The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 539 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 481 words.)