The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 562 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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 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...

(The entire section is 486 words.)