The Forsaken Merman: Summary and Analysis

Also Read


      First published in 1849, The Forsaken Merman is one of the early poems of Matthew Arnold. It is likely Arnold took hints for the poem from Hans Anderson's The True Story of My Life and George Borrow's Romantic Ballads. But the unmistakable, subtle and shining touch of Arnold has transformed the story into what Stopford Brooke has mentioned as a poem which is "most charming the most romantic, most in the world of pure and tender imagination". It is the finest example of the poet's power to select what is suitable for his purpose and to light up an ancient theme with new and original beauty.

      Some critics think that the Margaret in the poem is linked with Marguerite of the Switzerland poems. If it is true, then The Forsaken Merman is an allegory of the poet's own love affair with the blue eyed French girl. The kindly sea creature who has been abandoned by his human wife is Arnold himself who found some unsurmountable difficulty in consummating his love for Marguerite.

      The Story as in Romantic Ballads: Grethe, the only child of her parents was washing her clothes, when a merman rose out of water and talked with her in a friendly manner. He invited her to accompany him to the bottom of the sea and live as his wife. She went with him and in time five children were born to the couple. Many years later, as they came near the shore, she happened to hear the chapel bells ringing. Feeling a great longing to say her prayers she requested the merman to allow her to go and pray. But even after the sermon despite the repeated calls of the merman she did not return to the sea. The merman called "Grethe, Grethe, Grethe", thrice, but she didn't reply. She had decided to go back to her parents and stay with them. The merman wept bitterly and went back to the depth of the sea, forsaken by his human wife. There is remarkable resemblance between the story in Romantic Ballads and that of Arnold. Slight, but certain, Tennysonian influence too is noticeable in the poem. There is present considerable power of imagery, versification and pathos.


      The Forsaken Merman, is the lament of a merman whose human wife abandoned him. Despite his pathetic call for Margaret, there is no response from her. He tells the children to go to the bottom of the sea for their mother would not come back to them. As a last attempt he tells them to call once more before they leave. As children's voice can touch the heart of a mother, perhaps she would come to them. But then, despair again overcomes him and tells the children not to call any more. Margaret doesn't intend to come.

      Then there is a flash back to the days Margaret lived with the husband and children at the bottom of the sea. They lived in the caverns which were not affected by the winds. There the weeds swayed, the sea snakes coiled and twined and big whales ambled around with unshut eye. The merman feels as if they lived. the life with Margaret only the other day. He remembers how Margaret sat, along with him on a gold-red throne, in the depths, with youngest child on her knee. Then he remembers how one day she heard the sound of a far off church bell. She said it was Easter-time and she wanted to go to her kinsmen and pray in the little grey church, in order to save her soul. The merman allowed her to go but asked her to return after her prayers. But she did not return at all. So he, along with the children came up from the depth of the sea. They reached the shore, went through the narrow streets and reached the little grey church. They heard the murmur of the people praying and saw Margaret sitting near a pillar, her eyes sealed to the prayer-book. He calls to her to return to them, but she never even looked in his direction. Now he urges the children to call her no more and to go to the bottom of the sea. Then he thinks of the things Margaret may be doing among humans, spinning and singing joyously till the wheels drop from her hand. She is likely to enjoy watching the humans around her and the blessed light of the sun. Sometimes she will go to the window and look at the sand on the sea shore, shed a tear or heave a sorrow-laden sigh, possibly thinking of the golden hair of her mermaid child.

      The merman thinks that Margaret will feel disturbed in her sleep when the winds shake the doors and howl and the waves roar. The merman and the children watch the ceiling of amber the waves make and sing about the faithlessness of the mortal wife, and their own abandoned life. On beautiful nights, when the wind is gentle, and the moon is full, and the tide is ebbing they will go to the sea shore and look at the church on the hill-side and sing of the cruelty of Margaret in leaving them.

      There are three distinguishable parts in the poem. The recollection of the happy days the merman had with Margaret and their children is the first. The unhappy present when the merman and the children realize that they are forsaken is the second. The third is the future, when they would be looking at the distant church from the sea-shore in calm and beautiful nights when "clear falls the moon-light".


      The Forsaken Merman is one of the most popular poems of Arnold. According to some critics even if Arnold had not written any poem except this, a permanent place in English poetry would have been his by virtue of this piece. Many consider it the first flower of Arnold's lyrical genius. Oliver Elton calls it "Not a story but a chant involving a story". Professor Saintsbury considers it a great poem-one by itself, one which finds and keeps its own place in the fore-ordained gallery or museum, with which every lover of poetry is provided".

