Tag Archives: history

The American Contagion: Matthew Arnold and the Milton Window

For the past week I have been reading and re-reading Matthew Arnold’s final public address, “Milton” (1888). That following April the critic died of heart disease–an attack ensued upon leaping over a small fence to visit an American grandchild (Trilling 27). Hardly mentioning Milton, and doing so without much elaboration, the address was delivered to dedicate a newly installed window in St. Margaret’s Church, Westminster. The window, which I will likely never see, includes representations of the poet as a child, the poet visiting Galileo, and Milton (in his blindness) dictating to his daughter. The window was installed as a gift (solicited by Archdeacon Farrar of Westminster) from George William Childs, a wealthy, childless, co-owner of the Philadelphia Ledger.

Although stuck on the essay, I’ve never cared much for Matthew Arnold. Perhaps I have been uncharitable. Without Arnold’s notions of “Literature” as a subject of study (as a power to strengthen the moral character of its students, to make them better citizens, shining devotees of a secular ideal, a high mindedness; and proponents of the “grand style”) would we have English departments at our universities? Would I have had the professors and the books I have admired? Nonetheless, Arnold was a snob–and worse, a sort of upper-middle class elitist. In his dedication of the Milton window he boasts of his nationalism and croons over the British empire; this, despite the fact that he opens with a warning against the spread of a so-called “Anglo-Saxon contagion”–a malady which threatens to “overpower all nations”.

What was this “contagion”? Not the empire and not the bourgeoisie, but rather a popular aesthetic, a populist fervor for the “common”. As Arnold saw it, folks were too quick to identify and declare genius when in fact they were merely witnessing a small accomplishment. Perhaps the book, poem, painting, symphony, play, or stained-glass window in question demonstrated some mastery, some craft, but was it truly “excellent”? Did it exemplify the “grand style” at the heart of Arnold’s vision of a literate, empathetic, morally educated culture?

The “contagion”, in other words, was a kind of aesthetic grade inflation. Grade inflation might take hold anywhere, but clearly, Arnold saw the States as the principle vector for the spread of this virus. Ultimately, the “Anglo-Saxon contagion” was an American disease–one that would best be cured with some highbrow English culture. The cure could be found among those who could better taste and proclaim Milton’s style (the “grand style”) in Paradise Lost without giving two hoots for the religious and political message of the poem.

Arnold, therefore, distances himself from Milton’s admirers. Partly, as Boocker demonstrates, Arnold cultivates this distance to avoid Milton’s Puritanism and (lingering 150 years after the Restoration) Cromwellian associations. Boocker observes that a “fissure” followed, one in which readers had one opinion of the poet and another of the man. I suspect that many readers preserve this divide today. It seems to me, at the very least, one must have some notion of sin and grace as personal realities if one hopes to experience the poem as anything more than a clever rendition of an antiquated mythology. Appreciative readers who rejecting Milton’s basic religious foundations must adopt the fissure or else endorse, whole hog, the Blakean notion that the devil is the true hero of the poem.

Boocker is right, Arnold needed the fissure to buffer himself from the low-church Milton of the Interregnum. But the divide also insulates Arnold from another irritant, Milton’s American readers. These readers included the wealthy George Childs, perhaps, but also the leading American poets of Arnold’s day. One of these, John Greenleaf Whittier, wrote a few lines of verse which were (and are?) displayed with the window:

The new world honors him whose lofty plea
For England’s freedom made her own more sure,
Whose song, immortal as its theme, shall be
Their common freehold while both worlds endure.

Thus, Whittier (unwittingly, perhaps) asks all who admire the window in St. Margaret’s to endorse his vision of Milton as a proponent not only of 17th century English “liberty”, but of American independence. Whittier’s verse goes so far as to suggest that all that is free in Arnold’s country is Milton’s freedom and by association, America’s freedom … the “common freehold” of the two countries. Facing such propaganda, though fed on the spoon of American philanthropic generosity, I can understand how Arnold would chafe and even swell with pride for his elitist empire. I don’t envy Arnold’s task at this dedication, but how odd that Milton is at once the occasion for the spread of the American contagion and the antidote against it. Ultimately, Arnold’s devotion to a “grand style”, an aesthetic standard that floats beyond the reach of religious sectarianism and political agendas, failed when he (echoing and sparring with Whittier) concluded:

Milton … and his hearers on both sides of the Atlantic, are English, and will remain English …. The English race overspreads the world, and at the same time the ideal of an excellence the most high and the most rare abides a possession with it for ever.


