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Arnold caught the public mood with this high-minded but entertaining critique of Victorian society, posing questions about the art of civilised living that still perplex us today

In 1848, a year of European revolutions, Matthew Arnold, the eldest son of a celebrated Victorian headmaster, voiced fears about his society that still seem hauntingly prescient and topical. “I see a wave of more than American vulgarity, moral, intellectual, and social, preparing to break over us,” he wrote. Arnold was also a poet, critic and educationist of great distinction. In Dover Beach, his finest poem, he expressed similar anxieties in some famous lines:

“And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.”

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The 100 best nonfiction books: No 59 – Culture and Anarchy by Matthew Arnold (1869) © Guardian News & Media Ltd

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