      The threat bare story: In the poem we find a simple and thread bare story of, a merman who was abandoned by his once loving human wife. They had a happy married life at the bottom of the sea and were blessed with five children. But then she left them, never to come back. It is in the form of a dramatic monologue, with the merman-children forming a sort of audience. The Danish original justifies the human wife for going back to the earth to her soul, but Arnold's Margaret is pictured as faithless and cruel.

      Allegorie Meaning: Apart from the probable allegory of Arnold - Marguerite love-affair, there is another allegorical meaning which some critics find in the poem. The world to which Margaret returns is bleak and grim while the life as the wife of the merman was rich and aristocratic. She was the queen among the "kings of the sea". The world of the grey church is a closed one of hard and confining objects; while below, in the depth of the sea life was timeless with its slow movement and shadowy lights. Arnold appears to say that Margaret who let the freedom and ambiance of the sea, and made herself a slave to the prayer book and the spinning wheel is like England which has lost its ancient heritage of poetic beauty and poetic truth.

      There are others who see in the poem the lure of spirituality that makes a worldly man renounce the pleasures of the senses. Merman and his life stands for the sensuous pleasures while the grey church on the hillside and the prayer book represents a life of renunciation and contemplation. However, much we are engrossed in the worldly pleasures, there comes a time when, like the sound of the distant church bell, a sudden thought reaches him, making him aware of the superiority of the contemplative life. The conscience rings the church bell, to all Margaret's who go to the depths and enjoy a life of sensuous primitivity forgetting all about the "soul". According to popular myth, Mermen do not possess souls. By agreeing to be the Merman's wife Margaret had bartered away her soul for something less wholesome, the sensuous life. But for her accidental hearing of the church bell she would have lost her soul. As she had not stifled her soul completely the sound of the bell helped her to go back to her nobler life. Here the church bell becomes a symbol of religion, or spirituality.

      Once Margaret is admitted to a life of spirituality, she forgets the temptations of her early life, forgets her husband and children. Or she enters a life of renunciation, abandoning all the call of the flesh. Once Margaret is in the church, her eyes are seal'd into the prayer book and she is either unable to hear the call of her husband and children or is neglecting their call. This appears to be the central idea of the poem.

      Beautiful Piece in Itself: Even without connecting the poem with Marguerite of Switzerland poems, or without attributing any symbolic meaning to it, its literary beauty can be appreciated. As a simple fanciful story it has its value even like The Rime of the Ancient Mariner of Coleridge.

      Depth of Pathos in the Poem: The tender and deep pathos of the poem is perhaps its most striking quality. The merman is in a state of deep grief for being abandoned by his human wife and the poem is his pathetic lament.

.....gaze from the sand hills
At the white sleeping town,

      There is nothing he can do to relieve him of his grief except to come back and to sing of the cruelty Margaret has shown to the "kings of the sea". The poem starts with an elegiac tone, that pervades the poem till the very end.

Come dear children, let us away;
Children dear, let us away
This way, this way
Call her once before you go.
Call once yet.

      The kind and affectionate father knows that;

Children's voices should be dear a mother's ear:

      And asks them to call once more. He is still left with some belief in her love and thinks: "Surely she will come again". But soon reality dawns upon him and tells the children that she will not come though you call all the day". Then very wistfully he turns the pages of the book of memory and sees the picture of the happy days he lived together with Margaret. He reminds the children:

Once she sate with you and me,
On the red gold throne in the heart of the sea,
And the youngest sate on the knee.

      Truly it is a picture of domestic glory. But that was not to continue for long. The "sound of a far off bell" reached her and reminded that it was Easter time. She wanted to go to the church for she was reminded how she neglected her soul by living with the merman. Merman gladly allows her to go. She smiled' and went away. The irony of the word "smiled" is really touching.

      Saddened by the long delay of Margaret, the merman and children reached the church and saw her clearly. They could only wait outside and call,

Margaret, hist! come quick, we are here. Dear heart' I said "We are long alone.
The sea grows stormy, the little ones moan."

      But her eyes were 'seal'd to the book' and never even looked at them. Surely the reader extends his sympathy to the motherless children. But she is singing of the joy

For the priest and the bell and the holy well
And the blessed light of the sun

      Perhaps the most moving part of the poem is where the merman thinks that occasionally Margaret will be reminded of her past life at the bottom of the sea.

