirty-six hours.
The Commentary on the New Testament was never finished, and the great work on Church and State itself remained a fragment. Dr. Arnold’s active mind was diverted from political and theological speculations to the study of philology, and to historical composition. His Roman History, which he regarded as ‘the chief monument of his historical fame’, was based partly upon the researches of Niebuhr, and partly upon an aversion to Gibbon. ‘My highest ambition,’ he wrote, ‘is to make my history the very reverse of Gibbon in this respect, that whereas the whole spirit of his work, from its low morality, is hostile to religion, without speaking directly against it, so my greatest desire would be, in my History, by its high morals and its general tone, to be of use to the cause without actually bringing it forward.’ These efforts were rewarded, in 1841, by the Professorship of Modern History at Oxford. Meanwhile, he was engaged in the study of the Sanskrit and Slavonic languages, bringing out an elaborate edition of Thucydides, and carrying on a voluminous correspondence upon a multitude of topics with a large circle of men of learning. At his death, his published works, composed during such intervals as he could spare from the management of a great public school, filled, besides a large number of pamphlets and articles, no less than seventeen volumes. It was no wonder that Carlyle, after a visit to Rugby, should have characterised Dr. Arnold as a man of ‘unhasting, unresting diligence’.
Mrs. Arnold, too, no doubt agreed with Carlyle. During the first eight years of their married life, she bore him six children; and four more were to follow. In this large and growing domestic circle his hours of relaxation were spent. There those who had only known him in his professional capacity were surprised to find him displaying the tenderness and jocosity of a parent. The dignified and stern headmaster was actually seen to dandle infants and to caracole upon the hearthrug on all fours. Yet, we are told, ‘the sense of his authority as a father was never lost in his playfulness as a companion’. On more serious occasions, the voice of the spiritual teacher sometimes made itself heard. An intimate friend described how ‘on a comparison having been made in his family circle, which seemed to place St. Paul above St. John,’ the tears rushed to the Doctor’s eyes and how, repeating one of the verses from St. John, he begged that the comparison might never again be made. The longer holidays were spent in Westmorland, where, rambling with his offspring among the mountains, gathering wild flowers, and pointing out the beauties of Nature, Dr. Arnold enjoyed, as he himself would often say, ‘an almost awful happiness’. Music he did not appreciate, though he occasionally desired his eldest boy, Matthew, to sing him the Confirmation Hymn of Dr. Hinds, to which he had become endeared, owing to its use in Rugby Chapel. But his lack of ear was, he considered, amply recompensed by his love of flowers: ‘they are my music,’ he declared. Yet, in such a matter, he was careful to refrain from an excess of feeling, such as, in his opinion, marked the famous lines of Wordsworth:
‘To me the meanest flower that blows can give Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.’
He found the sentiment morbid. ‘Life,’ he said, ‘is not long enough to take such intense interest in objects in themselves so little.’ As for the animal world, his feelings towards it were of a very different cast. ‘The whole subject,’ he said, ‘of the brute creation is to me one of such painful mystery, that I dare not approach it.’ The Unitarians themselves were a less distressing thought.
Once or twice he found time to visit the Continent, and the letters and journals recording in minute detail his reflections and impressions in France or Italy show us that Dr. Arnold preserved, in spite of the distractions of foreign scenes and foreign manners, his accustomed habits of mind. Taking very little interest in works of art, he was occasionally moved by the beauty of natural objects; but his principal preoccupation remained with the moral aspects of things. From this point of view, he found much to reprehend in the conduct of his own countrymen. ‘I fear,’ he wrote, ‘that our countrymen who live abroad are not in the best possible moral state, however much they may do in science or literature.’ And this was unfortunate, because ‘a thorough English gentleman — Christian, manly, and enlightened — is more, I believe, than Guizot or Sismondi could comprehend; it is a finer specimen of human nature than any other country, I believe, could furnish’. Nevertheless, our travellers would imitate foreign customs without discrimination, ‘as in the absurd habit of not eating fish with a knife, borrowed from the French, who do it because they have no knives fit for use’. Places, no less than people, aroused similar reflections. By Pompeii, Dr. Arnold was not particularly impressed. ‘There is only,’ he observed, ‘the same sort of interest with which one would see the ruins of Sodom and Gomorrah, but indeed there is less. One is not authorised to ascribe so solemn a character to the destruction of Pompeii.’ The lake of Como moved him more profoundly. As he gazed upon the overwhelming beauty around him, he thought of ‘moral evil’, and was appalled by the contrast. ‘May the sense of moral evil’, he prayed, ‘be as strong in me as my delight in external beauty, for in a deep sense of moral evil, more perhaps than in anything else, abides a saving knowledge of God!’
