To Marguerite—Continued

by Matthew Arnold

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Last Updated November 15, 2023.

"To Marguerite—Continued" by Matthew Arnold is a Romantic poem first published in 1852 titled "To Marguerite, in Returning a Volume of the Letters of Ortis." Matthew Arnold was a prominent English poet and cultural critic of the 19th century. His works often grapple with the profound changes and challenges of the Victorian era, and "To Marguerite—Continued" is no exception. This poem is also part of a broader Romantic literary tradition that strongly emphasizes emotions, nature, and individual experience while exploring the contemporary world of the poet.

The first stanza begins by establishing the metaphor that human lives are like islands separated by "echoing straits." Despite the shared existence in this sea of life, people live in a state of solitude, as if they are stranded on their own islands. The islands only become aware of their boundaries and connections when they feel the flow of life and existence, much like the sea surrounding them. This opening stanza sets the stage for the themes of isolation and longing throughout the poem.

In the second stanza, the speaker depicts connection and heightened emotion among the isolated islands of human existence. The moonlight brightens the hollows of the islands. Spring's soothing influence sweeps over them, offering a sense of renewal and comfort. During starry nights, "the nightingales divinely sing." These lovely notes travel from shore to shore, spanning the gaps between the islands and momentarily uniting them. This stanza portrays moments of harmony and connection within the natural world, offering a reprieve from the islands' solitude, suggesting people who are mostly separated from each other can still find some ways to communicate.

In the third stanza, partial communication becomes problematic because it leads to people wanting full contact. Arnold conveys the deep longing and desire that arise when the isolated islands of existence experience moments of connection and harmony, as described in the previous stanza. The stanza expresses a profound desire that resembles despair as the islands long for a reunion.

The line "For surely once, they feel, we were / Parts of a single continent!" reflects the poet's belief that there was a time when people were united as one, symbolizing a deeper and more meaningful connection. This notion of unity, now lost, intensifies their longing. The stanza ends with a plea for the possibility of their shores meeting again. This emphasizes the strong desire for reconnection and unity among the isolated islands (or people) in the sea of life.

In this poem's fourth and final stanza, the speaker takes a step back to wonder why strong feelings of longing and desire often end up unfulfilled. He rhetorically asks why these intense emotions seem to build and then fizzle out quickly.

Who order'd, that their longing's fire

Should be, as soon as kindled, cool'd?

The speaker then suggests that a higher power —"A God,"— is responsible for this separation. This God has decided that an unbridgeable, salty sea should exist between the islands, keeping them apart. The salty water of the ocean symbolically mirrors the tears of loneliness people may feel in their separation. This implies that the separation and the longing are not random events or individual decisions but part of a greater plan orchestrated by a divine force.

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