Matthew Arnold himself attended Rugby and then Oxford University (Balliol College). He wrote most of his best-known poetry before the age of forty, after which he turned to literary and cultural criticism. His poem "Dover Beach", with its depiction of a nightmarish world from which the old religious verities have receded, is sometimes held up as an early, if not the first, example of the modern sensibility. In a famous preface to a selection of the poems of William Wordsworth, Arnold identified himself, a little ironically, as a "Wordsworthian." The influence of Wordsworth, both in ideas and in diction, is unmistakable in Arnold's best poetry.
He was led on from literary criticism to a more general critique of the spirit of his age. Between 1867 and 1869 he wote Culture and Anarchy, famous for the term he popularised for a section of the Victorian population: "Philistines", a word which derives its modern cultural meaning from him.
His niece (daughter of his younger brother Thomas), Mary Augusta Arnold, was a novelist under her married name of Mrs Humphry Ward.