Last Updated 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.
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.