To Marguerite by Matthew Arnold
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 lights,
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 order’d, that their longing’s fire
Should be, as soon as kindled, cool’d?
Who renders vain their deep desire?—
A God, a God their severance ruled!
And bade betwixt their shores to be
The unplumb’d, salt, estranging sea.
The poem was first published in 1857 and was a sequel to the poem Isolation: To Marguerite.
Arnold sets up a metaphor comparing humans to islands surrounded by the sea, which represents life and the world. It is a plea for community and the poem’s most famous line is “We mortal millions live alone”. Clearly the Marguerite of the title is someone with whom he wants a stronger connection, but the overall tone of the poem is pessimistic. “A God” is failing to supply faith and hope, individuals are left to their own devices, and there is a growing loss of control. John Donne had once famously written, ‘No man is an island”, but Arnold feels that every man is an island, divided from others by the “salt, estranging sea”. It’s a poem that wonderfully conveys the angst and uncertainties of life in mid-19th century England.
Matthew Arnold (1822 – 1888) was a poet, critic and school inspector. He became Professor of Poetry at Oxford in 1857. In 1847 he fell in love with Mary Claude who was holidaying at his parents’ house in the Lake District. She had grown up in a French community in Germany, and so in his poems he changed her name to Marguerite.
In 1851 he married Frances Lucy Wightman (who he rather endearingly called ‘Flu’) and they had six children and a happy marriage (isn’t it a pity his wife never persuaded him to shave off those ghastly Victorian whiskers!). Tell me what you think by leaving a comment.
You can listen to a reading of the poem by Dr Iain McGilchrist here: