1 March 2022 Susannah

Matthew Arnold & To Marguerite

Tiny islands in the East China Sea

I love Matthew Arnold’s poem Dover Beach more than any of his other poems, but am also very fond of this one:

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:

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Featured image credit- Tiny islands in the East China Sea, https://www.facebook.com/LaVoz.com.ar/photos
Body image credit- Matthew Arnold by Elliott & Fry, circa 1883, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23940996

Comments (6)

  1. Pamela

    “The Forsaken Merman “ was one of many poems we learnt in year 6 in 1954. Our teacher – Miss Rice – enjoyed reading poetry to us and teaching it.
    Another was Alfred Noyes “The Highwayman”. We all enjoyed those lessons.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I am so glad you also love The Highwayman – one of my favourite poems ever!

  2. Margaret Clingan Wright

    Hullo, Susannah. I hadn’t read that poem, but I know very well ‘The Forsaken Merman’. I would read it to all my year 6 classes when I was a primary school teacher, and we’d all be weeping by the last lines: There dwells a loved one, but cruel is she. She left lonely for ever, the kings of the sea.
    During a 6 month stay in Pimlico,London,in 1995, my husband and I went for our usual Sunday morning stroll, and chanced upon Chester Square, Belgravia. We found that a number of interesting people had lived in houses there, including Matthew Arnold, Mrs Thatcher (current) Queen Wilhelmina of Holland during the war, and Winston Churchill briefly. We stood on a corner watching a fashion photo shoot, when a taxi pulled up, and a man alighted, and came over to chat about the ‘shoot’ As soon as he heard me speak, he recognised me as Australian, and wanted to know about our time in London. He indicated his house, and I commented that he was near Matthew Arnold’s house. He was interested that I had even heard of him, and asked if I’d ever seen inside one of these houses, and would I be interested. Would I? So he took us into his own, which would be very similar to that of Matthew Arnold, being in the same graceful terrace.
    We had a fascinating morning looking at his art works and treasures, and hearing about his interesting life and connections.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Oh you are so lucky to have got inside that house. What a nice man and interesting experience. Matthew Arnold evidently had a happy marriage, and a good career in the service of education, but I feel sad that he stopped writing poetry as he grew older.
      Yes, The Forsaken Merman is a much better known work by Arnold, but I rather like the Margeurite ones too.

      • Margaret Clingan Wright

        Yes, that man was indeed very special. I shall see you when you come to Molonglo Plains ADFAS next month (looking forward very much to hearing your Mitford Girls talk!!) and if I have a moment, I’ll elaborate.

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