Arnold, Matthew. 1892. Essays in criticism: second series. Leipzig: Bernhard Tauchnitz. Google Books.

Arnold, Matthew, and Lionel Trilling. 1949. The portable Matthew Arnold. New York: Viking Press. Internet Archive.

Boocker, David. 1994. A fissure in the Milton window? Arnold’s 1888 address. In Spokesperson Milton: voices in contemporary criticism, ed. C. W. Durham and K. P. McColgan, 126-137. Susquehanna UP. Google Books.

Whittier, John Greenleaf. “Milton”. The Works of Whittier, Volume IV (of VII). Personal Poems. Project Gutenberg.

Folly and Place: Madison, Indiana

We recently returned from a semi-annual camping trip in southern Indiana. After the fourth stay at Clifty Falls State Park, the Madison, Indiana area has begun to shape itself in my memory, but vaguely. New vocabulary words need frequent repeating (more than 10 times) before the student owns and uses them with confidence. New languages appear, at one level of mastery, in the speaker’s dreams. Places, in my experience, require either longer or deeper practice. I have dreamed, in my current recollection, of only four loosely defined places: two from my childhood in Kentucky, one in northern Indiana (the first decade of my adult life), and a single street in Montreal. With the exception of Montreal, which can claim only a few weeks, these places mark seasons and years of eating, sleeping, and traveling across a local landscape. (These five years in Indianapolis will wake up someday, perhaps.) Long before they appear in dreams, places need associations. If these are not forged by the force of events, they are built on repeated exposures.

Madison, Indiana, however, might be an exception. Some places (or rather, the communities that occupy them) cultivate shared and public identities–a kind of personality, narrative, or brand, at once explaining and claiming a cause for existence. Madison has spent a hundred years or more preserving its downtown as an antique. In doing so, it displays a proud, but also sad, and even a bit desperate, character. Of course, I do not know anyone that lives there, and I reflect here upon only the most shallow encounters, but nonetheless, Madison has chosen to preserve a memory of its days as booming city on the Ohio. During the first half of the 19th century, it was the largest city in Indiana–“1,752 souls” in 1830. I’m not sure why it did not become a Louisville or a Cincinnati, but when the railroads and the highways crisscrossed through the city of Indianapolis, the distant Madison was marginalized. Through Indianapolis, central Indiana agriculture and industry had quick and convenient means to trade with larger markets. Indianapolis won much that Madison lost.

Now Madison has adorned itself with historical markers. A century and a half after its golden days, the city prides itself in having avoided becoming a metropolis. As writers of the excellent, digital library project, “River to Rails“, note:

[Madison] maintained her pride in just maintaining. As a result, perhaps no other city in the country can boast of so many homes and businesses on the National Historical Register. … In the long run, who can say if Madison might not have followed the best path after all.

Pride preserved or not, signs of Madison’s (old and relatively recent) desperation are not hard to find. The massive towers of the Indiana Kentucky Electric Corporation (IKEC) power plant loom over the city and are visible or audible from every point in the state park. IKEC is the county’s largest tax payer and employs hundreds, but (built in 1952) it is a visible departure from Madison’s efforts to preserve its heritage. The bridge (first built in 1929) over the Ohio to the tiny town of Milton, Kentucky must have been a similar effort to improve Madison’s economic competitiveness. The impact of the bridge was probably minimal (it merely replaced the ferry business to a very rural county), but the bridge will be rebuilt in the next couple of years. An even older and less successful effort can be found in Clifty Falls State Park. There many of the hiking trails were built on the remnant of Brough’s Folly, a failed attempt to improve Madison’s early access to railroads. In the 1850s John Brough, president of the Madison & Indianapolis Railroad and future governor of Ohio, began constructing a winding and less steep track out of the river valley. The track would have made rail traffic to and from Madison easier. The existing route, the Madison Incline (also known as “the cut”), was far too steep. The project ran out of funds and was never completed. Had it been completed, it would have slowed Madison’s economic losses.

Madison Incline

Madison Incline

I’m happy to hike where the railroad construction did not succeed, but I’m sure many families suffered when Madison lost future jobs. Undoubtedly, people moved away from the land that they knew in their dreams, away from the people and neighbors with whom they shared deep, domestic responsibilities. The empty tunnel, the abandoned trestles, and the ceaseless hum of the power plant at Clifty Falls have reignited my interest in questionable moral value of loyalty to place. In recent years I have moved away from my places, physically and intellectually. I have declared my home (broadly speaking) in the world without declaring allegiances to specific locations–cities, states, and even countries. Visiting Madison, Indiana (a place bearing the scars of its self-preservation) and living in the city it could not become (Indianapolis) is a reminder that such decisions are not so clean.

