Sir Edwin Arnold (1832-1904). Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Sir Edwin Arnold (June 10, 1832 - March 24, 1904) was an English poet and journalist, best remembered for his epic poem about Guatama Buddha, The Light of Asia.[1]

Life Edit


Arnold, son of a Sussex magistrate, was born at Gravesend, and educated at King's School, Rochester, London, and Oxford. Thereafter he was an assistant master at King Edward's School, Birmingham, and was in 1856 appointed Principal of the Government Deccan College, Poona.[2] Here he received the bias towards, and gathered material for, his future works. In 1861 he returned to England and became connected with The Daily Telegraph, of which he was ultimately editor. The literary task which he set before him was the interpretation in English verse of the life and philosophy of the East. His chief work with this object is The Light of Asia (1879), a poem on the life and teaching of Buddha, which had great popularity, but whose permanent place in literature must remain very uncertain. In The Light of the World (1891), he attempted, less successfully, a similar treatment of the life and teaching of Jesus. Other works are The Song of Songs of India (1875), With Saadi in the Garden, and The Tenth Muse. He travelled widely in the East, and wrote books on his travels. He was made K.C.I.E. in 1888.[3]


Arnold was born at Gravesend on 10 June 1832, the 2nd son of Robert Coles Arnold of Whartons, Framfield, and elder brother of Sir Arthur Arnold.[4]

Educated at King's School, Rochester, and at King's College, London, where he was a friendly rival of F.W. (Dean) Farrar, Edwin obtained a scholarship at University College, Oxford, in 1851 and earned a B.A. in 1854 and an M.A. in 1856. Although he won only a 3rd class in the final classical school, he read Greek poetry with enthusiasm.[4]

His prize poem Belshazzar's Feast was published separately in 1852, and was also reissued the next year to form the staple of an elegant volume, Poems Narrative and Lyrical (Oxford, 1853). Dedicated to Lady Waldegrave, Arnold's Poems obtained the distinction of a review, on "The two Arnolds," in Blackwood's Magazine (March 1854). In America, many years later, Matthew Arnold found himself credited to an embarrassing extent with the poetical baggage of his namesake.[5]


After a short period as second English master at King Edward's School, Birmingham, Arnold was in 1856 nominated principal of the government Deccan College at Poona. On settling there he was elected a fellow of Bombay University. He soon studied Eastern languages, and mastered not only those of India but also Turkish and Persian.[5]

A successful translation of The Book of Good Counsels: From the Sanskrit of the Hitopadesa, with pleasing illustrations by Harrison Weir (1861), dedicated to his first wife, indicates his rapid attraction to Oriental study. He also wrote a pamphlet on education in India (1860), pleading for a more scientific grafting of Western knowledge upon the lore of the East, and a History of the Marquis of Dalhousie's Administration (2 volumes, 1862-1865). His demeanour as principal during the trying times of the mutiny won him commendations from the Indian government.[5]

During a visit to England in 1861 Arnold obtained through a chance advertisement the post of leader-writer on the Daily Telegraph, which Joseph Moses Levy was just setting to work to regenerate. This appointment finally determined his career. His colleague George Augustus Sala describes in his Reminiscences how in the early days of 1862 the Eastern aroma first began to make itself felt in the leading articles of the Daily Telegraph.[5]

On Thornton Hunt's doath in 1873 Arnold became a chief editor of the Daily Telegraph,' and with the proprietors was responsible for the despatch of some enterprising and important journalistic missions, that of George Smith to Assyria in 1874, that of H.M. Stanley (jointly with the New York Herald) to complete the discoveries of Livingstone in the same year, and that of Sir H.H. Johnston to Kilimanjaro in 1884.[5]

Arnold's Oriental knowledge proved of vital influence on his editorial work, and as a champion of Turkey through the Russo-Turkish war and of Lord Lytton's forward policy in India he helped to mould public opinion.[5]

In 1879 he published the epic poem The Light of Asia, to which he owed most of his fame. The poem aroused the animosities of many pulpits, but there were 60 editions in England and 80 in America, and translations were numerous. A sequel appeared in 1891 as The Light of the World, and proved a signal failure.[5]

