Austerity of Poetry - by Matthew Arnold - Summary & Analysis

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      This sonnet, Italian in form, was first published in 1864 and was included The New Poems of 1867. In it Arnold's classical leanings comes out clearly. The classical restraint and austerity is what Arnold considers great qualities of good poetry.

      The poet develops his thoughts on poetry through a parable. The parable is based on a real incident in the life of an Italian poet, Giacopone di Todi, Dante's predecessor. Once Giacopone went to a public show along with his beautiful bride, elegantly ressed. While the show was in progress, one of the pillars gave ways and many were crushed to death. Giacopone's wife too was crushed and when people went to her rescue they saw below her elegant dress she was wearing coarse sack-cloth, close to her satin smooth fair skin. Giacopone after the death of histe wife became a Fransiscan monk and wrote religious poetry of some fame.

      Arnold finds a moral, valuable for poets, in the story. The poetic muse should be like Giacopone's bride. She should have external beauty. But she should have austere qualities beneath; an austere diction, criticism of life and high seriousness.

      Arnold's own poetry is true to the principles he enunciates here. He always used austere diction without superfluous epithets and fantastic images. The ornate and sensuous style of Keats is not to his liking. Nor can we find the mellifluousness of Tennyson in his poems. His poems betray the stark simplicity, ands directness of classical writers, like Homer. In images, which Arnold sparingly uses,d too there is more of Homeric qualities. Long winded compound words, poetic inversions, and, rugged metres, are his austere poetic devices. However the total effect often is that of great poetry.


      First, quartet of the Octave. Line. 1-4: That great Italian religious poet, who started writing his poems (tried to blow) before Dante's time, once during his youth was watching a gallant public show, along with his bride.

      Second, quartet of the Octave. Line. 5-8: The bride was beautiful and her glowing looks betrayed her youth. She was wearing what youthful ladies like gay dress, sparkling jewellery and was in an exultant mood. Suddenly a pillar gave way and the roof crashed down.

      First Triplet of the Sextet. Line. 9-11: The bride lay struggling among other casualties, almost dead. The shocked people tried to ease her by taking out her outer garment. Then to their surprise they saw that she was wearing a coarse sack cloth undergarment, on her smooth fair skin.

      Second Triplet of the Sextet. Line. 12-14: Arnold addresses poets and tells that their poetry (Muse) should be like the bride of Giacopone; brilliant and decorated on the outside, but hidden thought and austere style should be inside.


      The poem is a parable in poetic form and it has a significance especially to poets. The youthful and beautiful bride is dressed in elegant dress, and glittering jewellery. But below she had an undergarment of rough cloth, may be to give a grace for her curves. Arnold wants all poets to learn a lesson from this parable. Their poetry (the Muse, their bride) may look young, beautiful and graceful from outside. But for great poetry something more is needed. The austerity similar to that of the rough undergarment of Giacopone's wife. Austere style and serious thought content must be found in the poem. As the rough undergarment enhances the grace of a woman's curves, the serious tone and the deep thoughts of the poem will make poetry graceful and thereby great. Certainly Arnold is becoming obvertly didactic here. He wants poets to aim at the classic objectives to stark and simple style, balance between thought and content. Romantic poets on the other hand aims at an exuberance of emotion highly embellished diction, fantastic images and a certain indiscipline in composition.

      There is an amount of sensuous appeal in the poem. The description of the youthful beauty of the bride is brief but one that remains in the mind for long. Beauty and youth blend in her making a sensuous sketch of a flesh and blood woman whose skin is white and smooth. Then there is the pathos of the tragedy; a pillar gave way and the paragon of youthful beauty lies among other struggling sufferers. Onlookers were shuddered to see such a terrible thing happened to such a beauty. The three words 'smooth white skin', associated with the dead or dying beauty adds to the pathos already created.

      The conclusion of the last triplet serves the didactic purpose of Arnold admirably. He wants poets to keep austerity and thought content 'hidden' in their poems. Also he wants them to have radiance of the outside. But the inside gives substance to the poems. The parable drives home all what Arnold wants to emphasise. But the too obvious didacticism bars the sonnet from becoming really great poetry.


1. Fair was ... elation strong. Line. 5-7

      Here Arnold gives a description of the charming wife of Giacopone in a brief but sensuous manner. The bride was beautiful. Youth shone like a star with hert striking beauty. She wore what all youth wear (what to youth belong); gay were her garments; sparkling were the jewells; contentment and pride in her own beauty could be seen in her.

      In lines as few as three, the poet succeeds in giving a picture of an exquisite beauty, where beauty, youth and contentment are blended. This sensuous description helps, later, to enhance pathos where her tragic and untimely death is reported, in the first half of the sextet. There, through three words 'smooth white skin' the sensuousness earlier created is enhanced.

2. A prop......Smooth white skin. Line. 8-11

      After describing the wife of Giacopone, as outwardly very beautiful, Arnold abruptly goes into the tragic accident that killed her.

      One of the pillars broke and the platform (on which they were seated) crashed and Giacopone's wife lay among other casualties. Shocked at the tragedy that happened to such a beauty onlookers ran to her assistance. To case her, they removed her over-clothes and saw that she was wearing a rough sack-cloth as her undergarment close to her 'smooth white skin'.

      The rough underclothe, possibly was worn to give a grace to her curves. Without that 'austere' dress within she could not have appeared so youthful, so attractive. This part of the poem gives the parable its significance. Similar to Giacopone's wife's garments the poetry should be radiant, beautiful outwardly. But more important is the inside. Beneath the outwardly beauty of the poem, there should be deep thought, and austere seriousness 'hidden' in it.

3. Such poets ... austerity within. Line. 12-14

      Here Arnold indulges into didacticism and almost dictates to the poets how they should write poetry.

      Arnold wants the poetical Muse (poetry) of the poets to be beautiful and radiant outside as Giacopone's bride. But inside, just like the rough undergarment of the Italian Signora, poetry should have seriousness of thought and an austerity of diction and images.

      The last triplet weighs heavy with meaning. By 'hidden ground' the poet hints that serious thoughts and austerity of style may not be attractive to the average reader. To make a poem palatable to them the outward adornment and radiance are needed. Under that sugar coating there must be the austerity. It is interesting to note that Arnold pleads for classical perfection of 'form' in poetry in a subtle way. The rough sack cloth undergarment of Giacopone's wife gives 'form' to her body. Like that austere poetry should give importance to the 'form' of the poem. However as 'thought also is mentioned, we have to conclude that what Arnold " wants is a harmonious blending of content and form in great poetry.

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