A Short Analysis of Matthew Arnold’s ‘Shakespeare’

A summary of a classic Matthew Arnold sonnet

Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) was a Victorian poet and critic whose views on everything from culture to education were hugely influential (Arnold’s day job was an inspector of schools, and he was the son of Thomas Arnold, influential headmaster of Rugby School). ‘Shakespeare’ is one of Arnold’s most frequently anthologised poems. Here is the sonnet, followed by a few words by way of analysis of it.


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.

By the time Arnold wrote this poem, in the 1840s (it was published in 1849, when Arnold was still in his mid-twenties), William Shakespeare’s reputation as the greatest English poet was secure. (It had not always been that Matthew Arnoldway, but since the eighteenth century, when editions of Shakespeare’s complete works began to appear and critics such as Samuel Johnson gave his work the close critical attention it deserved, the Bard had become the national poet.) It is this reputation that Arnold refers to in his opening line. The greatness of other poets remains open to question and scrutiny, but Shakespeare is ‘free’ of such discussion: his greatness is unquestionable. (Unless you’re George Bernard Shaw, that is.)

Arnold, as mentioned earlier, was an influential figure in Victorian education, and this is relevant to a discussion of this poem. Shakespeare was self-taught – he didn’t go to university, unlike many other poets and playwrights of his age – but, Arnold concludes, he was the better for it: he seemed to be closer to nature, to understand it more fully (the sunbeams and the stars), as a result of being ‘Self-school’d’:

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!

Indeed, Shakespeare is more impressive and awe-inspiring than a feat of nature such as a hill or mountain: like a mountain, he is a colossal and sublime force of nature which seems to reach the highest heavens while remaining down-to-earth (perhaps because of his rustic origins in the English midlands); but Shakespeare offers up more of himself to us than they do. The ‘cloudy border of his base’ is all that we can know of the ‘loftiest hill’, i.e. a tall mountain (nobody would climb to the summit of Everest until 1953, over a century after Arnold wrote his poem; to the Victorians many mountains seemed unknowable, apart from the lowest sections). But with Shakespeare we can know and enjoy all of his work, and everything that his work contains. And everything, Arnold concludes, is in Shakespeare: his plays and poems seem to have something to say about everything that afflicts us.

One final thought by way of analysis of this poem: ‘Shakespeare’ is a sonnet but it is not a straightforward Shakespearean sonnet. A Shakespearean, or English, sonnet rhymes ababcdcdefefgg; Arnold’s poem rhymes abba acca ded eff. This puts the poem somewhere between a Petrarchan, or Italian, sonnet and an English (Shakespearean) sonnet. Why write a poem about Shakespeare and not use the verse form that Shakespeare himself made famous? Well, perhaps that would be presumptuous; yet Arnold does conclude his poem with a couplet, like a good Shakespearean sonnet.

Continue to explore Arnold’s poetry with our analysis of his classic poem ‘Dover Beach’, and learn more about Shakespeare’s classic plays here.

Image: Matthew Arnold cartoon by Frederick Waddy, 1872; Wikimedia Commons.


About interestingliterature

A blog dedicated to rooting out the interesting stuff about classic books and authors.

Posted on March 7, 2016, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I had no idea Arnold wrote this. And yes, why not a sonnet–too obvious?

  1. Pingback: A Short Analysis of Matthew Arnold’s ‘Shakespeare’ | JCU // Creative Writing Workshop

%d bloggers like this: