The Poem

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

“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.

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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.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 654

This poem is written in iambic tetrameter, a meter that usually reads quickly. Yet its four stanzas’ rhyme scheme of ababcc makes each end in a rather emphatic couplet, ensuring that the poem’s progress is stately and, even when impassioned, not out of control.

The essential device of “To Marguerite—Continued” is its metaphor comparing human beings to individual islands separated by “the sea of life.” What makes this poem remarkable is how this rather simple comparison grows and branches out to say more and more about the human condition. The islands are conscious. Each person feels caught in the clasp of the sea and thereby knows his or her bounds or limits. Stanza 2 further develops the metaphor by emphasizing that each island is near a number of other islands, so near that occasionally songs can be heard from other islands. The season of “spring” implies that these occasions happen mainly when one is young, and songs suggests that the possible communications are lyrical and emotional.

Stanza 3 takes the idea of this island even further: As each island has its “farthest caverns,” each individual yearns in the deepest part of his or her being. Moreover, back in geological time the islands could have been “Parts of a single continent!” That is, each human being yearns so hard that he or she envisions a time when these yearnings were satisfied and prays that the islands can meet once again. The last stanza proceeds without a metaphor in its opening lines, then Arnold eloquently brings out what had been only implicit before—the nature of the sea itself, of what isolates human beings.

This metaphor is the poem’s most obvious device, but Arnold effectively controls other aspects of language as well. Stanza 1 begins with four very straightforward lines uttered in an assured tone, quite unlike the adolescent whining and posturing of many of the other “Switzerland” poems. Here Arnold forcefully constructs a periodic sentence leading with heavy alliteration (“mortal millions”) to the essential word “alone,” which he italicizes for emphasis. The tone becomes more tender in the concluding couplet as readers are invited to feel what the islands feel. This couplet was set off by an indentation in its first publication.

Stanza 2, describing the lovely night of brief melodic communion, is the poem’s most lyric passage. With its moon, hollows, glens, and nightingales, it provides the poem’s most extended description of a scene that readers can see and hear in their imaginations. Whereas stanza 1 was declarative (two sentences, three independent clauses), this stanza is not really a sentence at all, but a long evocative dependent clause or string of clauses.

The third stanza hits a strident note as the full flood of yearning surfaces. The poem has five exclamation points, three of which occur in this stanza. Two are in the first sentence, which is a cry for what might have been; the second marks a prayer for what Arnold hopes may be.

In stanza 4 Arnold changes to a less intimate tone. He grandly demands to know who is responsible in the poem’s most rhetorically pointed and rhythmically jagged lines: “Who order’d, that their longing’s fire/ Should be, as soon as kindled, cool’d?” He answers his question with emphatic repetition and the poem’s last exclamation point: “A God, a God their severance ruled!” This line was also emphasized by indentation in its first publication, and its impassioned force then yields to the controlled, eloquent, and perhaps bitter acceptance of the slow and regularly paced final couplet. Here Arnold’s diction is particularly resonant. The gulf between humans has unknown depths; perhaps it may be plumbed in the distant future, but for now it is too deep to cross. It is salty: Literally, the ocean is salty, but salt makes wounds even more painful, and salt is the stuff of tears. It is “estranging”—it makes people strangers.

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