Themes and Meanings (Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

A poem of great frustration and sadness, “The Buried Life” yearns for an openness which the poet fears that he will never achieve. Saddened by his own inability to express his deepest, truest self, he turns to his beloved, thinking that in her “limpid” eyes he can find true communion with another soul. He knows that people fear to reveal themselves, suspecting that they will be ignored or, worse, criticized for what they expose of themselves. Yet, his counterargument is that all human beings contain essentially the same feelings and thus should be able to bare their souls more freely than they do.

It has been pointed out that there may be a slight confusion in the poem, perhaps explained by the poet’s shifting use of metaphor. On the one hand, lines 38-40 and 55-56 suggest that the river of life is subterranean and only rarely accessible. On the other hand, the river of life in lines 43-44 is treated as a surface flow interrupted or broken by eddies, emanations of a “genuine self” referred to in line 36. Evidently, Arnold is identifying the discrepancy between the self who thinks that he is determining his fate, who thinks he can “well-nigh change his own identity” (line 34), and the self who seems to pursue life with “blind uncertainty” (line 43) while actually “driving on with it [the buried life] eternally.”

Thus, the poem raises but does not resolve disturbing questions about fate and free will. Human beings clearly deceive themselves—that much is clear from the fourth stanza—yet the poet just as clearly entertains the possibility that the lovers, and indeed all human beings, at least have the capacity to see truly and to understand the ultimate reasons for their actions.

Although the poem does not settle the “fate versus free will” conundrum, its use of metaphor does suppose that, as in nature where all rivers have their source, so in human nature all lives have their origin, which a man can glimpse, who “thinks he knows/ The hills where his life rose,/ And the sea where it goes.” The ending is tentative because it refers to what the man “thinks he knows,” yet it is positively rendered in the simple declarative rhymes of the last words, mimicking the “unwonted calm,” of the knowledge that the speaker has acquired.