On “To Marguerite—Continued”
by George Soule
A revised version of an article first published in Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition. Pasadena, CA: Salem Press, 2002.
Yes! In the sea of life enisled,
With echoing straits between us thrown,
Dotting the shoreless watery wild,
We mortal millions live alone.
The islands feel the enclasping flow,
And then their endless bounds they know.
But when the moon their hollows light,
And they are swept by balms of spring,
And in their glens, on starry nights,
The nightingales divinely sing;
And lovely notes, from shore to shore,
Across the sounds and channels pour—
Oh! Then a longing like despair
Is to their farthest caverns sent;
For surely once, they feel, we were
Parts of a single continent!
Now round us spreads the watery plain—
Oh might our marges meet again!
Who ordered that their longing’s fire
Should be as soon as kindled, cooled?
Who renders vain their deep desire?
A God, a God their severance ruled!
And bade betwixt their shores to be
The unplumbed salt, estranging sea.
Matthew Arnold’s haunting “To Marguerite--Continued” was first published in Empedocles on Etna and Other Poems in 1852 under the title “To Marguerite, In Returning a Volume of the Letters of Ortis.” In 1853, Arnold gave this poem the simple title “To Marguerite” and included it in a group of poems with the general title of “Switzerland.” In 1857, he titled this poem “Isolation,” but in 1969 he gave that title to another “Switzerland” poem and assigned to this poem its final title.
Even though neither Marguerite nor Switzerland are mentioned in the poem, Arnold’s shufflings of texts and titles makes clear that “To Marguerite—Continued” belongs to his “Switzerland” group. Arnold visited Switzerland in 1848 and 1849. These poems, written mainly between 1847 and 1850, tell a love story of meetings and partings. There have been many theories of who Marguerite was; even though some have doubted her existence, these poems probably had their beginnings in a real (and unfulfilled) love relationship. Other “Switzerland” poems hint that Arnold found his desires thwarted by his inner moral voice, or by differences in the lovers’ cultural past (Marguerite may have been French), or by her sexual experience, or simply by Marguerite’s fickleness. At the end of the poem which eventually was placed before “To Marguerite—Continued,” Arnold abstracts from his experience: unlike other men who dream that two hearts could become as one, Arnold knows that he is truly alone. As a whole, these poems are both poignant and somewhat juvenile in their tone. Note too that in the poem, in spite of what we can guess the situation was in real life, Arnold imagines his partner to be as anxious as he to overcome isolation..
First, an overview. “To Marguerite—Continued” begins with the word “Yes!” as if affirming what has just been said, either by the book being returned or by the preceding poem. The underlying idea of “To Marguerite—Continued” is simple: every human being lives his or her life in isolation. The first stanza introduces the poem’s basic metaphor: life is a boundless sea; we are all separate islands in it. We are conscious of our predicament—we “feel” and “know” that something separates us from other persons.
The second stanza takes off from an earlier hint (the straights are “echoing”) to describe an element that seems to make our state more bearable: at certain times each island is filled with beautiful music. What’s more, other islands are close enough that the various melodies cross the sea and are heard on these other islands. In short, some communication between the essentially isolated people is possible.
But this realization leads, not to joy but to despair. Stanza Three describes how the partial communication of Stanza Two leads each human being to yearn for total communication. Stanza Four asks a general question: what power has caused this situation to exist? Arnold answers “A God.”
Let’s look at how the poem is constructed. This poem is written in iambic tetrameter—a meter that usually reads quickly. But its four stanzas’ rhyme scheme of ababcc makes each end in a rather emphatic couplet, ensuring that the poem’s progress is stately and, even when impassioned, not out of control.
The essential device of “To Marguerite—Continued” is its metaphor comparing human beings to individual islands separated by “the sea of life.” What makes this poem remarkable is how this rather simple comparison grows and branches out to say more and more about the human condition. The islands are conscious. Each person feels caught in the clasp of the sea and thereby know his or her bounds or limits. These “bounds” are endless the way a circle’s bounds are endless; they are also endless in that they are the eternal fact of human life. Stanza Two further develops the metaphor by emphasizing that a each island is near a number of other islands, so near that occasionally songs can be heard from other islands. The word “spring” implies that these occasions happen mainly when we are young, and the songs suggest that the possible communications are lyrical and emotional.
Stanza Three takes the idea of this island even further: as each island has its “farthest caverns,” that is, each individual yearns in the deepest part of his or her being. Moreover, back in geological time the islands could have been “Parts of a single continent!” That is, each human being yearns so hard that he or she comes to envisions a time in the past when these yearnings were satisfied and prays (probably in vain) that the islands can meet once again in the future. The last stanza proceeds without a metaphor in its opening lines, but then Arnold eloquently brings out what had been only implicit before—the nature of the sea itself, the nature of what isolates human beings.