Later lifeEdit

After 28 successful years in the editorial room, where his staff of writers included Edward Dicey, James Macdonell, H.D. Traill, and others, Arnold became a travelling commissioner of the paper. In August 1889 he started with his daughter, Katharine Lilian, upon a long ramble chiefly devoted to the Pacific coast and Japan.[5]

His first visit to Japan was often repeated, and he was fascinated by the artistic and social side of Japanese life. His writings on Japan helped to spread in England optimistic views of Japanese progress and culture. In 1891 he undertook a reading tour in America.[5]

During the last 9 or 10 years of his life his sight gradually failed, but in spite of infirmities he maintained a keen interest in contemporary affairs. In 1899 he dedicated to his 3rd wife his interesting story of the wrongs of an Indian cultivator called The Queen's Justice, and in 1895 he dedicated to the Duchess of York, afterwards Queen Mary, his Tenth Muse, and other poems, including many Renderings of Japanese "uta."[5]

He died at his house in Bolton Gardens, London, on 24 March 1904.[5] He was cremated at Brookwood and his ashes bestowed in the chapel of his old college at Oxford.[6]

He married (1) in 1854 Katharine Elizabeth (died 1864), daughter of Rev. Theo Biddulph of Bristol; (2) Fannie Maria Adelaide (died 1889), daughter of Rev. W.H. Channing of Boston, U.S.A.; he issued "In my Lady's Praise" in the year of her death; (3) Tama KuroKawa of Sendai Japan, who survives him. He left issue Mr. Edwin Lester Arnold, the author, and 4 other children, 2 sons and 2 daughters.[6]

Writing Edit

Edwin Arnold - Project Gutenberg eText 16786

Edwin Arnold, from Project Gutenberg E-book of the World's Best Poetry. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


Arnold was a copious and animated writer, and where he is describing actual events, often vivid and terse. Somewhat insensitive to the finer kinds of metrical effect, he is as a poet over-sensuous, and at times allows his glowing imagery to vitiate his taste. He confidently expected the reversion of the laureateship after Lord Tennyson's death.[6]

The Light of Asia is an Indian epic poem, dealing with the life and teachings of Buddha, expounded with much wealth of local colour and not a little felicity of versification.[7] In blank verse of Oriental luxuriance, in which colour and music were blended in the Tennysonian manner with heightened effects, Arnold here presented the picturesque and pathetic elements of the Buddhist legend and the life of Gautama. The moral doctrines were those to which Europeans had been accustomed all their lives, but the setting was new to English and American readers.[5]

The poem contains many lines of unquestionable beauty; and its immediate popularity was rather increased than diminished by the twofold criticism to which it was subjected. On the one hand it was held by Oriental scholars to give a false impression of Buddhist doctrine; while, on the other, the suggested analogy between Sakyamuni and Christ offended the taste of some devout Christians.[7]

The latter criticism probably suggested to Arnold the idea of attempting a second narrative poem of which the central figure should be the founder of Christianity, as the founder of Buddhism had been that of the first. But though The Light of the World (1891), in which this idea took shape, had considerable poetic merit, it lacked the novelty of theme and setting which had given the earlier poem much of its attractiveness; and it failed to repeat the success attained by The Light of Asia.[7]

A collection of his poetical works came out in 1888. Selections appeared in the same year and The Edwin Arnold Birthday Book in 1885.[6]

Other worksEdit

As a picturesque tourist in books like India Revisited (1886), Seas and Lands (1891), Wandering Words (1894), and East and West (1896) (studies of Egypt, India, and Japan), he has had few rivals.[5]

