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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 487

Matthew Arnold’s "The Buried Life" is a poem of contradictions and restlessness. It is a melancholy dialogue between the narrator and his/her lover that questions the authentic expression of a "true" life, which the narrator suggests many times is hidden away in the depths of one’s inner self.

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Repressing an Outward Display of Emotions

A unifying theme throughout the poem concerns the hidden experiences the narrator imagines that one might have of genuine love, feeling, and self-awareness. Though these are powerful realizations, the narrator nevertheless feels the need to repress any outward display of them lest he incur the ignominy of those around him.

For example, in the second stanza, he reckons that even true love is not a strong enough impulse for men to overcome their inner anxiety and freely express themselves to others. “Lovers” are “powerless to reveal” their feelings of affection for one another openly, and men "conceal'd" their thoughts for fear of being met with scorn or derision. Later in the poem, in the sixth, long stanza, the narrator again brings up the desire to speak about the deepest truths that people hold in the recesses of their breasts, but never have the courage to speak or act upon:

The nameless feelings that course through our breast,

But they course on for ever unexpress'd.

Throughout the poem, Arnold reinforces time and again the burning desire individuals have to openly recognize the inner knowledge and emotions they have, but how social inhibitions and a lack of confidence inhibit them from doing so.

Inward Traits That Drive Human Action

A second theme, which significantly ties into the first, concerns the existence of inward aspects of the self that ceaselessly drive human motivation and action. The love and truth that I mentioned in the previous analysis are a part of this inner human world, which, being unexpressed, drives people to and unavoidable state of sadness and self-doubt.

The same is true of the social inhibitions the narrator mentions, which keep individuals from expressing their inner selves. The constant references to flows and rivers in the poem, particularly as they are used to describe the processes of the soul, serve as metaphors for the driving forces behind life itself, forever moving slowly but definitively eroding. For example, in the fifth stanza, fate keeps man from “capricious play” and forces him to “obey” and follow the indiscernible but ever-moving river of his life. Arnold is saying that life is essentially a long, interminable race of which it is necessary to catch up with and finally recognize. Upon obtaining this knowledge, he can finally stop chasing, and

think he knows

The hills where his life rose,

And the sea where it goes.

Thus a final, conclusive theme may be that, the moment that one finally achieves awareness, shameless and outright, of the flow that directs his life, he can overcome it and finally come to rest.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 388

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.

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