East London Summary by Matthew Arnold: 2022

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Last updated on September 10th, 2022 at 04:42 pm

This poem summary focuses on the poem ‘East London’ by the eminent Victorian poet Matthew Arnold. Arnold was a keen observer of his times, and the people he saw around him. This is reflected in most of his poetry. ‘East London’ is no exception.

‘East London’ is written in the form of a sonnet. Therefore, the poem consists of fourteen lines in all. While there are no stanza divisions among these fourteen lines, the poem can be divided into two major units because of variations in its content between the first unit and the second unit. In this case, the first unit can be taken to consist of the first eight lines of the poem, and the second unit can be considered to consist of its subsequent six lines.

In the first unit of ‘East London’, an unnamed narrator describes two persons he meets in the street. This unnamed narrator can be equated with Arnold himself. Thus, in the first four lines, we find Arnold describing a scorching day in the month of August, when the sun is shining fiercely down on the earth. The language used by Arnold here is one that evokes pictures of violence. This is especially evident when he describes the sun as having been struck with a heavy weapon on the streets of Bethnal Green in East London, where he is taking a walk.

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The amount of detail in Arnold’s depiction is notable when he again goes on to describe those streets as “squalid”. This word is also very evocative, conjuring up visions of a dingy environment where men in the uttermost state of poverty crowd together in search of a bit of shelter for themselves and their voluminous families. Arnold then goes on to describe a specific neighbourhood called Spitalfields where, in one of the houses, he is able to look in through the windows and see a weaver. This weaver appears very morose.

Arnold takes the weaver to be a representative of all the people in Bethnal Green, or even, East London, and assumed that they were all as dispirited as him. However, he is proven wrong by the next man he encountered – a preacher. Arnold knows him beforehand, and therefore takes the liberty to ask how he was coping with the overworked and stressful situation that everyone seemed to be in then. The preacher replies saying that he has managed to remain cheerful by thinking time and again of Jesus Christ.

In the second unit of the poem, Arnold addresses his readers directly. In a sense, this unit seems to be conveying the moral of the tale that has been told by Arnold in the first unit. Arnold appeals to the “human soul” that is present in all his readers to “Set up a mark of everlasting light.” ‘Light’ here signifies many things – the light in the sky that had appeared over Bethlehem when Christ was born, the light at the end of a tunnel, the light that graces the beginning of each day and ends the darkness of night. All these things are symbols of hope.

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Therefore, Arnold is telling his readers to always have faith in their beliefs. The words “ebb” and “flow” are opposites, and are used by Arnold here to assert that faith must endure both the highs and the lows that one encounters in one’s life. When one is going through a tough time, one must hope for better things to come, and when one is rewarded with joy and success, one must attribute such good things to the faith that one had.

It is this kind of faith that will bring cheerful thoughts (as in the case of the preacher), and also guide one to the right path if one is led astray. Even though one might struggle to achieve success, it is one’s faith that will assure that all his hard work has not gone to waste.

Arnold ends the poem saying that instead of the hell that East Londoners (like the weaver) believe their life to be, it is heaven that they will end up constructing through their faith. Such messages of hope are typical of Arnold’s poetry, and they make his poetry (including ‘East London’) appealing to readers both in his own time and in subsequent generations. Suggested reading: East London Analysis by Matthew Arnold

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