Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1474
“Shakespeare,” by the English poet Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), is a sonnet written in tribute to one of England’s greatest sonnet writers and to the man whom many consider perhaps the greatest dramatist in world history.
The poem begins with a short sentence that will puzzle many modern readers: “Others abide our question” (line 1). What, precisely, does abide mean in this context? The Oxford English Dictionary (the best dictionary of the English language) offers various definitions of the verb abide that help make sense of Arnold’s phrasing. These include such meanings as to await or expect, to await submissively or submit to, to wait to the end of or hear out, and to suffer, tolerate, or put up with. In Arnold’s poem, the opening sentence seems to suggest that other persons (probably other great writers in particular) are willing to be questioned and that they actually yield up some answers to those who try to understand them. Shakespeare, however, remains “free” of such questioning, probably in the sense that he and his works can never quite be pinned down or finally figured out. They raise questions without ever fully answering them. They cannot be easily or definitively interpreted with any confidence. They provoke continued questions and thus provoke continued thought, whereas lesser writers and lesser works yield up answers without offering much resistance or presenting many difficulties.
The opening line, then, sharply distinguishes Shakespeare from “others” and then quickly leaves those others behind. They are never explicitly mentioned again, although they are present by implication because Shakespeare is everything that they are not. He is “free” in all the best senses of the word: free from idle questioning, free in the breadth and depth of his thinking, and free from the normal limitations of ordinary humans, even humans who are otherwise as great as he is. He is almost godlike in his inscrutability. He and his works are inexhaustible mysteries. Indeed, much of the language of the poem is the kind of language most often heard when people try to describe the Christian God. For Arnold (as for many people of his time), Shakespeare has achieved an almost divine status during an era when many persons were plagued with real doubts about the character—and even the existence—of the God of the Bible.
The speaker of the poem presents himself not as an isolated, particular individual but as the representative of all inquiring, intelligent humans: “We ask and ask” (line 2). (The effect would be much different, and Shakespeare would seem much less intriguing, if line 2 began by saying, “I ask and ask.”) In response to such questions, Shakespeare is a kind of male Mona Lisa: “Thou smilest and art still” (line 2). It is partly Shakespeare’s very peace and repose—the fact that he seems in no hurry to explain himself and his works—that make him so mystifying and fascinating. Paradoxically, he is, on one hand, perhaps the most eloquent person who has ever lived—the person most supremely endowed with the gift of speech—even as he is, on the other hand, the most inscrutable, the most reticent of all great writers. He feels no need to unravel the mysteries that he and his works present, and it is partly this calm repose that makes us want to pester him with questions.
Notice the structural parallels between lines 1 and 2. The first half of line 1 focuses on “others” and on us; the second half focuses on Shakespeare. The first half of line 2 focuses on us and our questions; the second half focuses on Shakespeare. In the first line, a period implies a sharp separation between (in the first half) others and ourselves and (in the second half) Shakespeare. Similarly, in the second line, a dash also separates us from Shakespeare. He is distinct and distant in every way, including even in the ways these lines are punctuated. He rises above all merely human “knowledge” (line 3).
The first two-and-a-half lines of the poem contain two relatively brief sentences. However, when the speaker turns his full attention to Shakespeare, in line 3, a long sentence begins to unfold that extends across eight and a half lines. Merely thinking of Shakespeare inspires, in this poem’s speaker, a kind of metaphorical eloquence resembling that of Shakespeare himself. Shakespeare, the great poet, evokes arguably great poetry in the speaker of this poem. In some ways a god, Shakespeare is in other ways a muse. Precisely because he is finally indescribable, he paradoxically provokes attempts to describe him, such as the present poem. In a kind of metaphysical “conceit” (that is, an extended metaphor), Shakespeare is compared to a lofty mountain, firmly planted in the earth yet reaching up above the clouds and toward the stars. He and his works are anchored in earthly reality but are also literally sublime (that is, both elevated and elevating). Only the heavens completely perceive Shakespeare’s full majesty. He is at once solid and steadfast and also full of energy, as the string of verbs (associated with the hill that symbolizes him) suggests. Like the imposing mountain to which he is compared, Shakespeare’s highest parts dwell in the “heaven of heavens” (line 6). As this very phrase implies, attempts to describe him only reveal the limits of language. He is so great that he cannot fully be conceived, much less put easily into words.
In this way as in so many other ways, Shakespeare resembles God, whose home is also, according to tradition, a “heaven of heavens.” Also like God, Shakespeare far exceeds the “foil’d searching of mortality” (line 8). The reference to “mortality,” in fact, is crucial: Shakespeare, like God, enjoys a kind of eternal life; “others” and we, in contrast, are among those fated to die. Shakespeare’s works have given him a kind of ever-continuing existence that has allowed him to cheat death. He is as solid and permanent as the mountain to which he is compared.
Just as the poem compares Shakespeare to something that transcends normal limits, so Arnold departs from the normal or expected rules of the sonnet form. On one hand, he chooses (appropriately enough) a variation of the Shakespearean sonnet form (a form that Shakespeare did so much to popularize). The rhyme scheme of Shakespearean sonnets consists of three quatrains (four-line stanzas) followed by a two-line couplet. However, rather than rhyming the poem as a traditional Shakespearean sonnet would rhyme (a/b/a/b, c/d/c/d, e/f/e/f, g/g), Arnold in this poem departs from that pattern, choosing something similar but also different (a/b/b/a, a/c/c/a, d/e/d/e, d/d). It is as if, in paying tribute in a sonnet to one of the greatest of all sonnet writers, Arnold nonetheless wants to seem creative rather than merely imitative in a way one might have expected.
One of the most rhetorically memorable lines of Arnold’s poem is the one in which he calls Shakespeare “Self-school'd, self-scann'd, self-honour'd, self-secure” (line 10). The heavy repetition here, along with the strong use of alliteration, makes the line itself seem self-involved and self-referential. Just as Shakespeare is set apart from the rest of humanity, so this line seems set apart, rhetorically, from the rest of the poem. The heavy emphasis here on Shakespeare’s self-sufficiency makes him sound, once more, like God. It is as if Shakespeare, like God, needs none of the admiration and tributes he thereby inevitably provokes. Shakespeare was a kind of god who, somewhat like Christ, “Didst tread on earth unguess'd at” (line 11). Not until Christ’s crucifixion was Christ’s true identity fully revealed (and it was doubted or rejected, by many, even then). Shakespeare was likewise a kind of god among the English, but his true greatness did not become widely apparent until after his work was done here and after his earthly life had ended.
The sonnet’s implied comparison of Shakespeare to Christ becomes especially apparent in lines 12 and 13, which mention how Shakespeare suffered
All pains [that] the immortal spirit must endure,
All weakness which impairs, all griefs which bow....
The implied comparison to Christ is enhanced even further when the poem ends by referring to Shakespeare’s “victorious brow” (line 14). Shakespeare, in other words, was a human being whose “immortal spirit,” like Christ’s, had to suffer all human pains but who also triumphed over them. Part of his triumph, however, involved giving the deepest, truest possible expression to those pains. He gave them their “sole speech” (line 14), with a possible pun on sole and soul. Like Christ, Shakespeare was somehow immensely different from other human beings but also immensely like them, as well. For Arnold’s speaker, Shakespeare was a normal person who was also, in some ways and in some senses, divine.