Education of the inner self: Dickens, Mill, Arnold, Newman

The Nineteenth Century was as “distracted from distraction by distraction“as we all are in the early years of the Twenty First Century. The messages sent to us by the “poets” of the inner-self in Victorian England (Dickens, Arnold, Newman … and others) are as relevant to us now as they were then. Matthew Arnold had his “Scholar Gypsy” escape form a world where everything was regulated by a system of preferal: prefer me! no me! no me! I am the best! Arnold’s scholar fed up with all this turns his attention to deeper, more rewarding matters that enable him to connect his soul with eternal values that defy the passing of time.



Shakespeare’s message is along similar lines in Sonnets 30 and 146 taken together. If you let the “sessions of sweet silent thought” be overrun by “remembrance of things past” you are in for a downward spiraling depression which will lead you far away from what you truly need. It is in Sonnet 146 that he takes control of this loss of energy with the wonderful lines: “Then, soul, live thou upon thy servant’s loss, /And let that pine to aggravate thy store”. By which he means that if we allow our soul to grow by giving up all the distracting demands of the body (letting the body pine), then the store of our soul will gain in strength and power (aggravate- from the Latin to “add weight”).

John Stuart Mill, in his Autobiography, laments the hard facts education that he received as a child and discovers, almost by accident, the wonderful refreshment and opening of the heart and soul that Wordsworth’s poetry provided him with.



Dickens, in and through Sissy Jupe, has a similar message. Because Sissy’s mind has not been cluttered by the educational philosophy of accumulating more and more knowledge, she is relatively free inside. She has a heart. She can see what is good and what is not good. She can protect Louisa Gradgrind from the bad heart of James Hearthouse.  She can bring feeling and inner life to the Gradgrind family which up until this point has been regulated by mechanics! So in some ways Sissy Jupe stands head and shoulders above all the men in her world!


John Henry Cardinal Newman wrote The Idea of a University when he was part of group setting up a new University. He was concerned to ensure that the purpose of education at this University would not be totally swamped by the Utilitarianism of his day. Newman had a strong sense that true education was for the inner man or woman. It had to do not with the outer demands of life, but with the strength of the soul.


So all these authors – while quite different in their language- were on the same wave-length, they all spoke of the importance of the inner life, and they were deeply aware of those aspects of civilization that were threatening this important part of being human.

Blog Topics for Week 7 (Nineteenth Century Lit):

1/ In what ways do you think the messages of any one of these authors is still relevant today.

2/ Compose a poem that describes the life of someone living in the 21st Century that contains the lines “distracted for distraction by distraction”.

3/ Write a brief dialogue between any two of the authors mentioned above. Their topic is: the problems besetting individuals in our times.

4/ Write a letter to any of the above mentioned authors expressing to them your sense of the importance of their message.

5/ Create your own topic. Build into it some reflections on the kind of education you received as a child.



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