Self-Dependence: by Matthew Arnold - Summary & Analysis

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      This poem appeared in the first published volume of Arnold's poetry, Empedocles on Etna and Other Poems, in 1852. In the 1869 edition the author introduced two changes.

      The mingling of passion and sincerity with an austere philosophy, has made this poem very popular. Arnold's view of nature, appears repeatedly in his poems. The idea of the performance and calm of nature contrasted with restless fever of life-comes out clearly in the poem. A comparison with The Youth of Nature, Quiet Work, Lines Written in Kensington Gardens and A Summer Night, is worthwhile.

      The message of the poem appears to be this - Nature, obviously, is a refuge from the restlessness and the sick hurry of contemporary life. The trouble with the modern man is his divorce from his own self. Nature possibly can bridge the gap. The self dependence of objects in Nature is a worthy goal for man to aim for. Arnold doesn't aim at joy or elevation of spirit from Nature as Wordsworth did. Peace of mind is all what he aims. There appears to be some echo of the idea of work without the expectation of reward found in Bhagavad Gita, in the poem.


      Stanza 1. (Line. 1-4): The poet starts with metaphors; a vessel, for the individual and the starlit sea for life. The poet is tired of himself (finding himself a misfit in Victorian society). He ponders what he is and what he can become and stands at the forepart of the ship that carries him forward through the star-lit sea.

      Stanza 2. Line. 5-8: While on the vessel, he sends an emotion-strung message to the sea and the sky. They have calmed him down (during times of metal agitations) from childhood. Let them give him peace and keep him calm, now also.

      Stanza 3. Line. 9-12: (An amplification of the content of previous stanza) He requests the stars and waters to spell their charm over him once again. Let his soul grow as vast as theirs, while he watches them.

      Stanza 4. Line. 13-16: From the vast and deep round sky despite the disturbances of the sea, he could hear a mysterious answer reaching him through the gentle night breeze. If he wants to become like them (calm and vast in soul) he has to live like them.

      Stanza 5. Line. 17-20: (The answer from the stars continue in the next three stanzas). They (the stars) remain calm without being frightened by the terrible silence of the vast sky, without being disturbed by the sights (some of the sights are shocking) they see (in this world). They do not expect to get affection, or happiness or sympathy from outsiders.

      Stanza 6. Line. 21-24: The stars perform their duty (shining) with pleasure. So doe the moon-brightened sea-waves move. They remain gracefully calm without getting the anguish and anxiety of other objects in nature, different from them (The indication is in the direction of mankind). Line. 23 was originally. 'For alone they live', then 'Why' - self

      Stanza 7. Line 25-28: Locked in their own business without being perturbed by what other creatures do, they put in all their energy into their duty and lead the kind of life that the poet admires.

(In L 25 in place of 'unregardful' the earlier version read 'unobservant')

      Stanza 8. Line. 29-32: A message similar to the one given by the voice from the depth of heaven echoes in the poet's heart, and is heard very clearly. Determine what one really is (understand oneself fully). One who realizes that frees himself from misery.


      Self-dependence glorifies Nature. The poet very forcefully suggests that by trying to follow the self-dependence of Nature man can attain peace even in a world of turbulence and restlessness. In a state of mental torture and frustration the poet seeks refuge in Nature. The advice Nature gives him is something that is similar to the poet's own thinking. For the poet tells Nature:

A cry like thine in my own heart I hear.

      And that cry which is the poet's also is message, meant for his readers. It is this:

Resolve to be thyself: and know, that he
Who finds himself, loses his misery.

      The influence of this philosophy can be seen, at least in the fifth stanza. Nature says that the heavenly objects are doing their duty 'unaffrighted' and 'undistracted' - In other words they do their duty with detachment.

These demand not that the things without them
Yield them love, amusement, sympathy.

      The message of Gita is the same. One who does his duty without thinking of the results of his action, unaffected by worldly feelings, (detached) attain freedom of the soul. There is evidence to show that Arnold was influenced by the Gita. Once he recommended it to his friend Clough suggesting reading of the book would make him more disciplined.

      Arnold's love for Nature comes out clearly in this poem. He admits that from childhood Nature has been exerting a calming effect on him. He addresses the sea and the stars;

Ye who from my childhood up have calma me,
Calm me, ah, compose me to the end.

      Finally at the end he reveals that what Nature says has been felt by the poet also.


Ah, once more ... vast like you. Line. 9-12

      Living in this turbulent world the poet looks at the star-studded skies and the moon-silverd' waves and communicates with Nature.

      He wants the stars and waters to calm his restlessness and to give him a serene attitude once again. It implies that earlier they had been doing that service for the poet. Further he wants his soul to become as expansive as the stars and the seas. The stanza depicts Arnold's view of Nature and its influence on him. Wordsworth's belief that nature exerts a soothing influence on man comes near to that of Arnold. But there the similarity ends. While Wordsworth found joy' in nature Arnold gets peace, or calmness from nature. Further the pantheistic belief of Wordsworth, that God can be identified with forces of Nature is not in Arnold. Nature, however, calms man by helping him to discover himself.

And with joy ... differing soul. Line. 21-24

      In this stanza Arnold says that the stars do their assigned duty of shining in the sky with clear joy. So do the waves, roll, glittering in the moon, showing happiness. They live separately from others company. Though they notice the misery (the fever) in the life of others, they are not affected by the sight.

      In this stanza also Arnold tells that the stars and the heavenly objects continue to do their duty with detachment. This detachment gives them the joy they display. None can doubt that detachment can free the soul from bondage of the emotions. But attributing this quality to the stars and the sea, as if they are live objects does not agree with rational thinking. There is a corollary too to this argument. If man were to acquire the same detachment that Nature shows then he would become an inanimate object like them - in other words non-human. Does Arnold want his ideal man to lose his human quality, just to become detached? We are not certain.

O air born ... his misery. Line. 29-32

      After hearing the mysterious voice telling of the secret of the calmness and the expansive nature of Nature, Arnold says that his own heart has a similar message. The poet addresses the mysterious voice that reaches him. For a long time, a similar voice is clearly heard in his own heart too. He means his own thinking is similar to that of the air-born voice. The message of his heart is this: Find out what he really is. This kind of true self-evaluation will make a man free from the miseries of life.

      Here again, we hear echoes of the Eastern philosophy, where self-knowledge is considered to be the greatest knowledge, leading to freedom from bondage.

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