Shakespeare: by Matthew Arnold - Summary and Analysis

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Others abide our question. Thou art free.
We ask and ask—Thou smilest and art still,
Out-topping knowledge. For the loftiest hill,
Who to the stars uncrowns his majesty, 

Planting his steadfast footsteps in the sea,
Making the heaven of heavens his dwelling-place,
Spares but the cloudy border of his base
To the foil'd searching of mortality; 

And thou, who didst the stars and sunbeams know,
Self-school'd, self-scann'd, self-honour'd, self-secure,
Didst tread on earth unguess'd at.—Better so! 

All pains the immortal spirit must endure,
All weakness which impairs, all griefs which bow,
Find their sole speech in that victorious brow.


      The sonnet, Shakespeare by Matthew Arnold appeared first in the Volume The Strayed Reveller and Other Poems, originally formed part of a letter Arnold wrote to his sister Jane in the year 1841. Arnold's sonnet on Shakespeare, along with that of Ben Jonson and Milton remains one of the most glorious tributes paid to the Bard of Avon. Ben Jonson's aphoristical statement "He was not of an age but for all time" rings like a bell. Milton's statement is equally pithy: "Thou in our wonder and astonishment, Hast built thyself a live long Monument". Equally memorable and weighty is Arnold's first line of this Sonnet:

Others abide our question, Thou art free

      The indisputable truth and significance it contains has made the line really famous.

      Generations of critics have praised this sonnet for its music, diction and thought content. In it Arnold describes Shakespeare as a mysterious figure whom critics down through the ages failed to understand completely. Arnold wrote to Clough emphasising this aspect of Shakespeare, "I keep saying Shakespeare, Shakespeare, you are as obscure as life is". This sonnet develops the seminal idea contained in that letter. The greatness of Shakespeare is unfathomable. The closing lines suggests how Shakespeare was able to overcome the misfortunes of life during the period when he was preoccupied with tragedy plays. Greening Lamborn speaks of

"the majestic march of the music and the noble diction of this almost perfect sonnet are admirably in keeping with its subjects and with the grand and impressive imagery in which it is presented".

      In his prose writings Arnold has expressed mixed feelings about Shakespeare and his works. He admits that Shakespeare is a "name never to be mentioned without reverence". He says in the essay on Milton that "Shakespeare is divinely strong, rich and attractive". At the same time, adds that "But sureness of perfect style Shakespeare himself does not possess". He was "moved to wonder at the fantastic and false diction" of Shakespeare. Elsewhere he complained that Shakespeare gave "scope to this faculty of expression to the prejudice of a higher poetic diction". But strangely, Arnold has only praise for Shakespeare in this sonnet. He remains an idolator. The image Arnold creates in the sonnet is that of a mysterious figure who is beyond the comprehension of ordinary mortals. All those who persistently tried to understand him failed miserably in their attempt.

      The Sonnet: The sonnet, a poem consisting of fourteen lines is of Italian origin. Petrarch is said to be the originator of this form. The Italian type had 12 syllables to the line, the French 11 and the English 10. In England, Shakespeare wrote many sonnets in a slightly changed form. Both Petrarchan and Shakespearean, types of sonnets were composed by later English Poets. The Petrarchan sonnet is divided into two stanzas, the octave (8 lines) and the sextet (6 lines). The octave is still divided into two substanzas of four lines and the sextet into two of 3 lines. In the Shakespearean kind after 3 four lined stanzas the sonnet's thought culminates in a couplet. This sonnet of Arnold mainly follows the Petrarchan pattern. The variation is found in the new thought coming in the 11th line. In Petrarch the change of thought comes at the end of the Octave, in the 9th line. Arnold uses the rhyme pattern abba acca de de ff, more or less Shakespearean.


      Shakespeare is the only one who do not stand our scrutiny in our attempt to understand him. He is far beyond our comprehension and knowledge, to understand him. The highest mountain rises sublimely into the starry areas of the sky. Its abode is the high heavens. The mortal humans can see only upto the place where clouds surround its lower heights. Similarly is Shakespeare who dwells with the stars and sunlight at great heights. He was self-educated, and he worked himself into the assurance he was in. But when he walked on earth others could not possibly follow him. Perhaps it is better he remains like that. For he pictured sufferings and sorrows of human beings without collapsing under its strain, and his immortal spirit came out triumphant.


      The sonnet Shakespeare by Matthew Arnold refers to the unapproachability of Shakespeare's genius to other humans. His abode is among the stars and the sunbeam. He spent some time on earth but remains "un-understood (unguessed at) and he remains beyond human comprehension.

