How might one compare and contrast the poems "Longing" and "To Marguerite," by Matthew Arnold?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

If one were asked to decide which of two poems by Matthew Arnold – “Longing” and “To Marguerite” – were the better poem, one could argue on behalf of “To Marguerite” for the following reasons:

  • The meter of “Longing” is extremely predictable and almost monotonous. The poet rarely varies from iambic rhythm, and the poem thus seems somewhat dull.  Consider, for example, the following stanza:

Or, as thou never cam'st in sooth, 
Come now, and let me dream it truth, 
And part my hair, and kiss my brow, 
And say, My love why sufferest thou?

The subject-matter of this stanza is emotional and even erotic, but one would never guess this from the fairly plodding iambic meter, in which each odd syllable is unstressed and each even syllable is stressed, without variation.

  • Notice, too, the phrasing of the quoted stanza, which is typical of the phrasing of the entire poem. The phrasing sounds archaic and somewhat affected; it seems self-consciously “poetic.” Few people in Arnold’s day actually used words such as “cam’st,” “sooth,” and “sufferest.” Such language was perfectly common in the Renaissance, but not in the second half of the nineteenth century. The language thus seems inauthentic and unconvincing.
  • The first and fourth stanzas are exactly the same, so that again the poem seems somewhat monotonous. Both stanzas use phrasing that sometimes seems very stale, such as “hopeless longing.” Little of the language of the poem is especially vivid.
  • In contrast, the rhythm of “To Marguerite” is, from the very first word, much less predictable and much more exciting. The language of “To Marguerite” is much more vivid. Imagery is heavily used (as in the first stanza); a simile is used at the very beginning of stanza three; the language is much more strongly metaphorical; and in this poem Arnold feels no need to simply repeat an entire stanza. The poem is more varied and more fully developed than “Longing” was, and in general the poem seems far more impassioned and emotional, as in the memorable final line, with its striking series of adjectives and its emphatic use of alliteration: “The unplumb'd, salt, estranging sea.”
  • The subject-matter of “Longing” seems far more personal and private than the subject-matter of “To Marguerite.” The first poem deals with a specific, personal example of loneliness and longing, whereas “To Marguerite” deals with a kind of loneliness that seems widespread, inevitable, and indeed inherent in the human condition.  “To Marguerite,” therefore, seems a poem with a broader, more universal appeal.
  • The phrasing of “To Marguerite” seems far less archaic, artificial, and affected than the phrasing of “Longing.” The fact that it seems far less self-consciously “poetic” helps make it, paradoxically, a more successful poem.

For all these reasons, then, one might argue that “To Marguerite” is the more successful of the two poems. Certainly it is the poem that is more widely anthologized; apparently many editors, over many years, have considered it the better work of art.