His prayer was answered: Dr. Arnold was never in any danger of losing his sense of moral evil. If the landscapes of Italy only served to remind him of it, how could he forget it among the boys at Rugby School? The daily sight of so many young creatures in the hands of the Evil One filled him with agitated grief. ‘When the spring and activity of youth,’ he wrote, ‘is altogether unsanctified by anything pure and elevated in its desires, it becomes a spectacle that is as dizzying and almost more morally distressing than the shouts and gambols of a set of lunatics.’ One thing struck him as particularly strange: ‘It is very startling,’ he said, ‘to see so much of sin combined with so little of sorrow.’ The naughtiest boys positively seemed to enjoy themselves most. There were moments when he almost lost faith in his whole system of education, when he began to doubt whether some far more radical reforms than any he had attempted might not be necessary, before the multitude of children under his charge — shouting and gambolling, and yet plunged all the while deep in moral evil — could ever be transformed into a set of Christian gentlemen. But then he remembered his general principles, the conduct of Jehovah with the Chosen People, and the childhood of the human race. No, it was for him to make himself, as one of his pupils afterwards described him, in the words of Bacon, ‘kin to God in spirit’; he would rule the school majestically from on high. He would deliver a series of sermons analysing ‘the six vices’ by which ‘great schools were corrupted, and changed from the likeness of God’s temple to that of a den of thieves’. He would exhort, he would denounce, he would sweep through the corridors, he would turn the pages of Facciolati’s Lexicon more imposingly than ever; and the rest he would leave to the Praepostors in the Sixth Form.
Upon the boys in the Sixth Form, indeed, a strange burden would seem to have fallen. Dr. Arnold himself was very well aware of this. ‘I cannot deny,’ he told them in a sermon, ‘that you have an anxious duty — a duty which some might suppose was too heavy for your years’; and every term he pointed out to them, in a short address, the responsibilities of their position, and impressed upon them ‘the enormous influence’ they possessed ‘for good or for evil’. Nevertheless most youths of seventeen, in spite of the warnings of their elders, have a singular trick of carrying moral burdens lightly. The Doctor might preach and look grave; but young Brooke was ready enough to preside at a fight behind the Chapel, though he was in the Sixth, and knew that fighting was against the rules. At their best, it may be supposed that the Praepostors administered a kind of barbaric justice; but they were not always at their best, and the pages of “Tom Brown’s Schooldays” show us what was no doubt the normal condition of affairs under Dr. Arnold, when the boys in the Sixth Form were weak or brutal, and the blackguard Flashman, in the intervals of swigging brandy-punch with his boon companions, amused himself by toasting fags before the fire.
But there was an exceptional kind of boy, upon whom the high-pitched exhortations of Dr. Arnold produced a very different effect. A minority of susceptible and serious youths fell completely under his sway, responded like wax to the pressure of his influence, and moulded their whole lives with passionate reverence upon the teaching of their adored master. Conspicuous among these was Arthur Clough. Having been sent to Rugby at the age of ten, he quickly entered into every phase of school life, though, we are told, ‘a weakness in his ankles prevented him from taking a prominent part in the games of the place’. At the age of sixteen, he was in the Sixth Form, and not merely a Praepostor, but head of the School House. Never did Dr. Arnold have an apter pupil. This earnest adolescent, with the weak ankles and the solemn face, lived entirely with the highest ends in view. He thought of nothing but moral good, moral evil, moral influence, and moral responsibility. Some of his early letters have been preserved, and they reveal both the intensity with which he felt the importance of his own position, and the strange stress of spirit under which he laboured. ‘I have been in one continued state of excitement for at least the last three years,’ he wrote when he was not yet seventeen, ‘and now comes the time of exhaustion.’ But he did not allow himself to rest, and a few months later he was writing to a schoolfellow as follows: ‘I verily believe my whole being is soaked through with the wishing and hoping and striving to do the school good, or rather to keep it up and hinder it from falling in this, I do think, very critical time, so that my cares and affections and conversations, thoughts, words, and deeds look to that in voluntarily. I am afraid you will be inclined to think this “cant” and I am conscious that even one’s truest feelings, if very frequently put out in the light, do make a bad and disagreeable appearance; but this, however, is true, and even if I am carrying it too far, I do not think it has made me really forgetful of my personal friends, such as, in particular, Gell and Burbidge and Walrond, and yourself, my dear Simpkinson.’
