East London by Matthew Arnold Analysis

Last updated on August 23rd, 2020 at 08:31 pm

This poem analysis of ‘East London’ by Arnold is divided into three parts – rhyme scheme and use of language, Christian imagery, and context.

Rhyme Scheme in East London and Use of Language: This poem explanation would be incomplete without a discussion of the rhyme scheme of ‘East London’, for this rhyme scheme contributes significantly to Arnold’s display of poetic craft in the poem. ‘East London’ is a sonnet (as mentioned before in the poem summary). A sonnet consists of fourteen lines divided into an eight-line unit known as an octet, and a six-line unit known as a sestet.

The octet and sestet can together form a single stanza (which is the case in ‘East London’), or appear as two separate stanzas. Sonnets typically occur in two types of rhyme schemes – in the pattern ABBA ABBA CDE CDE , known as the Petrarchan sonnet, or in the pattern ABAB CDCD EFEF GG, known as the Shakespearian sonnet. In ‘East London’ neither of these patterns is followed in its entirety. The rhyme scheme of ‘East London’ is as follows: ABBA ABBA CDC EDE. Thus it is an atypical sonnet.

The other thing that cannot escape readers’ notice when reading ‘East London’ is Arnold’s use of archaic language such as “thou”, “thee”, and “thy” in place of “you”, and “your”. Arnold does so for a reason. This kind of language serves to remind readers of a time in the past when people were more in touch with their faith.

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Christian Imagery used in East London: This part of the poem explanation is based on the fact that the kind of faith that Arnold advocates for all his readers is a specifically Christian understanding of faith, and that he uses specifically Christian imagery to get this point across. The dramatic change that takes place between the weaver’s experience of his environment, and the preacher’s experience of this same environment occurs with the mention of Christ, whom the preacher calls “the living bread”.

This is a reference to the Christian ceremony of the Eucharist. As part of this ceremony, the congregation in a church partakes of bread and wine, for this bread and wine are supposed to be the flesh and blood of Christ, their Saviour. The Eucharist is what brings Christians together as they pray in unison in a show of faith. This connection of faith with the Eucharist makes Arnold emphasize this particular Christian ritual in the speech of the preacher who is to serve as an inspiration for his readers.


Another instance of Christian imagery occurs in the poem when Arnold says that it is faith that will “right thee if thou roam.” In the church, the preacher considers his congregation as a flock of sheep, and Christ Himself as their shepherd. Hence, Arnold likens our straying from the path of good with cattle that stray from the fields, and says that it is faith that will bring us back to the right path.

Context in East London: This part of the poem analysis focuses on the context of the writing and the publication of ‘East London’. ‘East London’ was published in the year 1867. That Arnold wrote this poem from his own experience is evident from his description of Bethnal Green.

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It is well known that Arnold had become inspector of schools in Bethnal Green in 1850, and was still continuing this job at the time when this poem was written. He had taken up this job to encourage the spread of education among the working classes of London. East London was populated largely by this working class whom Arnold had hoped to reach, and that is why he introduces readers to the weaver in the middle of his description of Bethnal Green.

By 1867, the Industrial Revolution had had widespread effects in Britain. Factories had replaced farmlands as the site of the average man’s labour. With the spread of advanced machinery, man had become alienated from many things – from the products of his labour, from the land of his own country, but also from an older way of life (which Arnold wishes to resurrect through his use of archaic language).

With the coming in of science and technology, man had lost faith in religion, specifically in Christianity. Arnold resented this, and tried through his poetry (including ‘East London’) to help man regain his faith. His messages of hope were a kind of propaganda, urging his readers to retain belief in the Christian God, and should be read as such for a fuller understanding of Arnold’s vision of Victorian society. Read more: East London Summary

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