Apart from those already enumerated, his original works include (chiefly in verse): 1. Griselda: A tragedy; and other poems, 1856. 2. The Wreck of the Northern Belle, 1857. 3. The Poets of Greece, 1869. 4. Indian Poetry, 1881. 5. Pearls of the Faith, 1883. 6. The Secret of Death, 1885. 7. Lotus and Jewel, 1887. 8. With Sa'di in the Garden, 1888. 9. Japonica (papers from Scribner's Magazine), 1892. 10. Potiphar's Wife, 1892. 11. Adzuma (a story of a Japanese marriage), 1893. 12. The Voyage of Ithobal, 1901. Among his translations are Political Poems by Victor Hugo and Garibaldi (under initials E.A.), 1868; Hero and Leander, from Musseus, 1873; The Indian Song of Songs from the Jayadeva, 1875; Indian Idylls from the Mahabharata, 1883 and 1885; The Chaura panchasika, 1896; Sa'di's Gulistan, parts i.-iv. 1899. He was also author of A Simple Transliteral Grammar of Turkish, 1877.[6]


In 1852 he won the Newdigate Prize with an ornate poem on Belshazzar's Feast.[5]

He was made a Companion of the Star of India when Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India on 1 January 1877, and a Knight Commander of the Indian Empire in 1888. He also received numerous foreign decorations from Turkey, Persia, Siam, and Japan.[5]

A portrait by James Archer was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1890.[6]







Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy WorldCat.[25]

Selected excerpts from The Light of Asia by Edwin Arnold

Selected excerpts from The Light of Asia by Edwin Arnold

See also Edit



  1. Sir Edwin Arnold, Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica Inc. Web, June 28, 2013.
  2. John William Cousin, "Arnold, Sir Edwin," A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature, 1910, 12.
  3. John William Cousin, "Arnold, Sir Edwin," A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature, 1910, 13. Web, Nov. 19, 2017.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Seccombe, 58.
  5. 5.00 5.01 5.02 5.03 5.04 5.05 5.06 5.07 5.08 5.09 5.10 5.11 5.12 5.13 5.14 Seccombe, 59.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 Seccombe, 60.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Arnold, Sir Edwin, Encyclopedia Britannica 11th edition, 1911, 634.
  8. The Feast of Belshazzar (1852), Internet Archive, Web, June 28, 2013.
  9. Poems, Narrative and Lyrical (1853), Internet Archive, Web, June 28, 2013.
  10. Poetical Works of Edwin Arnold (1884), Internet Archive, Web, July 16, 2012.
  11. The Secret of Death, from the Sanskrit; with some collected poems (1885), Internet Archive, Web, July 16, 2012.
  12. Lotus and Jewel; with other poems (1887), Internet Archive, Web, June 28, 2013.
  13. Poems, National and Non-Oriental, with some new pieces (1888), Internet Archive, Web, June 28, 2013.
  14. In My Lady's Praise, , being poems, old and new, written to the honour of Fanny, Lady Arnold, and now collected for her memory (1889), Internet Archive, Web, July 16, 2012.
  15. Edwin Arnold's Poetical Works, Internet Archive. Web, June 29, 2013.
  16. The Tenth Muse and other poems (1895), Internet Archive. Web, June 28, 2013.
  17. (1862, Internet Archive. Web, June 28, 2013.
  18. A Simple Transliterative Grammar of the Turkish Language (1877), Internet Archive. Web, June 28, 2013.
  19. The Queen's Justice: A true story of Indian village life (1899), Internet Archive. Web, June 28, 2013.
  20. Death and Afterwards (1901), Internet Archive. Web, June 28, 2013.
  21. The Poets of Greece (1869), Internet Archive. Web, June 28, 2013.
  22. The Book of Good Counsel: From the Sanskrit of the Hitopadesa (1861), Internet Archive. Web, June 28, 2013.
  23. Hero and Leander; from the Greek of Musaeus (1873), Internet Archive. Web, June 28, 2013.
  24. The Indian Song of Songs; From the Sanskrit of the Gîta Govinda of Jayadeva (1875), Internet Archive. Web, June 28, 2013.
  25. Search results=Edwin Arnold, Web, July 16, 2012.

External linksEdit


PD-icon.svg This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement​ (edited by Sidney Lee). London: Smith, Elder, 1912. Original article is at: Arnold, Sir Edwin

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