Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 484

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.

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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 famous passage from John Donne’s Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1624): “No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine.” Against a background of Anglican ritual, Donne says that all men and women are joined in the human condition and stresses the illusion of self-sufficiency.

Two hundred years later, Arnold was a voice of a new generation. The Church of England had been weakened by dissent and by doubt (in “Dover Beach” the “Sea of Faith” is ebbing). Moreover, such forces as the industrialization of central England and the speed of the passenger train had begun to tear apart the social fabric of the old order. People were becoming more isolated; many Victorian sages noted that fact. Arnold’s poem not only is a poem about immature love and human isolation but also is a response to the beginnings of a recognizably modern world. This poem is one of the nineteenth century’s most eloquent evocations of this theme.

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