On a fiercely sunny August day, the speaker of "East London" wanders through the streets of Bethnal Green. Through a window, he sees a weaver who seems down and dispirited.
Outside, the speaker meets a preacher. He assumes the preacher has been down as well, but the latter man announces that he has lately has been cheered with thoughts of Christ.
The last two stanzas stress the importance of faith; as long as you can "Set up a mark of everlasting light" above all your miseries and stresses, you will be cheered and comforted forever.
This short poem expresses the value that Arnold places in faith, which can help people manage an ever-changing world. He explores these extremes through the two characters that the speaker meets.
In the poem, society is overworked and exhausted, as represented by the dispirited weaver. However, the preacher is able to manage the world because his faith inspires a cheerful attitude. By focusing not on the world's troubles but instead on his faith in Christ, the preacher maintains a bright outlook. It is important that the preacher is on the same street as the speaker and weaver; the poem suggests that one can see the same physical world in a variety of ways.
This basic idea aligns with one Arnold expresses in many of his poems. As shown by poems like "The Scholar-Gispy" or "Bacchanalia" (amongst several others), Arnold believed that the world was changing for the worse along with rapid modernization and the increasing prominence of science. In such a world, people's faith was declining, even though it was the one thing that could keep them optimistic.
Just like "Austerity of Poetry," this poem is a sonnet with fourteen lines. Also like "Austerity of Poetry," the first two stanzas contain four lines each, while the second two contain three lines each. The split between the two sections represents a shift in the poem; in the first two stanzas, the speaker recounts his encounter with the preacher, and in the second two stanzas, he explains the moral of his experience. He confronts the reader directly in those final stanzas, with advice so powerful it almost reads as warning.
One final important thing to note about this poem is its archaic language; the use of words like "thou" and "thee" are more akin to the 16th century Elizabethan era than to Arnold's own time, the 1800s Victorian era. This was undoubtedly done on purpose. By using such archaic language, Arnold evokes a time when faith was a major driving force in peoples' lives. Through this diction, he is better able to express the regret over a lost world that makes this poem so effective.