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Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 537

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...

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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.”

The theme 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 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 be a figment of their imaginations.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 539

Matthew Arnold’s “Isolation. To Marguerite” is—as its title suggests—a poem about a lover’s keen awareness of human isolation. Each of the work’s seven stanzas intensifies both the lover’s feelings of separation and his increasing devotion to his beloved. Indeed, in order to experience his love more deeply, the lover commands his heart to “keep the world away.” As he begins to feel that he has stood the test of loyalty to his love, he declares (in the first stanza) his belief that his beloved has “likewise” grown in her love for him. Love is dramatized at the beginning of the poem as a daily discipline, a rededication of the heart to the beloved that demands a single focus undistracted by the world at large. He strives for a “more constant” love that will create a “home” exclusively for Marguerite.

The strong sense of a bond between the lovers is challenged in the second stanza, which develops an image of the heart as a great sea ebbing and swelling with feeling. Fixated on his own feelings, the lover declares that the “heart can bind itself alone.” His fear (a word first mentioned in the first stanza) is that the heart is “self-swayed”; that is, the more acutely he feels his love, the more isolated he becomes. He is prone to misgivings that turn to panic: “Thou lov’st no more;—Farewell! Farewell!”

In the third stanza, the lover’s feelings of isolation concentrate on an image of the “lonely heart” that inhabits a separate, remote universe revolving around its own passions. Addressing this conception of the heart’s “sphered course” the lover exclaims: “Back to thy solitude again!” This last line suggests a view of love as an eternal return to feelings that isolate the lover.

The fourth and fifth stanzas return to the image of the ebbing and flowing sea—its tides controlled by the moon. The lover invokes the classical myth of Luna and Endymion, the story of how the moon fell in love with a man. Such is the pull of love that even a “chaste queen” can feel the “conscious thrill of shame” excited by love. Yet the heaven of such a god is “far removed” from the lover’s conviction that the human heart has “long had place to prove/ This truth—to prove, and make thine own:/ ‘Thou hast been, shalt be, art, alone.’” The history of humanity, in other words, is a perennial record of isolation.

In the sixth and seventh stanzas, the lover feels so bereft, so alienated from the rest of the world, by his own passions that he can hardly admit the heart is “not quite alone.” Yet his proximity is to “unmating things” such as the “Ocean and clouds and night and day.” If this world includes love, it is the love of “happier men” who have “dreamed two human hearts might blend/ In one.” These men experience a sense of “faith released/ From isolation.” The emphasis on the word “dreamed” implies that in fact human isolation persists even among those who believe they have overcome it. In fact, they do not know they are no “less/ Alone than thou” in their “loneliness.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 481

The fervor of Arnold’s poem is enhanced by his tightly controlled eight-syllable lines built upon repetition of key words, rhythms, and rhymes:

We were apart; yet day by day,I bade my heart more constant be.I bade it keep the world away,And grow a home for only thee;

Thus the poem begins with the announcement of a separation and the evocation of what it is like all the time to be alone and to make a world only out of feelings for the beloved.

Several stanzas begin with terse statements and exclamations that terminate in midline or stop the line short after only one word: “We were apart” (stanza 1); “The fault was grave!” (stanza 2); “Farewell!” (stanza 3); “Back!” (stanza 4). These abrupt announcements reflect the speaker’s unsettled mood, the very ebb and flow of feeling he describes in stanza 2. He swings between extreme feelings, almost angry at his turbulent emotions, which begin to subside and give way to a more resigned, philosophical tone only in the last three stanzas, which brood on the nature of human feelings and how they tend to isolate human beings, except for those “happier men” who seem able to sustain the illusions of being united with their loves.

Arnold also uses the repetition of key words as a pattern of overlapping echoes from stanza to stanza. Thus in stanza 2, just after he has compared the heart’s rhythms to the “ebb and swell” of the sea, he exclaims “Farewell! Farewell!”—a dramatic portrayal of swaying feelings that is carried into the next stanza, which begins with the repetition of “Farewell!” Similarly, the end of stanza 3, which declares, “Back to thy solitude again!,” is immediately followed in stanza 4 by “Back!” In other words, the poem develops a vocabulary of key words that reinforce the rocking of feeling that moves the lover.

The nexus between truth, faith, feeling, and knowledge—the words and concepts that bind together the beginning and ending of the poem—is intensified in the poem’s final stanza, in which Arnold contrasts the illusions of men who feel they have found love and union with his own awareness that they are “alone” in “their loneliness.” The lover brings an awareness of what he acknowledges in the first stanza: “I might have known,/ What far too soon, alas! I learned” that “faith may oft be unreturned” and what he wryly concludes in the fifth stanza “This truth—to prove, and make thine own:/ ‘Thou has been, shalt be, art, alone.’”

The poem’s circular structure, then, imitates the lover’s image in stanza 3 of the heart’s “remote and sphered course.” The poem comes back to the same key words because human emotions tend to revolve in the same circuits or orbits from which they can find no release, except in the illusory “faith released/ From isolation” described in the work’s conclusion.

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