      The poet gives the picture of a majestic mountain rising into the starry heavens with the cloud obscuring the summit from our view. The summit declares its majesty to the stars. Its base is in the sea but its dwelling is the "Heaven of Heavens". The search of mortal humans to understand the summit is foiled by the clouds that obscure it. This comparison of Shakespeare's glory to the sublime summit of a lofty mountain serves the poet's, purpose of painting him super-human. Even as the summit is not clear to us because of the presence of the clouds, the lofty imaginative quality of his poetry makes it impossible for us to realize the personality of the man, Shakespeare. The last triplet hints at the tragic period of Shakespeare, when a group of tragedies came out of his pen. In addition to successfully indicating the tragic period in Shakespeare's life, those lines give a melancholy, Arnoldian note to the sonnet. It is worth noticing that Arnold mentions only Shakespeare's genius in creating tragedies.

      The diction of the poem appropriate to the content, is worthy of our admiration. Compounded double words like, out-topping, dwelling-place and the repetitive, but ably suggestive words 'self-school'd, self-scann'd, self-honourd, self-secure', give a Homeric grandeur to the sonnet. The lofty mountain "uncrowns his majesty" to the stars is pregnant with the suggestion that Shakespeare can be understood only by those who are in the "Heaven of Heavens". Shakespeare's walking on the earth "unguess'd at" also is abundantly suggestive of the mysterious nature of Shakespeare's genius. Prof. Oliver Elton comments that this Sonnet "contains none of the critical reserves which always weaken poetry, and there is no cult in it nothing above the value of poetry for the higher life or the equivalence of poetry and religion. The spirit of it is 'free', and therefore the less 'abides our question".


1. Others abide ... knowledge. Line. 1-3

      Others (poets other than Shakespeare) submit themselves to our questions and criticism. But you, Shakespeare, are free from all such. You are beyond questioning and criticism. We have several things to learn about Shakespeare and we ask plenty of questions. But the only answer we get is a smile-perhaps the smile we find on the only available engraved picture of his. Shakespeare's genius remains unapproachable to all the known methods of study man knows of. The hint that despite the persistent efforts of many able and learned men we haven't understood the nature of, the greatness of the man, Shakespeare.

2. For the loftiest.....mortality. Line 3-8

      Arnold here suggests that Shakespeare remains like a lofty mountain out topping all other dramatists and poets. The mountain has a firm base in the sea and rises so high that even the high clouds are only somewhere near its base. The mountain lives in the "heaven of Heavens" beyond the vision of mortals. The surrounding clouds makes it impossible for those on the ground to get a clear view of the sublime mountain. They - the clouds-defeat all the efforts of man to get a sight of the peak.

3. And thou ... unguess'd at. Line. 9-11

      After suggesting that Shakespeare is like a lofty mountain obscured by the height and the clouds that surround it, Arnold goes on to give more similarities between the two. Though the mountain is known only to the stars and sunlight, it is based firmly on the ground. Shakespeare with divine knowledge (sunbeam) and divine imagination (stars) moved on earth. He dealt with earthly subjects, in his plays. He was self educated. He scanned himself, or analysed himself so that he could become better. He didn't receive much honour during his life time, but he knew he was worthy of honour. And he was confident of his own ability and that confidence gave him the security he needed. And this divine Shakespeare's life in this world was not understood well by others; he remains "unguess'd at". The depth of his mind is unfathomable.

4. Better so ... victorious brow, Line. 11-14

      With the words "Better so", Arnold introduces a change in thought which takes place at the end of the Octave in a Petrarchan sonnet.

      After telling that Shakespeare whose dwellings is among the stars and the sunbeams and that he is incomprehensible to the ordinary mortals, Arnold says perhaps it is better he remained mysterious.

      The verb "Find" has the subject in the first two lines of the last triplet.

      Humans will have to undergo many griefs and face many weaknesses. But his immortal spirit has to endure it and then he will come out victorious. This message is seen on Shakespeare's brow for he came out victorious despite the pain and sufferings he had to face.

       Arnold hints at the tragedies Shakespeare wrote when he himself had to undergo many personal griefs. There are critics who think that the tragedy-period of Shakespeare coincided with many tragic events in his personal life. However, his enduring spirit made him come out successful, out of the depths, and create a happy comedy of reconciliation - The Tempest. Arnold also hints at Shakespeare's picturing the unconquerable spirit of man coming victorious even in the darkest of his tragedies.

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