....and looks at the sand,
And over the sand at the sea;
And her eyes are set in a stare;
And anon there breaks a sigh,
And anon there drops a tear,
From a sorrow-clouded eye
And a heart sorrow-laden,
A long, long sigh
For the cold strange eyes of a little Mermaiden,
And the gleam of her golden hair.

      Margaret might not do so, but the Merman's thinking that she would, lends a deep pathos to those lines. At the ending of the poem, we reach the shrillest note in the Merman's lament. Occasionally he with the children would reach the beach at ebb-tide during moonlit midnights and sing:

..There dwells a lov'd one
But cruel is she
She left lonely for ever
The kings of the sea

      Scenic Description: Arnold's skill in giving word pictures of nature's charms can be found in this poem. The description of is rich in imagination as well as in its musical quality.

Sand-strewn caverns, cool and deep, Where the winds are all asleep;
Where the spent lights quiver and gleam; Where the salt weed sways in the stream;
Where the sea beasts rang'd all round Feed in the ooze of their pasture-ground;

      Then there is the scene, where the Merman imagines that Margaret might, at a wistful moment, look at the sea with nostalgia. Though a short description it is touching because of the associated pathos.

She steals to the window, and looks at the sand;
And over the sand at the sea;

      A modern cinematic photographer would make this scene look unforgetful, portraying the all embarassing melancholy involved.

      Again there is the sight of the disturbed sea surface as seen from the bottom.

We shall see, while above us
The waves roar and whirl,
A ceiling of amber,
A pavement of pearl.

      Which will haunt the memory of a reader. The final description of the beach at ebb-tide where the Merman-family might try to steal a look at the church to which Margaret has gone is perhaps like an impressionistic painting.

When soft the winds blow;

When clear falls in moonlight;
When spring tides are low:
When sweet airs come seaward;
From heaths starr'd with broom
And high rocks throw mildly
On the blanch'd sands a gloom:
Up the still glistening beaches,
Up the creeks we will hie;
Over banks of bright seaweed
The ebb-tide leaves dry.

      The reader gets a lively picture of the forsaken family with sadness written on the face, longingly looking at the church against an eerie background.

      Romanticism: Highly lyrical and fanciful, the poem shows the romantic in Arnold. An avowed classicist he consciously tried to suppress the romantic strain in him. But in many poems it found an unconscious outlet. The Forsaken Merman is one such poem where the romantic elements outweigh the classical. Elizabeth Barret Browning praised it and Swinburne learnt by heart the whole poem during his childhood, for its romantic qualities. Arnold's greatest achievement in lyrical poetry is perhaps this piece. In it there is no Arnoldian preaching tinged with classicism, no intellectual melancholy, no sombre criticism of life. The poem appears more Keatsian than Arnoldian. In it Arnold sings plaintively, though not rapturously like the typical romantic poet. The intense personal feeling, the poignant pathos, its imaginative quality, its remarkably exquisite scenic description, and its love for the strangely mythical are truly romantic qualities and they are the qualities that make the poem appealing.

      Despite the predominant romantic strain, there are classical qualities too present in it. Decorative phrases and expressions for their own sake are scrupulously avoided; and the classical restraint is noticeable. The lucidity of style in the poem is like that found in the classical masters.

      The beauty of the poem is enhanced by the nostalgia for a past which is gone for ever. The Merman recalling his happy days with his human wife is parallel to Arnold's talking nostalgically of the dreaming spires of Oxford of old, the Oxford where ghosts of idealists, like that of the Gipsy scholar roam around even centuries after they lived. And the Merman, even like Arnold, knows that those past is gone for ever and it is not likely to come back again.


1. "Come dear......seaward flow. (Line 1-5)

      These lines help to give the impression of an abrupt beginning to the poem. The story starts to unfold from its chronological beginnings much later in line 30. The reader is to imagine the abandoned and sad looking Merman along with his equally sad, looking merman-children patiently waiting for Margaret's return. Tired of waiting, he thinks of his kinsmen becoming worried over their absence. Realising the turn of the tide, he calls upon the children to follow him to the depth of the sea. Though the beginning is abrupt in the first few lines the author sets the sad note of parting. The reference to the brothers, calling for him and the change noticed in the sea pictures an appropriate background for the fanciful story that follows. These lines help to develop a "willing suspension of disbelief" in the mind of the reader, for the right appreciation of a mythical story.

2. Now the wild white.....this way" (Line 6-9)

      Here one gets a striking description of the wind-disturbed sea, suggestive and picturesque. The huge waves of the sea with its foaming crest is metaphorically mentioned as horses playing, champing, chafing and tossing in the spray. The metaphor gives a wild strength to the waves, indirectly foreshadowing an oncoming storm. It foretells the oncoming disappointment of the Merman at the realisation that Margaret will return to the sea no more. The last two lines show that the Merman is partially aware of the permanent nature of Margaret's absence.

