Poetry Study Aid : Mathew Arnold: Shakespeare

In the sonnet ‘Shakespeare’, Mathew Arnold sings the praises of Shakespeare, the greatest poet and the dramatist. Arnold commends and compliments the indeterminable and inexplicable immenseness of Shakespeare as poet and playwright which form the thematic essence of the poem. The deep and profound understanding of human minds and manners as well as intrinsically complex working of human feeling and emotions find apt and accurate expression in Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s greatness and grandeur is not for an age but for all ages; his poems and plays appeal to all in all ages. Shakespeare is quite the Bard.

Extract 1
Others abide our question. Thou art free.
We ask and ask- thou smilest and art still
Out-topping all knowledge. For the loftiest hill,
Who to the stars uncrowns his majesty
Planting his steadfast footsteps in the sea,

Making heaven of heavens his dwelling place,
Spares but the cloudy border of his base
To the foil’d searching of mortality; 

1. Who are “Others’ referred to in the first line of the extract? What is the contrast expressed in the first line of the extract?
Mathew Arnold refers to poets other than Shakespeare here and carries out a comparative evaluation of Shakespeare and other poets in the first line of the poem.
Others or other poets yield themselves to the inquiry and appraisal of the readers and critics. These poets comply with the norms and traditions of the conventional writing. Shakespeare, nevertheless, abides by no such prescripts but follows his heart and very often follows the road less travelled. Thus Shakespeare stands tall among the other poets free of the customary scrutiny and criticism. Shakespeare’s poetics is beyond the wonted way that the readers and critics follow.
2. Explain: We ask and ask- thou smilest and art still
The readers and critics have numerous questions for Shakespeare and seek clarifications on many aspects of his poetic work and persistently pursue these doubts and enquiries. However, Shakespeare remains detached and silent and merely smiles enigmatically. The true understanding of Shakespeare seems to be beyond the grasp of all the mortals.
3. What do you understand by the phrase ’out-topping knowledge”?
Out-topping = going over the limit or boundaries. The knowledge that is limitless and stretches beyond the boundaries of human comprehension.
4. Comment on the metaphor of the mountain that Arnold engages to evoke the greatness of Shakespeare.
Arnold compares Shakespeare’s grandeur to the top a mountain whose crown is so high that we can view only its indistinct and clouded fringe. Here, Arnold stresses that in spite of numerous attempts by numerous schools of critics as well as the countless admiring readers of Shakespeare through many ages, none has been able to fully fathom the profoundness of Shakespeare’s thoughts and successfully scale the pinnacle of Shakespeare’s genius.
Shakespeare is the loftiest hill whereas , in comparison, the other poets are the other lesser mountains. Just as these smaller mountains can never hope to match up with the lofty height of the hill, the other poets cannot even dream of matching the greatness and genius of Shakespeare.
We cannot distinctly view the true height of this lofty hill as its pinnacle is hazy because of the clouds surround it. Similarly, the grandeur and genius of Shakespeare can only be imagined, not distinctly determined, as his genius is beyond the comprehension of the mortals. All mortal attempts to assess and analyze Shakespeare fall futile because of the vastitude of Shakespearean vista.
5. Clarify: Who to the stars uncrowns his majesty
The lofty hill reveals (uncrowns) its majestic summit to the lofty stars. Likewise, Shakespearean summit of success is revealed only to the astral figures.
The mountain is personified here. The mountain is a colossal figure with its feet in the sea and the crown among the skies(heaven of heavens). And Shakespeare, beyond doubt, is truly a titan in comparison of the other poets.
6. Annotate the phrase “the foil’d searching of mortality”. 
All human endeavours to comprehend the greatness of Shakespeare’s genius are defeated. All mortal attempts to review and scrutinize Shakespeare fall futile because of the vastness of Shakespearean expanse.

Extract 2
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!
1. What is the significance of the first line vis a vis Shakespearean imagination the first line of the extract?
Mathew Arnold here extols the imaginative faculty of Shakespeare which was astral in nature and brilliant in form. Shakespeare’s imagination rose loftily upward among the stars and among the dazzling sunrays in a manner similar to a lofty mountain.
Shakespeare ‘s vision was sublime and his ideals and thoughts were majestic. Only the astral and celestial figures perceived the true nature of Shakespeare’s brilliant creative faculties.
2. Elucidate : Self-school’d,self-scann’d, self-honour’d, self-secure,
Shakespeare had only a meagre formal education , ‘ a little knowledge of Latin and Greek’. However, life was his greatest school and mentor. He was self-taught and self-made. (self-school’d)
The poet-dramatist Shakespeare sought his inspiration in the complexities of life(self-scann’d). His sharp and close study of life and his ability to go deeper and deeper into the unknown realms of human heart and mind enabled him to rise to the topmost status as a poet-dramatist.
Shakespeare was able to analyze himself his own strengths and flaws and this enabled him to judge himself truly and know his own worth as a creative artist. Shakespeare, whose all-embracing greatness was not duly recognized in his time, did not lose heart because of his confidence in his creative faculties and the knowledge of his true worth. He was self-confident and self-assured of his status as a poet and dramatist.
3. Comment on the lines: Didst tread on earth unguess’d at-Better so!
Shakespeare walked proudly on earth although not fully understood by his contemporaries.
Earlier, Arnold had compared Shakespeare’s greatness and genius to a loft mountain with its crown among the clouds and the feet firmly on the sea..
Shakespeare, in spite of his lofty vision and incomparable imagination, never lost touch with the common man. He, with his innate ability to read the minds of men, was able to create classical tragedies and comedies in masterful flair yet remained catered to needs and appeal of the riff-raff and the common man . This enigmatic creative power, to soar up among the loftiest of the ideas and at the same time appeal to the masses, made him extremely popular among all. He was able to write the great tragedies like Hamlet and King Lear with their deep insight into the complex workings of the human mind. With the same élan he created rollicking comedies like As You Like It and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Shakespeare remained not  adequately understood and esteemed in his days and Arnold feels that it was for the better.
Extract 3

            All pains the immortal spirit must endure,
            All weakens which impairs, all griefs which bow,
            Find their sole speech in that victorious brow.
 
An note on the above three lines:
The immortal spirits are the human beings. The men and women have to endure immense sorrow in their life; they have weakness that impairs (corrupts) their souls and enormous burdens of grief that make them bow (surrender) to the vicissitudes of life.
Shakespeare well-schooled in the school of life had been able to portray truly through his characters the pains that men endure, the weaknesses that sully their character as well as the sorrows that burden them and force them to yield to the pressures of life.
The Shakespearean tragedies, with their deep psychological insight to the working of the human mind, are epitomes of human life in its various tragic aspects. In spite of the successful depiction of all the sufferings and sorrows that human beings have to endure in their life, Shakespeare remained detached from his portrayal of these tragic milieu. Man’s sufferings and sorrows find their true exp0ression only in the words of Shakespeare (sole speech). The distance that Shakespeare was able to keep from his themes and characters enabled him to be unaffected by the pains, sorrows and hardships that we the immortals endure. This artistic detachment empowered Shakespeare to triumph over the human follies and flaws and the serene face (brow) of Shakespeare reveals the triumph.