Perhaps it was not surprising that a young man brought up in such an atmosphere, should have fallen a prey at Oxford, to the frenzies of religious controversy; that he should have been driven almost out of his wits by the ratiocinations of W. G. Ward; that he should have lost his faith; that he should have spent the rest of his existence lamenting that loss, both in prose and verse; and that he should have eventually succumbed, conscientiously doing up brown paper parcels for Florence Nightingale.
In the earlier years of his headmastership Dr. Arnold had to face a good deal of opposition. His advanced religious views were disliked, and there were many parents to whom his system of school government did not commend itself. But in time this hostility melted away. Succeeding generations of favourite pupils began to spread his fame through the Universities. At Oxford especially, men were profoundly impressed by the pious aims of the boys from Rugby. It was a new thing to see undergraduates going to Chapel more often than they were obliged, and visiting the good poor. Their reverent admiration for Dr. Arnold was no less remarkable. Whenever two of his old pupils met, they joined in his praises; and the sight of his picture had been known to call forth, from one who had not even reached the Sixth, exclamations of rapture lasting for ten minutes and filling with astonishment the young men from other schools who happened to be present.
He became a celebrity; he became at last a great man. Rugby prospered; its numbers rose higher than ever before; and, after thirteen years as headmaster, Dr. Arnold began to feel that his work there was accomplished, and that he might look forward either to other labours or, perhaps, to a dignified retirement. But it was not to be.
His father had died suddenly at the age of fifty-three from angina pectoris; and he himself was haunted by forebodings of an early death. To be snatched away without a warning, to come in a moment from the seductions of this World to the presence of Eternity — his most ordinary actions, the most casual remarks, served to keep him in remembrance of that dreadful possibility. When one of his little boys clapped his hands at the thought of the approaching holidays, the Doctor gently checked him, and repeated the story of his own early childhood; how his own father had made him read aloud a sermon on the text ‘Boast not thyself of tomorrow”; and how, within the week, his father was dead. On the title page of his MS. volume of sermons, he was always careful to write the date of its commencement, leaving a blank for that of its completion. One of his children asked him the meaning of this. ‘It is one of the most solemn things I do,’ he replied, ‘to write the beginning of that sentence, and think that I may perhaps not live to finish it.’
It was noticed that in the spring of 1842 such thoughts seemed to be even more frequently in his mind than usual. He was only in his forty-seventh year, but he dwelt darkly on the fragility of human existence. Towards the end of May, he began to keep a diary — a private memorandum of his intimate communings with the Almighty. Here, evening after evening, in the traditional language of religious devotion, he humbled himself before God, prayed for strength and purity, and threw himself upon the mercy of the Most High. ‘Another day and another month succeed’, he wrote on May 31st. ‘May God keep my mind and heart fixed on Him, and cleanse me from all sin. I would wish to keep a watch over my tongue, as to vehement speaking and censuring of others . . . I would desire to remember my latter end to which I am approaching . . . May God keep me in the hour of death, through Jesus Christ; and preserve me from every fear, as well as from presumption.’ On June 2nd he wrote, ‘Again the day is over and I am going to rest. Oh Lord, preserve me this night, and strengthen me to bear whatever Thou shalt see fit to lay on me, whether pain, sickness, danger, or distress.’ On Sunday, June 5th, the reading of the newspaper aroused ‘painful and solemn’ reflections . . . ‘So much of sin and so much of suffering in the world, as are there displayed, and no one seems able to remedy either. And then the thought of my own private life, so full of comforts, is very startling.’ He was puzzled; but he concluded with a prayer: ‘May I be kept humble and zealous, and may God give me grace to labour in my generation for the good of my brethren and for His Glory!’
