The Poem

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 432

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“To Marguerite—Continued” was first published in 1852 under the title “To Marguerite, in Returning a Volume of the Letters of Ortis.” In 1853, Arnold gave this poem the simple title “To Marguerite” and included it in a group of poems with the general title of “Switzerland.” In 1857, he titled this poem “Isolation,” but in 1869 he gave that title to another “Switzerland” poem and assigned to this poem its final title.

Even though neither Marguerite nor Switzerland are mentioned in the poem, Arnold’s shufflings of texts and titles makes clear that “To Marguerite—Continued” belongs to his “Switzerland” group. Arnold visited Switzerland in 1848 and 1849. These poems, written mainly between 1847 and 1850, tell a love story of meetings and partings. There have been many theories of who Marguerite was; even though some have doubted her existence, these poems probably had their beginnings in a real—and unfulfilled—love relationship. Other “Switzerland” poems hint that Arnold found his desires thwarted by his inner moral voice, or by differences in the lovers’ cultural pasts (Marguerite may have been French), or by her sexual experience, or by Marguerite’s fickleness. At the end of the poem that eventually was placed before “To Marguerite—Continued,” Arnold abstracts from his experience: Unlike other men who dream that two hearts could become as one, Arnold knows that he is truly alone. As a whole, these poems are both poignant and somewhat juvenile in their tone.

“To Marguerite—Continued” begins with the word “Yes!,” as if affirming what has just been said, either by the book being returned or by the preceding poem. The underlying idea of “To Marguerite—Continued” is simple: Every human being lives his or her life in isolation. The first stanza introduces the poem’s basic metaphor: Life is a boundless sea; people are all separate islands in it. Humans are conscious of their predicament—“feeling” and “knowing” that something separates them from other persons.

The second stanza takes off from an earlier hint (the straits are “echoing”) to describe an element that seems to make the human state more bearable: At certain times each island is filled with beautiful music. What is more, other islands are close enough that the various melodies cross the sea and are heard on these other islands. In short, some communication between the essentially isolated people is possible. However, this realization leads not to joy but to despair. Stanza 3 describes how the partial communication of stanza 2 leads each human being to yearn for total communication. Stanza 4 asks a general question: What power has caused this situation to exist? Arnold answers, “A God.”

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