To Marguerite – Matthew Arnold
Psychological isolation is a theme that runs as a vein throughout Matthew Arnold’s poetry which has won much critical acclaim. Poems like Dover Beach and To Marguerite reverse the argument made by John Donne, the metaphysical poet, that “No man is an island”, by emphasizing that mortals have indeed become permanently “enisled”.
A vein of pessimism runs through this poem with Matthew Arnold declaring that man has been enisled with wide swathes of water separating him from fellow humans. It seems like that is the way things are going to remain. It is not that there is no desire for communication; people are intensely aware of each other:
For surely once, they feel, we were
Parts of a single continent.
But there is a strange inability to achieve that. The scientific belief that the world was a whole until continents began to break up and drift away may have provided the basis for Arnold’s belief that we are growing spiritually distant and it will impossible to bridge that distance. Arnold ends the poem by declaring that things will not change for the better as the God who controls this modern world does not will it.
By painting an image of the world as scattered islands separated by endless seas, Arnold says that the human race is doomed to isolation. They desire to make contact but are unable to do so. It is an uncaring God who has willed this. People of Victorian England genuinely feared physical isolation more than anything else. This fear is reflected in the poem To Marguerite.
There are millions of mortals but we live alone because we have become like islands cast on an endless ocean. The oceans that separate the islands prevent any communication. Using the lovely image of the song of nightingales, the poet says that just like the beautiful bird song attracts us towards it, we are drawn to each other though spiritually separated. It is very likely that mankind was at one time joined just as the world was one whole. It is a modern God who is effecting this separation. Unlike the Gods of old, this God cannot provide succor for mankind which thirsts for companionship.
This poem is typical of much of Arnold’s poetry with its pessimistic tone and emphasis on alienation, isolation and longing for bonding that does not happen. Arnold’s professional life as an inspector of schools forced him to travel for long periods traversing England. Much of this was to small towns where he would have experienced loneliness. Arnold’s personal philosophy was that we must moderate our wishes rather than go after joys that are not within our grasp.