Arnold was born at Gravesend, Kent, the second son of a Sussex magistrate, Robert Coles Arnold. One of his six children was the novelist Edwin Lester Arnold. He was educated at King's School, Rochester; King's College London; and University College, Oxford. He became a schoolmaster, at King Edward's School, Birmingham, and in 1856 went to India as principal of the Government Sanskrit College at Poona, a post which he held for seven years, which includes a period during the mutiny of 1857, when he was able to render services for which he was publicly thanked by Lord Elphinstone in the Bombay council. Here he received the bias towards, and gathered material for, his future works.
Returning to England in 1861 he worked as a journalist on the staff of the Daily Telegraph, a newspaper with which he continued to be associated as editor for more than forty years, and later became its editor-in-chief . It was he who, on behalf of the proprietors of the Daily Telegraph in conjunction with the New York Herald, arranged the journey of H.M. Stanley to Africa to discover the course of the Congo River, and Stanley named after him a mountain to the north-east of Albert Edward Nyanza.
Arnold must also be credited with the first idea of a great trunk line traversing the entire African continent, for in 1874 he first employed the phrase "Cape to Cairo railway" subsequently popularized by Cecil Rhodes. It was, however, as a poet that he was best known to his contemporaries. 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 which was translated in various languages like Hindi (tr. by Acharya Ram Chandra Shukla). It appeared in 1879 and was an immediate success, going through numerous editions in England and America, though its permanent place in literature must remain very uncertain. It is an Indian epic, dealing with the life and teaching of the Buddha, which are unfolded with ample local color and comely prosody. 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 false impression of Buddhist doctrine; while, on the other, suggested analogy between Sakyamuni and Jesus offended the taste of some devout Christians.
The latter criticism probably suggested to Arnold the idea of attempting a second narrative poem of which the central figure should be Jesus, 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 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 gained by The Light of Asia. Arnold's other principal volumes of poetry were Indian Song of Songs (1875), Pearls of the Faith (1883), The Song Celestial (1885), With Sadi in the Garden (1888), Tiphar's Wife (1892) and Adzuma or, The Japanese Wife (1893).
In his later years Arnold resided for some time in Japan, and his third wife was Japanese. In Seas and Lands (1891) and Japonica (1892) he gives an interesting study of Japanese life. He received the CSI on the occasion of the proclamation of Queen Victoria as Empress of India in 1877, and in 1888 was created CIE He also possessed decorations conferred by the rulers of Japan, Persia, Turkey and Siam.
- Interpreter of Buddhism to the West: Sir Edwin Arnold by Brooks Wright.
- Sir Edwin Arnold New York Times, March 25, 1904
- Notices of 'The Light of Asia' www.phx-ult-lodge.org.
- This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.
- This article incorporates public domain text from: Cousin, John William (1910). A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature. London, J. M. Dent & sons; New York, E. P. Dutton.
- The Bhagavad Gita - A poetic rendering By Sir Edwin Arnold
- Works by Edwin Arnold
- Archival material relating to Edwin Arnold listed at the UK National Register of Archives