Matthew Arnold’s 143 line lament of a merman (a mythical being with the form of a human from the waist up and of a fish below) over the desertion by his wife, Margaret, pits the vitality of paganism against drab Victorian Christianity. The story that unfolds as the poem progresses is that Margaret, a human, had married the merman, had lived happily with him for many years beneath the sea, and had borne his children. Margaret’s existence was a happy one in this enchanting world “Where the winds are all asleep;/ Where the spent lights quiver and gleam,/Where the sea-snakes coil and twine,/Where the great whales come sailing by,” and where she shared the merman’s throne in his palace under the sea. Then at Easter the sound of the church bells tolling from the world above awakened her sense of religious duty, as she said, “I must go, for my kinsmen pray/ In the little grey church on the shore today.” She felt it imperative to go: “ ‘Twill be Easter-time in the world—ah me!/ And I lose my poor soul, Merman, here with thee.’ ” The merman granted her wish to go to the village, assuming that she was going only for a brief visit: “I said, ‘Go up, dear heart, through the waves;/ Say thy prayer, and come back to the kind sea-caves!’ ” However, she did not return.
This is the situation as the poem opens. Exactly how much time has elapsed since Margaret’s departure is unclear; the merman repeats the refrain, “Children dear, was it yesterday?” as he leads them to the village, “Through the narrow paved streets, where all was still,” to the church in which they see her at prayer. The merman makes his plea, “Margaret, hist! Come quick, we are here!” but “she gave me never a look,/ For her eyes were seal’d to the holy book!” The father and children then see her in a house where she is at her spinning wheel, singing, “O joy, O joy,/ For the humming street, and the child with its toy!/ For the priest, and the bell, and the holy well. . . .” She at first appears content, but they observe her drop her work, steal to the window, and look longingly across the sand to the sea, obviously yearning to be again with the family she left behind as she emits “A long, long sigh;/ For the cold strange eyes of a little Mermaiden/ And the gleam of her golden hair.”
Before leaving the land, the merman poignantly urges the children to add their voices to his in calling the woman back to their home in the sea: “Call her once and come away.” Ultimately they are unsuccessful. The merman contemplates the future for Margaret: “She will start from her slumber/ When gusts shake the door;/ She will hear the winds howling,/ Will hear the waves roar,” as the sounds of nature deny her sleep. Meanwhile, he and the children will be in their home beneath the waves, singing, “Here came a mortal/ But faithless was she!/ And alone dwell for ever/ The kings of the sea.” He tells the children that from time to time “We will gaze, from the sand hills,/ At the white, sleeping town;/ At the church on the hillside—/ And then come back down.” Clearly, Margaret will never return.
Arnold contrasts the vitality of the life of the pagan mermen and mermaids with the sterility of the world of humans through the imagery he creates. The world beneath the sea is filled with color, designating vitality. Margaret...
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and the merman king sat on a “red gold throne in the heart of the sea,” and it is, significantly, a “green sea.” Margaret combed her child’s “bright hair,” which she later describes as “golden hair.” The merman’s palace has “A ceiling of amber,/ A pavement of pearl.”
In contrast, the world on land lacks color. Margaret says she must go to “the little gray church on the shore,” a description the merman later repeats. The church seems to have no brightly colored stained glass windows but only “small leaded panes.” The narrator speaks of guiding the children to “the white-walled town” and anticipates regular visits to the shore to gaze “At the white, sleeping town.” By repeating the adjectives “white” and “gray,” the poet enforces the sense of lifelessness in the town. The visitors from the sea observe no activity there except prayer in the church and Margaret at her spinning wheel. Although in her song Margaret speaks of “the humming street,” she may simply be deceiving herself, for the reader sees no movement. In the sea is vitality with a variety of creatures: “Now the wild white horses play,/ Champ and chafe and toss in the spray,” “the sea beasts, ranged all round,/ Feed in the ooze of their pasture ground,” “the sea snakes coil and twine,/ Dry their mail and bask in the brine” and “great whales come sailing by,/ Sail and sail, with unshut eye,/ Round the world for ever and aye”; the sea seems to be filled with perpetual motion.
One of the most effective scenes in the poem is the image of Margaret at her spinning wheel at the moment she is overcome with sorrow at the loss of her family: She suddenly stops singing, “the spindle drops from her hand,/ And the whizzing wheel stands still,” reflecting the inactivity of the town. Although the story comes exclusively from the merman’s narrative point of view, the reader can see clearly into Margaret. Nature has been disrupted by Margaret’s abandonment of the merman, as “The sea grows stormy,” and the sound of wind and waves will continue to trouble her. Before she left, the winds were “all asleep” in the caverns deep in the sea.
The movement from four-stressed lines at the beginning of the poem to the three-stressed lines of the conclusion creates a sense of calm resignation as the merman accepts the fact that his pagan world of nature worship and Margaret’s world of orthodox religion can never be reconciled. This resignation is further enforced by the repetition of the lines, “Come, dear children, let us away;/ Down and away below!” or variations of these lines.