Isolation. To Marguerite

by Matthew Arnold

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

At first glance, “Isolation: To Marguerite” by Matthew Arnold is a poem about the isolation of unrequited love. Upon a deeper reflection, the poem shows how perspectives on human connection shifted between the Victorian and modernist eras.

Matthew Arnold, late Victorian poet and philosopher, was known to write about the Crisis of Faith that came as a result of a quickly changing culture. Industrialization had swept large numbers of people into city apartments, and put many of them into jobs that were mechanizing in nature. Darwinian theories of evolution caused Victorian culture to fear mankind’s quick degeneration into animalistic tendencies and the chaos of immorality. The theory of evolution also made the largely Christian culture fear that they had no purpose, and that mankind was not tended to by a Shepherd God, but rather a mere miracle of chance. Advances in psychology, which delved into the differences between individuals and caused many who were philosophical to turn the eye inward and wax introspective, made people question whether or not one self could truly know and understand another fully. By the end of the Victorian era, many philosophers and poets were experiencing what was coined a Crisis of Faith, which was not simply religious, but tied to all these factors destabilizing culture.

This theme is most obviously reflected in the last stanza:

Of happier men—for they, at least,

Have dream’d two human hearts might blend

In one, and were through faith released

From isolation without end

Prolong’d; nor knew, although not less

Alone than thou, their loneliness.

In these lines, Arnold pessimistically says that “happier men” have believed that “two human hearts might blend / in one,” but their belief in the possibility of two becoming one was a mere “dream.” Dreams are mere shadows of fancy—reflections of desires manifested in unconscious imagination. Unlike the biblical perspective, where two people can become one on both a spiritual level through soul ties forged by intimacy and on a physical level through the birth of a child, the speaker denies this possibility. The “happier men” who dream of such unions are simply not attuned to “their loneliness.”

This idea is further developed by the allusion to Luna and Endymion. The tale is one of Greek origin, retold in several versions. In the most commonly known version, Luna (or the Titan Moon goddess Selene), falls in lust with the Shepherd King Endymion. She requests that her father, Zeus, put Endymion into an eternal sleep where his beauty will never fade so that she can invade his dreams for intercourse with him whenever she desires. According to mythology, the two bear over fifty children this way. In typical Victorian fashion, the very unromantic myth is romanticized as a woeful tale of an isolated existence. Readers are meant to compare themselves to the lustful Greek goddess, here described by Arnold as a “chaste queen.” Luna, separated from her human by her own divine nature, must forsake her “starry height” in order to “hang over Endymion’s sleep.” According to Arnold, just as Luna cannot experience love, except by and forcing herself upon Endymion in his dreams, people cannot truly experience mutual love, unless it is a figment of their imaginations.

As for the structure of the poem, the piece follows a rhyme scheme of ababcc. Each of the seven stanzas contains six lines and closes with a rhyming couplet. This structure and consistency seem to reflect the subject matter: Arnold's speaker is, after all, insisting that "mortal love" ends in despair. The speaker is isolated and believes he should have detected that he would return to loneliness. Perhaps the consistent pattern of the stanzas and the strict rhyme scheme may serve as reminders of love's futility. Both are expressed as patterns if one is to pay attention. However, in adhering to this poetic form, Arnold's narrator fails to see or feel beyond the limits of connection he has reinforced for himself. 

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