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Matthew Arnold and the Modern Apocalypse

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 October 2020

James Longenbach*
University of RochesterRochester, New York


Most readers have rejected conceptions of modern literature that depend on ideas of apocalypse and historical crisis, especially as writers like Pater and Stevens have replaced Arnold and Eliot at the center of the modernist canon. For some of these readers, however, Arnold and Eliot are rejected precisely because their work appears to be bolstered by untenable ideas of historical crisis. While this essay argues that modernist literature sometimes promotes such ideas, it also argues that the very same literature provides the terms for undermining those ideas. Surveying a range of post-Romantic texts and then focusing on Arnold's “Empedocles on Etna,” the essay proposes that the tradition of modern apocalypse contains its own critique, complicating a dualistic sense of the canon (split between Arnold and Pater or Eliot and Stevens). This internalized critique is so stringent that it exposes a blindness in some postmodern assessments of apocalypse.

Research Article
PMLA , Volume 104 , Issue 5 , October 1989 , pp. 844 - 855
Copyright © Modern Language Association of America, 1989

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