To Marguerite: Continued - Summary and Analysis

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      The title of the poem was changed more than once by the author himself. In the 1852 edition it was To Marguerite; in returning a volume of the letters of Ortis. In 1853 it was included in the 'Switzerland' group and titled Isolation. In 1869 Arnold renamed it To Marguerite: Continued.

      The theme, as usual in Arnold, is one that goes from the personal to the abstract: from personal isolation he reaches the spiritual isolation of man. The poet expresses his deep sorrow at the realization that he is isolated from his fellow beings. He sees a universality in his personal isolation. Men live in this world as if they are islands in a vast sea separated from each other. At the end of the poem, almost in the fashion of Omar Khayyam, the poet accuses God for the predicament of man.


      Stanza 1. Line. 1-6: The exclamatory word 'yes' in the beginning of the poem is to emphasise the loneliness of man which the poet realizes. Life is considered to be a sea. Dotting this sea, as small islands, each separated from the other, human beings live. From the flow of water in the space between them, the islands (isolated people) feel the distance between each other. They also realize that their isolation is to last for all times.

      Stanza 2. Line. 7-12: Sometimes the moon will brighten up the hollows of islands and the sweet breath of spring spreads everywhere on the islands. On star-lit nights nightingales sing in the woods of the islands and the melodious notes are heard on all the shores of the islands.

      Stanza 3. Line. 13-18: The exclamatory word 'Oh' tells of the pain that loneliness brings to the mind of the poet. The islands (isolated human beings) do get a combined feeling of despair and desire - despair at the present state of isolation and desire to have a union with other islands. For they get a feeling that once all those islands belonged to one continent. But now the sea-water spreads like a plain around them. They wish eagerly for a reunion.

      Stanza 4. Line. 19-24: The poet asks who has decreed that the fire of their desire to unite was put out as soon as it was lit up. Who has dashed their desire for unification? Surely God is the one who decided so. He has ordered the deep and salty unfriendly sea to flow between them.


      The poet wrote this poem To Marguerite: Continued inspired by his beloved of early days, Marguerite. He was not able to consummate his love for Marguerite because of some reasons not clearly mentioned anywhere in the poems associated with her name. But very little, or no Marguerite at all, is to be found in the poem, at least overtly. He may be talking of isolation because of his inability to be united with Marguerite. May be, in the end he is hinting that it was the decree of God (destiny) that Arnold could not get united with his beloved. The poem gets a wider meaning when we view the isolation mentioned in the poem as the sad lot of the whole mankind. That appears the theme of the poem. The shifting of the line of thinking from the personal to the impersonal, to the abstract, is a feature of many of Arnold's poems. In the treatment of the isolation of mankind, the poet appears very modern. He appears to have foreshadowed the Existential thinking in literature that became strong in the 20th century. In this poem the sea has a significance, different from what once finds in other poems of his. Here it disunity lands (mankind), and reminds the islands (isolated individuals) of their sad predicament. But the basic idea that the sea is life, which is found in other poems too, comes up in the poem. The image, of the islands in the sea, which stands for men in life, is clearly projected in the first stanza. The idea is amplified in later stanzas. And the poem is wound up in a line that has rightly become famous for its pithiness; "The unplumbed salt estranging sea".

      The sea-life metaphor remains strikingly alive from one end of the poem to the other.

But when.....caverns sent; Line. 7-14

      After metaphorically describing, life as a sea and individuals as isolated islands in the sea, Arnold gives a beautiful scenic description. When such beauty appeals to the island-men, a despair at their present isolation and a longing to reunite once again arise in their hearts. When the woods of the islands are brightened by the moon, when the sweet-scented breeze of spring blow comfortingly, when in star-lit nights nightingales sing melodiously in its valleys, and these notes are heard from shore to shore across the sea, a mixed feeling of despair and intense desire arise in the hearts of the islanders.

      The nature-picture one gets here is probably the best Arnold draws anywhere in his poems. The picture is also suggestive, rich in symbolic elements, Man, isolated that he is, feels the isolation at times when beauty touches him. The nightingales that sing divinely there may mean the poets whose thoughts and ideas that reach the hearts of people breaking up the feeling of isolation, though temporarily. Perhaps Arnold means that only when one is conscious of the beauty around, the feeling of isolation becomes intense. The ideas of great poets too help to intensify that feeling. The suggestiveness of the passage gives an added dimension to the almost Keatsian sensuousness found in the description.

For again, Line. 15-18

      Human beings who live enisled in the sea of life, occasionally, when they come across with the beauty of nature or beauty of ideas, develop a mixed feeling of despair and intense desire. Then the men-islands wish to be united into a single continent once again. Certainly (on such occasions) men-islands do get a feeling that once they belonged to a single continent. Now around each one of them spreads the sea, isolating one from another. The islands eagerly wish how nice it would have been if the islands were all merged together. The 'longing like despair' of earlier lines gets explained here. It is a feeling part-despair and part-longing. The longing is the wish to be reunited into a single continent. The despair arises out of the hopeless nature of the longing. The present isolation of man is not to come to an end, however, strong the desire to unite may be.

      At the human level, the sea is human life itself and the islands are individual human beings hung in isolation. The continent into which the islands want to merge stands for the old way of life when human beings were intimately related to each other. Man eagerly wishes to have a life where union of hearts is possible.

      Arnold the poet has experienced the sense of isolation that a thinking man feels in this world. He has made this inevitable isolation the theme of many poems. Probably he is the first to introduce this theme into English poetry, fore-shadowing the advent of Existentialism in literature. On treating such themes Arnold becomes a modern poet even in the twentieth-century sense. However when he suggests that there used to be unity of individual hearts once upon a time, the sense is not completely clear. It is unlikely that Arnold believes that once all men were part of a supernatural power or a Universal spirit. Nowhere else in his poem an idea like that is even remotely hinted. Perhaps he means only this: that before the spread of materialistic civilization individuals used to be more concerned about their fellow human beings. The humanistic concern for the welfare of the whole mankind which was very much present in Christian faith has vanished. This disappearance coincided with the development of materialism and the feeling of isolation developed among men.

Who order'd......estranging sea. Line. 19-24

      Having mentioned the hopelessness involved in the longing for closer ties between human bangs Arnold searches for the cause of man's isolation. And in the fashion of Omar Khayyam, he turns the accusing finger to God and says that He is responsible for the present predicament of man.

      Arnold asks who has decreed that the intense desire of human beings to come closer together was put out as soon as it flared up. Who makes the hope of mankind futile? Surely this separation was caused by God. He ordered the deep (unplumb'd) unpalatable (salt) and separating (estranging) sea to flow between the various islands. Arnold appears to say that it is the will of God, or the course of Fate, that has caused the isolation of mankind. The suggestion is that whether we like it or not, we have to live in this world with a sense of isolation. The isolation is the unavoidable lot of man. Civilization has gone ahead in such a way that the desire to go back to the old state of affairs where men used to have a feeling of brotherhood. But Arnold seems to go beyond a simple statement of a fact. He appears to accuse God, for this isolation does not do any good to mankind. Whenever mankind develops an intense desire to get united (longings fire) it is God who puts it out (cools).

      The poet hints that God's activity here is morbid. It is interesting that Fitzgerald's translation of Omar Khayyam's Rubaiyat contains similar ideas. In one of the stanzas the poet says that God has created evil in this world along with man. So if man does evil thing the mistake is God's. Before taking back man at his death, God owes an apology to man. God ultimately, is the cause of evil. True, Arnold never goes to the extent of Omar bidding God to apologize. However the accusation that God has done something morbid by ordering the isolation of man is clearly seen in the passage.

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