“To Marguerite” by Matthew Arnold

In this post, I analyze a poem about isolation.

Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) was an inspector of schools in England for thirty-five years. He worked hard to improve the school standards and the curriculum.

After a while, he stopped writing poetry because, in his own words, “It is not enough that the Poet should add to the knowledge of men, it is required of him also that he should add to their happiness.” And he did not feel up to the task of imparting joy.

Arnold’s poem “To Marguerite” is presented and analyzed below.

To Marguerite
1 Yes! in the sea of life enisled,
2 With echoing straits between us thrown,
3 Dotting the shoreless watery wild,
4 We mortal millions live alone.
5 The islands feel the enclasping flow,
6 And then their endless bounds they know.
7 But when the moon their hollows lights,
8 And they are swept by balms of spring,
9 And in their glens, on starry nights,
10 The nightingales divinely sing;
11 And lovely notes, from shore to shore,
12 Across the sounds and channels pour—
13 Oh! then a longing like despair
14 Is to their farthest caverns sent;
15 For surely once, they feel, we were
16 Parts of a single continent!
17 Now round us spreads the watery plain—
18 Oh might our marges meet again!
19 Who ordered, that their longing’s fire
20 Should be, as soon as kindled, cooled?
21 Who renders vain their deep desire?—
22 A God, a God their severance ruled!
23 And bade betwixt their shores to be
24 The unplumbed, salt, estranging sea.

In this poem, Arnold uses the conceit (extended metaphor) of islands in a sea. People are the islands and the distance between them is the sea.

Arnold writes, “We mortal millions live alone” (L4). This is the thesis and complaint of the poem. At the end of this first stanza (L5-L6), he says that after people come close and embrace, they feel the emptiness between them once again.

Arnold uses the metaphor of “hollows” (L7) and “caverns” (L14). These might represent the empty space between people or the empty space within people when they feel lonely. In the second stanza (L7-L12), Arnold mentions some things related to romance: “moon,” “balms of spring,” “glen,” “starry nights,” and “nightingales.” In the third stanza (L13-L18), he describes a longing for a unity that might have been. Continuing with the island metaphor, he writes, “Now round us spreads the watery plain— / Oh might our marges [edges] meet again!” In other words, we are separate and alone, but I wish that we might find unity and togetherness again.

In the fourth and final stanza (L19-L24), Arnold asks who it was that ordained that people, so soon after their passion is lit, should find it cool again. And he answers that it is God who rules their separation, and it is he who ordered that there should be an “estranging sea” (L24) between them.

But is it really God who ordained the separation of people into “islands,” or is it God who wishes to end the separation? Does God divide us, or does God create unity? Is God aloof and distant, or is he omnipresent and immanent? These are questions that get to the heart of theology and affect how we view the world.

Perhaps we are spirits living in physical bodies. But if so, how did something as wonderful as God’s spiritual creations deign to inhabit dust? Something must have gone wrong. If we miss and long for true unity, then perhaps we once had it and long to have it again. Perhaps islands are not our native soil.

As Arnold writes (L15-L16), “For surely once, they feel, we were / Parts of a single continent!” Perhaps we can return to our native continental soil after death, or perhaps our spirit can be free even while it uses a body, but the freedom and oneness that we seek might require a change—from closed-mindedness to open-mindedness and complete sharing. How can we expect to find true unity unless we share with each other all that we are and think?

Historical Outline of English Poetry