This metaphor is the poem’s most obvious device, but Arnold effectively controls other aspects of language as well. Stanza One begins with four very straight-forward lines uttered in an assured tone, quite unlike the adolescent whining and posturing of many of the other “Switzerland poems.” Here Arnold forcefully constructs a periodic sentence leading up with heavy alliteration (“mortal millions”) to the essential word “alone,” which he italicizes for emphasis. The tone becomes more tender in the concluding couplet as we are invited to feel what the islands feel. (This couplet was set off by an indentation in its first publication.)
Stanza Two, describing the lovely night of brief melodic communion, is the poem’s most lyric passage. With its moon and hollows and glens and nightingales, it provides the poem’s most extended description of a scene which readers can see and hear in their imaginations. And whereas Stanza One was declarative (two sentences, three independent clauses), this stanza is not a really sentence at all, but a long evocative dependent clause or string of clauses.
Stanza Three hits a strident note as the full flood of yearning surfaces. Of the poem’s five exclamation points, three of occur in this stanza. Two are in the first sentence, which is a cry for what might have been; the second marks a prayer for what Arnold hopes may be.
Stanza Four’s changes to a less intimate tone. Arnold grandly demands to know who is responsible in the poem’s most rhetorically pointed and rhythmically jagged lines: “Who ordered that their longing’s fire / Should be, as soon as kindled, cooled?” He answers his question with emphatic repetition and the poem’s last exclamation point: “A God, a God their severance ruled!” This line was also emphasized by indentation in its first publication, and its impassioned force then yields to the controlled, eloquent, and perhaps bitter acceptance of the slow and regularly-paced final couplet. Here Arnold’s diction is particularly resonant. The gulf between us has unknown depths; perhaps it may be plumbed in the distant future, but for now it is too deep to cross. It is salty: literally the ocean is salty, but salt makes wounds even more painful, and salt is the stuff of tears. It is “estranging”—it keeps us strangers to each other.
A longer view: even though “To Marguerite—Continued” is a lyric poem rooted its own age, it shows strong influences of the Latin literature which Arnold knew from his studies. The most important verbal parallels are from an ode by Horace (I iii); Arnold’s word “estranging” probably came from a translation of that ode made by a famous Latin master he knew. But the ocean for Horace only divided him from a friend for a time, whereas the estrangement of Arnold’s ocean is a permanent feature of life. Similarly, Arnold’s isolation is not that of Ortis, a rather Byronic and romantic outlaw figure whose letters are mentioned in the poem’s first title.
Some critics have thought the poem reflects Arnold’s life-long criticism of English culture for being isolated from enlightened European thought. But even though this idea is strongly present in “Dover Beach” (1867), Arnold’s other major poem about isolation, it is no more than a suggestion here.
The poem is not just about estrangement, but a range of estrangements. Certainly, the poem emphasizes the impossibility of love, including sexual love. Arnold regarded it as one of his “Switzerland” poems, which tell a story of explicitly sexual love that seems to be thwarted by Arnold’s hesitations and inhibitions. The bits of communication that are able to occur in Stanza Two consist of nightingales’ songs on a conventionally romantic spring night. Yet the yearnings are not solely sexual; Arnold yearns for total communication. Readers probably respond to this poem for its extravagance. It speaks of longings that come from the heart’s deepest recesses; it unites sexual yearnings with all hopes for intimate knowledge of other people. The word “divinely” may suggest religious yearnings as well. In all cases, the source of unhappiness is located in the sea, not the islands: if it were not for a power outside the individual, that individual might be free. Arnold does not suggest he is in any way responsible for the condition he in which he finds himself.
Arnold’s central metaphor should be contrasted to the famous passage from John Donne’s Devotions (1624): “No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine.” Against a background of Anglican ritual, Donne says that men and women are not islands, that all of us are joined in the human condition. Two hundred years later, Arnold was a voice of a new generation in a new century. The Church of England had been weakened by dissent and by doubt (in “Dover Beach” the “Sea of Faith” is ebbing). Moreover, such forces as the industrialization of central England and the speed of the passenger train had begun to weaken the social fabric of the old order. People were becoming more isolated; many Victorian sages noted that fact. Arnold’s poem is not only a poem about immature love and human isolation but is a response to the beginnings of a recognizably modern world. This poem is one of the nineteenth century’s most eloquent evocation of this theme.