Isolation. To Marguerite

by Matthew Arnold

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Experience of Isolation

One of the key themes in Matthew Arnold's love poem "Isolation. To Marguerite" is, as the title would suggest, isolation. The speaker experiences isolation in more than one form over the course of the poem. He describes first a sort of isolation from which he was, to an extent, sheltered because of his belief that his love was returned. While he was apart from his beloved for some time, this physical isolation from Marguerite was tempered by the fact that his own love "grew" towards her. He "bade" his heart to remain constant, and indeed grow more constant, and he was sure that Marguerite would be doing the same thing—her love towards him intensifying almost because of, rather than despite, the physical distance between them. He has embodied the phrase “distance makes the heart grow fonder,” though this was not the case for his lover. As such, although there is a physical space imposed between the lovers, the isolation is tolerable. The isolation only becomes intolerable when it becomes clear to the speaker that his love goes "unreturn'd." At this juncture, his heart is forced to return to the "solitude" it had momentarily escaped. The heart is personified as if it is even isolated by its passions from its owner, the speaker.

The Necessity of Aloneness

The poet alludes to the story of Luna as he traces the paths of "happier men," identifying these men as people who do not recognize the real necessity of every person to be "alone" in the end. This is a pessimistic view; clearly, Arnold’s speaker has been scorned in love and thus believes it cannot truly exist. Those who are able to dream that they might be twinned with somebody else are "released" to an extent because they, although not really any less alone than other people, do not recognize their own loneliness. In this, the poet is unfortunate. He has been forced to discover that his own love is not returned and his heart is alone in the universe. It has been this realization, rather than the physical separation from his beloved, which has filled him with the greatest pain. He pities Luna for not knowing that, as a goddess, humans must suffer aloneness. Mortal love is “vain” and cannot save a species from loneliness.

Love and Betrayal

One theme connected to the poem is, of course, that of love itself—and love betrayed. The speaker suggests that even a dream of love is enough to sustain many hearts. We want our love to be returned. Even if we cannot be physically close to our beloveds, there is a sort of joy that can be taken from the knowledge or belief that we are not the only ones loving. When that feeling is removed, the act of love becomes a lonely and painful one. Though the speaker has been hurt by his lover’s failure to reciprocate his affection, he has also clearly felt the positive aspects of romance. This is why it is so painful for the narrator; he has felt what could be, yet was betrayed by these same feelings.

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