“Shakespeare” is Arnold’s one of the most read and favored sonnets. William Shakespeare, a major literary figure and the greatest dramatist in the world of English Literature, had already established himself as a critics’ favorite poet before the beginning of Arnold’s poetic career. Matthew Arnold, being impressed by Shakespeare’s artistic abilities, wrote this famous sonnet in his honor.
About the Poet:
Matthew Arnold was born in Laleham, Middlesex, on 24th December 1822 and is widely known for his essays and poetry. Arnold’s poetry tackled psychological themes like those of Sylvia Plath’s works, and his poetic excellence was constituted in the transparency of expression.
The poem is composed in the form of a sonnet as a means to honor Shakespeare, who was known for his sonnets and plays. Though the poem does not follow the regular rhyme scheme and is definitely not composed, similar to Shakespeare’s sonnet, the irregular rhyme gives the poem the setting of a natural speech. The poem cannot be associated with a specific physical location, and the poem is set in the form of thoughts full of praise for the great Shakespeare.
Shakespeare: Poetic Devices
Repetition: “We ask and ask—Thou smilest and art still”; “Making the heaven of heavens his dwelling-place.”
Alliteration: “And thou, who didst the stars and sunbeams know”; “Self-school’d self-scann’d, self-honour’d, self-secure.”
Metaphor: In “for the loftiest hill,” Shakespeare and his art has been compared with the mountain top.
Personification: Mountain has been personified as an extraordinary figure.
The poem is composed in an irregular rhyme scheme and follows the pattern of a natural speech.
“Others abide our question. Thou art free. (A)
We ask and ask—Thou smilest and art still, (B)
Out-topping knowledge. For the loftiest hill, (B)
Who to the stars uncrowns his majesty, (A)
Planting his steadfast footsteps in the sea, (A)
Making the heaven of heavens his dwelling-place, (C)
Spares but the cloudy border of his base (C)
To the foil’d searching of mortality; (A)
And thou, who didst the stars and sunbeams know, (D)
Self-school’d, self-scann’d, self-honour’d, self-secure, (E)
Didst tread on earth unguess’d at.—Better so! (D)
All pains the immortal spirit must endure, (E)
All weakness which impairs, all griefs which bow, (F)
Find their sole speech in that victorious brow.” (F)
The poet begins by praising the great Shakespeare from the very first word of his sonnet, “others.” He is quick in distinguishing Shakespeare from the rest and acknowledging his uniqueness. He says other poets and artists can be questioned regarding their works, and they too are eager to answer those who might try to understand their work. But Shakespeare differs from all the others since he is “free,” and so is his “art.” The critics do question his work, but instead of answering them, Shakespeare replies with a smile continuing his “art still,” giving every person a chance to form their own interpretation of his work, finding their own meaning among the multiple edges and variations a single art piece of his is filled with. The poet says that Shakespeare’s knowledge is “out-topping,” beyond the reach of mortals and unquestionable. He compares Shakespeare’s artistic abilities and knowledge to that of a mountain top covered with clouds, meeting the sky, the ordinary being able to see and appreciate the unapproachable from far. This comparison can also be seen as the differences being pointed out between “others” and Shakespeare. This difference is further highlighted when the speaker says that Shakespeare is like the mountain whose feet meet the seas while his crown reaches the “heavens,” the sky. The mere mortals, including the “others,” are just provided with glimpses of the “cloudy border,” that is just a few indistinct parts of his art. The poet is praising the vastness of Shakespeare’s works. The poet then praises Shakespeare’s majestic abilities when he says that Shakespeare’s imaginative abilities rise like stars and shine alongside the sun’s beaming rays, just like the lofty mountain.
Shakespeare was self-educated and a self-made man. The poet is in awe of his abilities and mentions the significance of Shakespeare’s self-taught education, his own experiences being his only guidance. And then the poet says that despite this fact, Shakespeare, a God-like creature, walked on earth, never completely understood by his fellow men but for the poet, it was for the best. Arnold here is critical of Shakespeare’s works being questioned and his worthy art not being appreciated enough. The poet says that human beings have to endure all the sorrows of life and all the grief. Yet, Shakespeare, being taught from his own grief, has the majestic ability to remain detached from personal views and his works portray the common and relatable aspects of every human being. Thus, his work can be seen as a victory over all the pain humankind has suffered.
This brilliant poem expresses the poet’s awe of the greatest dramatist of all times, Shakespeare. The poet is able to successfully give transparency to his expressions of praise for Shakespeare, and his work makes the readers appreciate the genius of Shakespeare more so ever.
The poem is set in a calm tone of a natural speech and is strong enough to convey the poet’s praises of Shakespeare.
This poem is a brilliant and skillful composition by Matthew Arnold, which reminds the readers of Shakespeare’s unquestionable greatness and uniqueness.