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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 400

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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. 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 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. 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.

Another theme connected to this one 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.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 424

On the most obvious level, “Isolation. To Marguerite” seems self-explanatory: It is an evocation of human isolation that is intensified by the lover’s yearning to unite with his beloved. Although he bravely begins by envisioning a world that is made out of his love for Marguerite, and out of her love for him, the element of doubt is already raised by his use of the word “fear.” The world is not one in which love is readily reciprocated. On the contrary, it is a world in which human feelings are in flux and where human hearts are separate and can only yearn for fusion. The self is alone, the lover announces in the middle of the poem. Indeed, solitude is proclaimed as though it were a judgment on human behavior: “Thou has been, shalt be, art, alone.” The finality of the phrasing is a crushing blow barely mitigated by the final stanzas, which acknowledge that not all people have found happiness and apparent communion with their lovers.

The poet expresses a bleak message that is tempered by his recognition that human beings will continue to search for love and to express their faith in love. It is a faith he seems to have lost by acquiring knowledge. What he knows of the world and its history prevents him from sharing the faith of others and overcoming his sense of isolation. He also suggests, however, that this faith he cannot share blinds others to the true nature of the world, which is one that includes an awareness of how utterly alone the human heart is.

Arnold’s poem takes its place in a body of work that mourns the loss of faith. There is, for example, his great image of the ebbing sea of faith in “Dover Beach” (1867). Like that great poem, “Isolation. To Marguerite” is a love poem that meditates on a world that is no longer, in the poet’s view, united by religion or any coherent body of beliefs. Individuals are thus thrown back upon themselves, probing their feelings without the support of a comforting worldview. They still desire faith but feel they know too much to surrender the bitter truths they have learned through experience. What remains for people, and for the poem, is a heroic struggle with the consciousness of a fragmented world. Arnold renews the themes of “Isolation. To Marguerite” in “To Marguerite—Continued,” in which he observes “we mortal millions live alone” and yet are plagued by a feelings that “we were/ Parts of a single continent!”