3. "Children's voices......away." (Line. 14-18)

      The first line displays a very tender feeling. Not sure of the success of his own calling the Merman urges the children to call the mother. He feels at least the painful voice of the children will successfully appeal to Margaret's feelings, Line 18 is touching with its sense of frustration mixed with a philosophic acceptance of the inevitable.

4. "Childre dear......a silver bell"? (Line. 30-34)

      The story, in chronological order, begins here. The departure of Margaret happened only the previous day. But sorrow has robbed him of the sense of time and he asks the children doubtfully whether it was actually the previous day their mother left them.

      The sweet bells: The bells sounded sweet probably to all when they heard it first. But now as the cause of the separation from Margaret the bells cannot continue to be sweet to the Merman and the children. However it was 'sweet' to their dear one. The possibility of hearing the sound of a church bell at the bottom of the sea, though not realistic adds to the mythical nature of the story giving it a romantic mystery.

5. "Sand-strewn......ever and aye" (Line. 35-45)

      Here we get a picturesque description of the bottom of the sea where the Mermen live. The caves are cool in the depths and the winds do not disturb the calm of the place. The light that diminishes with depth, quivers under the waves at the top, but still gleams. Weeds that grow in the salt-mud are swayed by currents. The creatures of the sea find the oozy bottom their feeding ground. The coiling and twining sea snakes dry their body in the sea water and warm themselves in the sunlight. Huge whales with ever open eyes, move around, in an unending ambling. The words dry' and 'bask' cannot be taken in the usual sense. For at the bottom of the sea one cannot expect to find a way of drying and the sunlight will be too "spent" to bask in.

      The word "ooze" brings to mind Shelley's description in The Ode to the West Wind.

..far below
The sea blooms and the oozy woods which wear
The sapless foliage of the ocean...."

      To Some of the lines are highly suggestive with its onomatopoeia.

      With the suggestive power of the words spent, salt, ooze, coil, mail, sailing etc. the atmosphere., the vegetation and the creatures at the ocean-floor are made poetically realistic.

      Onomatopoeia: A figure of speech, where the sound on loud reading, echoes the sense. Tennyson used it extensively.

6. "Children dear....on her knee". (Line. 48-52)

      The repetition of the words "Come children dear", with slight variations is found 8 times in the poem. Such stylized repetitions are characteristic of epic poems. Ballads too show it in plenty. Arnold uses it to give an old-world aura to his mythical story. The question in the first line of stanza IV is repeated verbatim here, in stanza V, to be repeated with some variation in stanza VI. The prompting Call yet once in parenthesis tells of the desperate plight in which the Merman is. He reminisces on the life Margarate lived with him at the bottom of the sea. Once she sat with him on a red gold throne and the youngest child sat on her lap; Margaret kept the child's hair and tended it. Then they heard the sound of a far-off bell reminding Margaret that it was Easter time. Hearing it she sighed, longing to take part in the church service along with her kinsmen in the world of humans. Margaret felt a pang in her mind for spending her time with the Merman and thereby losing her soul. She wanted to save her soul by going to the church and praying. The Merman eager to please her allowed her to go and say her prayers, but requested to return to the kind sea caves. She smiled and went away.

      By describing how Margaret tended the youngest child's hair the Merman not only shows her as an affectionate mother but also presents himself as one who enjoyed domestic bliss. This description further adds to the pathos of - Line. 106-107

For the cold strange eyes of a little Mermaiden
And the gleam of her golden hair.

      The word 'smiled' has its irony too. Of course Margaret smiled her thanks to the Merman for allowing him to go. But the smile might have had another meaning too. "I may not return as you want me to". She did not return either.

7. Children in the bay. Line. 64-67

      The question "were we long alone?" is put to the children, near the chapel. The intensity of sorrow has made the Merman lose all sense of time. After the almost, loud-thinking question the Merman reminisces how they happened to reach the chapel in search of Margaret.

      Margaret went to the chapel to pray, with the Merman's permission. He had requested her to return after the prayers. Hoping to see her back they waited for long. But it was a long wait and when the weather became stormy and in the absence of the reassuring presence of the mother, children, especially the little ones, began to moan. The Merman wondered what lengthy prayers humans indulge in. Then having lost patience, he called all the children and together they rose to the surface of the sea, to go to the place Margaret had gone.