Beavers for Indiana

Every River where the current was moderate and sufficiently deep, the banks at the water edge were occupied by their houses. To every small Lake, and all the Ponds they builded Dams, and enlarged and deepened them to the height of the dams. Even to the grounds occasionally overflowed, by heavy rains, they also made dams, and made them permanent Ponds, and as they heightened the dams [they] increased the extent and added to the depth of the water; Thus all the low lands were in possession of the Beaver, and all the hollows of the higher grounds. Small Streams were damned across and Ponds formed; the dry land with the dominions of Man contracted, every where he was hemmed in by water without the power of preventing it: he could not diminish the numbers half so fast as they multiplied, and their houses were proof against his pointed stake, and his arrows could seldom pierce their skins.

— David Thompson and Richard Glover. David Thompson’s Narrative, 1784-1812. Toronto: Champlain Society, 1962. p. 198-199 | http://www.archive.org/details/davidthompsonsna00thom

Indiana needs more beavers. In an earlier time (the 1600s), I suspect the Indianapolis area had plenty of beavers. The terrain and the many tributaries to the White River are well-suited to beaver life. Like most states, however, beavers were extirpated from Indiana in the mid-nineteenth century to feed the market for fur and perfume. According to the Indiana DNR, a breeding pair was released in the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area in 1935.

A few, potential descendants of this beaver pair from Wisconsin now live in the EcoLab, a 55-acre wetland on the Marian University campus. E. and I were there, recently, for a cloudy, wet walk. It was a good day to be outside; my, now cancer-prone, skin appreciated the cloud cover and I appreciated the mostly empty trails. In addition to the ruins of Jens Jensen’s landscape design, the beaver lodges are probably the most popular feature of the Lab. I was pleased to discover that a sign explaining beaver lodges failed to follow a colony to its latest location, but instead pointed to a shrinking mound in a dry pond. The lodge was sprouting a fair sized shrub, so it has been vacant for at least a couple of years. Occupied lodges are visible elsewhere in the Lab, but not near the signage.

Arriving in the late morning, we did not, however, see any beavers. In fact, I have seen only one non-captive beaver in my lifetime. Last fall I was fishing roughly a mile north of the the Crooked Creek tributary. At day break I was knee deep in the water and casting in the mist. I saw the beaver for at least 30 seconds before it saw me. Swimming my direction (it seemed huge), it paused gave me a quick look and dove with a very loud slap of its broad tail. If any other beavers were within a quarter mile, they were fairly warned. I have spent a lot of time fishing on the river’s east bank, but I have yet to spot a lodge in the area, so I’ll guess that this beaver a) was house hunting, or b) has a lodge somewhere on the west bank.

With a life mostly “lived” outside and preferably running on trails or fishing in silence, I have spotted my first beaver after moving to the nation’s fourteenth largest city. Why are they here? And now? Perhaps the urban beaver benefits from access to public land. Farmers and suburbanites may be less beaver-friendly. Perhaps, while municipalities pause to deliberate, the animals keep munching, dam building, and girdling trees. In other words, while people argue, urban beavers are allowed to fell fresh planted saplings … at least, until someone wraps them in four feet of heavy chicken wire.

Now that I have seen one beaver, a few lodges, a couple of dams, and plenty of bank-side tree damage, I want to see beavers everywhere. There’s a heap of bark chips in the elementary school parking lot … beaver lodge. There’s a flooded alley behind the Walgreens … beaver pond. The neighbor’s midsized basswood is dying … again, in another time, it would have been the work of a beaver.

In 1955 Indiana counted 1,695 beavers, in 1998 Ohio counted 25,000, in 2008 Wisconsin counted 68,800. How many beavers are in Indiana? I’m guessing, probably more than 20,000, but less than 60,000.  In other words, not enough. When all the beavers return, Indiana’s portion of the estimated 100-400 million beavers in this country prior to the arrival of the fur trade, they will be a nuisance. Restoration will look like destruction. We will do battle and if we call a truce, life will be different. Then, if I’m a beaver’s neighbor, I’ll be a nuisance too.