To Marguerite—Continued

by Matthew Arnold

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The Poem

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Last Updated November 15, 2023.

Perhaps the most prominent aspect of "To Marguerite—Continued" is its effective use of symbolism. This poem metaphorically places human connection in geographical and geologic terms, comparing the lives of people to islands separated from each other by a deep sea. 

The "echoing straits" between them represent the emotional and psychological barriers that keep people isolated despite their shared journey through life. The moonlight, "balms of spring," and nightingales symbolize moments of connection and beauty, offering a temporary break from solitude. The "unplumb'd, salt, estranging sea" powerfully symbolizes the insurmountable barriers that separate individuals and emphasizes the theme of longing and separation.

It is unclear if the Marguerite from the poem's title was a real person or not. Either way, this poem likely originated from a genuine, unfulfilled love of the poet. Here, Matthew Arnold reflects on his experience, realizing that loneliness is part of the human condition, unlike others who dream of deep human connections. Other poems from this period reflect similar themes, and perhaps Arnold struggles with the conflicting and ambivalent feelings described and alluded to in this poem.

Arnold would not have been alone in feeling this. The Victorian period in which Arnold lived was characterized by significant social, economic, and cultural changes, often leading to disconnection and alienation. As a cultural critic, Arnold reflects on these themes in his work. The poem explores isolation and the search for connection, resonating with the broader societal shifts of the time. Many people of this period wondered how inter-human connections could survive in an increasingly industrialized and urban world where long-established social orders were changing. At the same time, the emphasis on individual experience and emotion aligns with the earlier Romantic literary tradition.

With its deep and personal exploration of emotions, this poem fits into the genre of lyric poetry as it was often used during the Victorian and Romantic eras. Lyric poems are meant to express the poet's personal feelings and emotions. They are usually characterized by their use of imagery, figurative language, and musicality. In this case, Arnold is primarily concerned with feelings of love, loss, isolation, and despair.

In "To Marguerite—Continued," Arnold uses various literary devices to enhance the emotional impact of the poem. The repetition of sounds creates a rhythmic quality that echoes the ebb and flow of the sea. The use of vivid imagery, such as the moonlight illuminating hollows and the nightingales singing on starry nights, evokes a sensory experience for the reader, intensifying the emotional impact of the poem.

Examining the narrative structure and techniques Arnold used further helps reveal the poem's nuanced exploration of human emotions. The progression from depicting isolation to moments of connection and, ultimately, acknowledging an unbridgeable separation creates a powerful narrative arc. The rhetorical questions in the fourth stanza intensify the contemplative tone, inviting readers to reflect on the nature of longing and the forces that govern human experiences.

Additionally, in the final lines of the poem, Arnold employs the term "A God" instead of simply "God." This introduces a deliberate ambiguity surrounding the divine force influencing the separation of all people. The choice of the indefinite article "A" allows for varied interpretations without sticking to a specific religious framework. Doing so supports a sense of openness and complexity in exploring longing and external influences. The intentional ambiguity in language leads readers to reflect on the nature of divinity and the complex aspects of human experience.

This poem showcases a carefully crafted structure that combines a rhythmic beat and an organized rhyme pattern. The poem is written in iambic...

(This entire section contains 750 words.)

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tetrameter. This rhythm, consisting of four iambs (unstressed followed by stressed syllables) per line, usually gives the poem a quick and steady pace. The rhyme scheme in each of the four stanzas follows the pattern ABABCC. This decision ensures that each stanza of the poem ends with a strong and clear pair of rhyming lines. Even when the emotions intensify, the structure stays organized to balance the quick rhythm and the powerful rhyming pairs.

Additionally, the poem features several uses of enjambment, where thoughts flow seamlessly from one line to the next without a pause, contributing to the natural and graceful progression of the verses. This is seen, for instance, in the lines,

For surely once, they feel, we were

Parts of a single continent!

This poetic technique not only enhances the rhythmic quality of the poem but also reflects the interconnectedness of the speaker's thoughts, reinforcing the themes of longing and connection present in the verses.