      The complaint of Merman over the long prayers in the world can be appreciated from different angles. The Merman, a non-human, without any understanding of the religion of the humans, cannot realize the need of long prayers. Then, there is the irony of the situation. While the Merman at that moment, still thought Margaret would return once the long prayers are over. But things turned put differently. Perhaps in the phrase 'long prayers' one also notices the mild sarcasm of Arnold the near-agnostic, on the puritanically long prayers of Christians of the Victorian age.

      Arnold attributes human qualities to the Merman and the children here. The notion that little children need the reassuring presence of a mother in the face of inclement weather is presented here, realistically.

8. We climb'd on the......door. Line. 74-82

      Here the Merman describes how he and the children remained outside the church waiting for Margaret while she was inside, praying along with the rest of the congregation. Naturally, they being sea-creatres, have to keep a low profile. So they remained in the Church-yard, climbing over the weather-worn stones of the graves. Then they peeped through the glass panes of the lead-framed windows, up the aisle, at Margaret sitting beside a pillar. As they saw her clear they whispered to her to return quick and that they were feeling lonely in her absence. The sea was growing wild and the children started to cry for the mother's presence, But she did not even look in their direction for her eyes were glued to the prayer book. The priest was praying loud and the door stood shut.

      Arnold does not tell how the Merman could whisper to Margaret from the window without being heard by other members in the congregation. Perhaps, she was on one side, "by the pillar" and the Merman spoke to her from the nearest side-window in a hushed tone. 'Shut stands the door' suggests the impossibility of Margaret's coming back to them.

9. Hark what she sings; 'O joy, O Joy......wheel stands still. Line. 89-97

      After losing all hopes of Margaret's return, the Merman reconciles with reality and urges his children to return. Then he imagines the kind of life Margaret might be spending in the upper world of humans.

      She may be working on the spinning wheels, singing of the joy of life. She will feel happy to watch the busy streets, with the child at play with its toys; she may be enjoying the religious life, her work on the spinning wheel, and the delightful sunlight. The Merman imagines Margaret remaining happily engrossed in the day to day affairs of life. Perhaps the Merman thinks that after her long sojourn in the submarine world, Margaret might find her normal life more delightful.

      The child with its toy: This appears unnatural. A child naturally would bring to her mind nostalgic memories of her own Merman-children. Or is it possible the Merman may be thinking of a future time, when Margaret after another marriage with a human, rearing her own child? The reference to the "well" of the church, (the 'font' in which children are Christened) suggests that line of thinking possible.

      Anyway the Merman imagines Margaret singing of the joys of life to her full, till the spindle falls off from her hand.

      Spindle drops: In the original edition "shuttle" was the word used. Later Arnold changed it to "spindle".

10. She steals to......golden hair. Line. 98-107

      After reconciling with the permanency of Margaret's departure the Merman imagines the kind of life, she might be indulging in the future. She will be happy and would be singing joyously of the beautiful things of the world. But occasionally the nostalgic memory of her children might make her sad. She may go to the window and look in the direction of the sea, with a heavy sigh and with a tear in her eye. She may even feel sorry for missing the "cold strange eyes", eyes of her youngest child, with the gleaning golden hair. Here the poet very successfully pictures the natural motherly preference for the youngest child. He has carefully prepared for the pathos in these lines earlier in;

And the youngest sate on her knee
She comb'd its bright hair and she tended it well. (Line. 52-53)

      The mother's preferential treatment of the youngest is made amply clear here.

11. But children......kings of the sea Line. 124-143

      The Merman, heart broken at being abandoned by his human wife, at last reconciles with his fate. He urges the children to go down and then imagines the kind of life Margaret would lead in the upper world. She might be singing of the joys of the world to her heart's full. He and the children would go down singing of the beloved Margaret who turned cruel and left the "kings of the sea", the Merman and his children lonely.

      On some beautiful nights, when the moon is full and the wind is calm, the Merman and the children would go to the beach and from the sand-hills gaze at the sleeping white town and the chapel to which their Margaret went away once. Then they would go back to their caves singing of the cruelty of the loved one who abandoned them: The singing (Line. 140-43) is a repetition, with slight variation of lines 121-124. This kind of repetition is often found in epics and ballads.

when soft the wind blows
The ebb-tide leaves dry,

      The Line give a quiet, but exquisitely beautiful description. A few bare details only are given and that too in the simplest manner but the effect produced is great. These lines illustrate the "dying fall" which Arnold gives to a good many of his poems. (See Dover Beach and Isolation).

Previous Post Next Post