To Marguerite—Continued Themes
by Matthew Arnold

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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Even though “To Marguerite—Continued” is a lyric poem rooted in its own age, it shows strong influences of the Latin literature that Arnold knew from his studies. The most important verbal parallels are from an ode by Horace; Arnold’s word “estranging” probably came from a translation of an ode made by a famous Latin master he knew. The ocean for Horace only divided him from a friend for a time, whereas the estrangement of Arnold’s ocean is a permanent feature of life. Similarly, Arnold’s isolation is not that of Ortis, a rather Byronic and romantic outlaw figure whose letters are mentioned in the poem’s first title.

Some critics have thought the poem reflects Arnold’s lifelong criticism of English culture for being isolated from enlightened European thought, but even though this idea is strongly present in “Dover Beach” (1867), Arnold’s other major poem about isolation, it is no more than a suggestion here.

The poem is not about simple estrangement, but rather a range of estrangements. Certainly, the poem emphasizes the impossibility of love, including sexual love. Arnold regarded it as one of his “Switzerland” poems, which tell a story of explicitly sexual love that seems to be thwarted by Arnold’s hesitations and inhibitions. The bits of communication that are able to occur in stanza 2 consist of nightingales’ songs on a conventionally romantic spring night.

Readers probably respond to this poem for its extravagance. It speaks of longings that come from the heart’s deepest recesses; it unites sexual yearnings with all hopes for intimate knowledge of other people. The word “divinely” may suggest religious yearnings as well. In all cases, the source of unhappiness is located in the sea, not the islands: If it were not for a power outside the individual, that individual might be free.

Arnold’s central metaphor should be contrasted with the...

(The entire section is 484 words.)