The end of the term was approaching, and to all appearance the Doctor was in excellent spirits. On June 11th, after a hard day’s work, he spent the evening with a friend in the discussion of various topics upon which he often touched in his conversation the comparison of the art of medicine in barbarous and civilised ages, the philological importance of provincial vocabularies, and the threatening prospect of the moral condition of the United States. Left alone, he turned to his diary. ‘The day after tomorrow,’ he wrote, ‘is my birthday, if I am permitted to live to see it — my forty-seventh birthday since my birth. How large a portion of my life on earth is already passed! And then — what is to follow this life? How visibly my outward work seems contracting and softening away into the gentler employments of old age. In one sense how nearly can I now say, “Vivi”. And I thank God that, as far as ambition is concerned, it is, I trust, fully mortified; I have no desire other than to step back from my present place in the world, and not to rise to a higher. Still there are works which, with God’s permission, I would do before the night cometh.’ Dr. Arnold was thinking of his great work on Church and State.
Early next morning he awoke with a sharp pain in his chest. The pain increasing, a physician was sent for; and in the meantime Mrs. Arnold read aloud to her husband the Fifty-first Psalm. Upon one of their boys coming into the room, ‘My son, thank God for me,’ said Dr. Arnold; and as the boy did not at once catch his meaning, he added, ‘Thank God, Tom, for giving me this pain; I have suffered so little pain in my life that I feel it is very good for me. Now God has given it to me, and I do so thank Him for it.’ Then Mrs. Arnold read from the Prayer-book the ‘Visitation of the Sick’, her husband listening with deep attention, and assenting with an emphatic ‘Yes’ at the end of many of the sentences. When the physician arrived, he perceived at once the gravity of the case: it was an attack of angina pectoris. He began to prepare some laudanum, while Mrs. Arnold went out to fetch the children. All at once, as the medical man was bending over his glasses, there was a rattle from the bed; a convulsive struggle followed; and, when the unhappy woman, with the children, and all the servants, rushed into the room, Dr. Arnold had passed from his perplexities forever.
There can be little doubt that what he had achieved justified the prediction of the Provost of Oriel that he would ‘change the face of education all through the public schools of England’. It is true that, so far as the actual machinery of education was concerned, Dr. Arnold not only failed to effect a change, but deliberately adhered to the old system. The monastic and literary conceptions of education, which had their roots in the Middle Ages, and had been accepted and strengthened at the revival of Learning, he adopted almost without hesitation. Under him, the public school remained, in essentials, a conventional establishment, devoted to the teaching of Greek and Latin grammar. Had he set on foot reforms in these directions, it seems probable that he might have succeeded in carrying the parents of England with him. The moment was ripe; there was a general desire for educational changes; and Dr. Arnold’s great reputation could hardly have been resisted. As it was, he threw the whole weight of his influence into the opposite scale, and the ancient system became more firmly established than ever.
The changes which he did effect were of a very different nature. By introducing morals and religion into his scheme of education, he altered the whole atmosphere of public-school life. Henceforward the old rough-and-tumble, which was typified by the regime of Keate at Eton, became impossible. After Dr. Arnold, no public school could venture to ignore the virtues of respectability. Again, by his introduction of the prefectorial system, Dr. Arnold produced far-reaching effects — effects which he himself, perhaps, would have found perplexing. In his day, when the school hours were over, the boys were free to enjoy themselves as they liked; to bathe, to fish, to ramble for long afternoons in the country, collecting eggs or gathering flowers. ‘The taste of the boys at this period,’ writes an old Rugbaean who had been under Arnold, ‘leaned strongly towards flowers’. The words have an odd look today. ‘The modern reader of “Tom Brown’s Schooldays” searches in vain for any reference to compulsory games, house colours, or cricket averages. In those days, when boys played games they played them for pleasure; but in those days the prefectorial system — the system which hands over the life of a school to an oligarchy of a dozen youths of seventeen — was still in its infancy, and had not yet borne its fruit.
Teachers and prophets have strange after-histories; and that of Dr. Arnold has been no exception. The earnest enthusiast who strove to make his pupils Christian gentlemen and who governed his school according to the principles of the Old Testament, has proved to be the founder of the worship of athletics and the worship of good form. Upon those two poles our public schools have turned for so long that we have almost come to believe that such is their essential nature, and that an English public schoolboy who wears the wrong clothes and takes no interest in football, is a contradiction in terms. Yet it was not so before Dr. Arnold; will it always be so after him? We shall see.
Dean Stanley. Life and Correspondence of Dr Arnold.
Thomas Hughes. Tom Brown’s Schooldays.
Sir H. Maxwell–Lyte. History of Eton College.
Wilfrid Ward. W. G. Ward and the Oxford Movement.
H. Clough. Letters. An Old Rugbaean. Recollections of Rugby.
Thomas Arnold. Passages in a Wandering Life.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00