Matthew Arnold’s poem “To Marguerite” is typical of Arnold’s writings in its emphasis on human loneliness and alienation. Of all the English poets of the nineteenth century, Arnold is perhaps the gloomiest, partly because he thought that many earlier sources of truth and inspiration had come under severe challenge during his own time. Christianity, which had once provided consolation and assurance to many people, was now under severe attack, as more and more intelligent people began to doubt the truth not only of that religion but indeed of any religion. In addition, the Romantic poets, who had seemed to offer a new source of inspiration through their emphasis on the harmony of man and nature, were now increasingly perceived as naïve thinkers of merely wishful thoughts. Little wonder, then, that the speaker of Arnold’s poem exclaims that
We mortal millions live alone.
Each word of this line is intriguing. The word “mortal” implies the idea not only that we all will die but that nothing – no new life – exists beyond death. We “live,” but we live only briefly and are fated to die. There are millions of us, but we have no real, essential bonds with one another except our shared fate: death. “We” are “millions,” but each of us is fundamentally isolated and “alone.” The word “alone” is italicized because it expresses the key idea not only of this poem but of much of Arnold’s poetry.
Matthew Arnold published multiple versions of the poem "To Marguerite." In all of them, he is reflecting on his own experience as a English poet in love with a Frenchwoman. The issues of the relationship, including geographical separation of the narrator from his beloved is reflected in an extended geographical simile based on the literal geographical situation of England being an island separated from France by the Dover Channel. He sees the human condition as parallel to that of his individual position, i.e. humans as isolated islands in a vast sea. This sea simultaneously acts as geographical barrier or division and unifier, as the same sea washes on the shores of England and France, just as he suggests, that the same immanent God eventually encompasses all of humanity and both unites and divides them.