Born at Laleham on Christmas Eve. He is the son of Dr. Thomas Arnold, the revered headmaster of Rugby; and he earns early recognition for his poetry as a student at that school.
Studies at Balliol College, Oxford University under a classical scholarship. Instead of applying himself to any one subject, he reads widely. He also reads a great deal of Roman and Greek literature. He becomes a close friend of Arthur Hugh Clough.
Completes his undergraduate degree and returns to Rugby as a teacher of classics.
Travels to the continent. Meets and falls in love with an unnamed French woman. Meets George Sand and Frederic Chopin.
Publishes his first volume of poetry, The Strayed Reveller and Other Poems.
With the help of Lord Lansdowne, Arnold is given the post of Inspector of Schools. His position as Inspector causes some problems because of the tremendous traveling that was required, but he holds the position until 1883.
Marries Frances Wightman.
Empedocles on Etna and Other Poems appears.
Poems is published. The Preface really begins his career as a critic.
Turns to writing essays rather than poetry.
Elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford.
Publishes Essays in Criticism. The first two essays are "The Function of Criticism at the Present Time" and "The Literary Influence of Academies." The Essays are bound together by a scheme of social rather than of purely literary criticism, as is apparent from the Preface, written in a vein of delicious irony and culminating unexpectedly in the well-known poetically phrased tribute to Oxford.
Publishes Culture and Anarchy. He is inspired by a fervent zeal for bringing culture and criticism to the British middle class. He launches, through sheer repetition, most of the catchwords associated with his name, such as "Sweetness and Light," (borrowed from Swift), and the term "Philistine," (borrowed from the Germans through Carlyle).
Given a pension by the government, he retires and begins a lecture tour of the U.S. The three lectures on "Numbers," "Literature and Science," and "Emerson," which he delivered to American audiences in 1883-84, are published as Discourses in America and the book, he told George Russell (later his biographer and editor of his Letters) by which, of all his prose writings, he should most wish to be remembered.
Dies of a heart attack while running to catch a tram in Liverpool.
Culture, the acquainting ourselves with the best that has been known and said in the world, and thus with the history of the human spirit.