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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 376

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Matthew Arnold's "The Buried Life" is about the poet's perceived inability on the part of all humans to communicate effectively with one another. The poet is extremely saddened at the condition that, though humans are so similar, they will never communicate with one another transparently. The poem comprises seven stanzas of varying line numbers. In the first stanza, the poet proposes that he and his lover, rather than trying to speak, should just hold hands and look into one another's eyes.

In the second stanza, the speaker calls to mind individuals who are reluctant to share their thoughts for fear of being shamed or scolded by their peers. On this score, the speaker asserts that all humans' thoughts are the same. In the third and fourth stanzas, the poet expresses sincere longing for the freedom of expression between himself and his lover, and he uses a metaphor of lips and hearts being chained. He also suggests that human thought takes the form of a constantly flowing river with no direction.

The fifth (and longest) stanza contemplates the nature of human life. People only occasionally consider the question of the origin of human thoughts and examine their own in pursuit of a profound discovery; however, this is never successful. People spend the majority of their lives in a melancholy state for not having their true feelings expressed. Only once in a while do two people meaningfully connect, and it is not through spoken words, but by means of an unspoken bond of body language. In the final stanza, the poet suggests that, occasionally, man can rest from his ceaseless thoughts. Only during these periods of rest can he perceive the origin and destination of human thought.

Published in the Victorian era, Arnold's poem is more or less contemporary with Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities, in which he exhibits the same sentiment: "A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other" (book 1, chapter 3). Like Dickens, Arnold is preoccupied with the interior of the human mind. Arnold's poem uses the metaphors of chains and a flowing river without direction to illustrate the paradox that human emotion can be so powerful, yet so difficult to express.

The Poem

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 405

“The Buried Life” is a ninety-eight-line poem divided into seven stanzas of varying length with an irregular rhyme scheme. A monologue in which a lover addresses his beloved, the poem yearns for the possibility of truthful communication with the self and with others.

The first line evokes the banter of a loving couple, but it is immediately checked by the deeply sad feelings of the speaker. Troubled by a sense of inner restlessness, he longs for complete intimacy and hopes to find it in his beloved’s clear eyes, the window to her “inmost soul.”

As the second stanza suggests, not even lovers can sustain an absolutely open relationship or break through the inhibitions and the masks that people assume in order to hide what they really feel. Yet the speaker senses the possibility of greater truth, since all human beings share basically the same feelings and ought to be able to share their most profound thoughts.

In a burst of emotion, expressed in two intense lines, the speaker wonders whether the same forces that prevent people from truly engaging each other must also divide him and his beloved.

The fourth stanza suggests that direct contact is possible only in fugitive moments, when human beings suddenly are aware of penetrating the distractions and struggles of life and realize that their apparently random actions are the result of the “buried stream,” of those unconscious drives that motivate human behavior.

In the long meditative fifth stanza, the speaker advances the idea that there are occasions in the midst of busy lives when people are suddenly overwhelmed with the desire to understand their “buried life,” the wellspring of all that they do. Yet no one ever seems to penetrate the origins of things and articulate what remains a mystery, what the speaker calls “nameless feelings.” There is a “hidden” aspect of life, an underground sense that haunts people, that beckons to them, just as, in the sixth stanza, the lover beckons to his beloved, taking her hand and expressing—if only for a moment—a sense of complete communion between themselves and their emotions. It is at these times that people become aware of the deeper currents of their beings.

The final stanza expresses the utter peacefulness of this communion between lovers, when they feel at rest, when they are no longer bothered by the elusiveness of their beings’ purpose and they comprehend the sources of their lives.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 613

The poem is built around a central metaphor: the evocation of an individual’s life and of life itself as a stream or river, ever flowing, ungraspable, and possessed of great depths. In the first line, for example, the lovers’ conversation “flows”—a delightful and yet troubling metaphor because their words, like water, resist definition and do not reach the core of identity or meaning.

The poet uses the metaphor explicitly in the fourth stanza in referring to the “unregarded river of our lifeeddying at large in blind uncertainty,” because human beings usually ignore the true roots of their selves.

The fifth stanza is even more explicit, as the speaker uses the phrase “our buried life” to parallel his use of “buried stream” in the fourth stanza. To track the “mystery of this heart,” to observe the “nameless feelings that course through our breast,” again continues the metaphor of the stream, the watercourse that contains within it unanalyzed elements. When the speaker evokes the moment of communion in the sixth stanza, it is also in the terms of water, as “a man becomes aware of his life’s flow.” Knowing his life’s basis is, as the last line of the poem suggests, similar to following the “sea where it goes.”

Comparing human lives to a stream, to the flowing of water, is a traditional metaphorical conception of human life, which Matthew Arnold uses to capture both the enigma and the energy of life. Even the speaker’s tears in the first stanza are an expression of this life flow—at once so soothing and troubling, so appealing and frustrating to human beings who wish to plumb the depths of their existence.

The poet also uses the device of a dramatic monologue, of a lover addressing his beloved, to generalize about human experience, to suggest that the lovers’ feelings are a microcosm of the feelings that all human beings share. Beginning with a dramatic scene—the speaker moved to tears and wishing that he could see in his beloved her “inmost soul”—the poem gradually, stanza by stanza, develops the universal import of the speaker’s feelings, showing how all human beings partake of this quest for self-knowledge and communion with one another.

Arnold also achieves an impressive unity in the poem by repeating certain key words—particularly those with which he evokes a “benumbed” and “jaded” world. This world is blind to the depths of things and distracted and deafened by its own surface affairs—by all the sounds and sights that obscure the quieter, softer, cooler forces at play in human nature, which are observed only at those rare moments of self-awareness. By implication, nature itself, its buried streams and its rising hills, evoke in the poem’s last lines a sense of life’s peaks and valleys, its origins and outcomes, that become apparent only in the lovers’ momentary transcendence of daily cares and expressions.

In the poem’s shift from first to third person, Arnold effectively transforms a personal, individual experience into a universal experience as well. For example, in the fifth and sixth stanzas, he moves from the speaker’s address to his beloved to a hypothetical situation in which “a beloved hand is laid in ours,” thus making his appeal to the human heart which, earlier in the poem (line 23), is described as beating “in every human breast.” When the tones of a lover’s voice suddenly open the beloved’s heart, “a bolt is shot back somewhere in our breast” (line 84)—a line of shocking visual force that describes a moment of unlocking the heart that the speaker had yearned for earlier in the poem (line 13).