And once you have walked the length of your mind, what
You command is clear as a lading-list.
Anything else must not, for you, be thought
Philip Larkin, Collected Poems (Faber and Faber 1988).
But let's move beyond the mind, which is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg of who we really are. I would suggest that our emotional sense of life and of the World (how we feel in our heart and, yes, in our soul, about our life and the World) revolves around a handful of long-standing, deeply-entrenched intuitions and images that embody the essence of who we are. This is not a bad thing. Concentration and depth are preferable to dispersion and distraction.
Below the surface-stream, shallow and light,
Of what we say we feel -- below the stream,
As light, of what we think we feel -- there flows
With noiseless current strong, obscure and deep,
The central stream of what we feel indeed.
Matthew Arnold, in Kenneth Allott (editor), The Poems of Matthew Arnold (Longmans 1965). The poem is untitled. The five lines appear in an essay ("St. Paul and Protestantism") that was published in the Cornhill Magazine in November of 1869. Arnold never included the poem in any of the collections of his poetry that were published during his lifetime.
Samuel Bough (1822-1878), "Edinburgh from Leith Roads" (1854)
Yes! in the sea of life enisled,
With echoing straits between us thrown,
Dotting the shoreless watery wild,
We mortal millions live alone.
The islands feel the enclasping flow,
And then their endless bounds they know.
But when the moon their hollows lights,
And they are swept by balms of spring,
And in their glens, on starry nights,
The nightingales divinely sing;
And lovely notes, from shore to shore,
Across the sounds and channels pour --
Oh! then a longing like despair
Is to their farthest caverns sent;
For surely once, they feel, we were
Parts of a single continent!
Now round us spreads the watery plain --
Oh might our marges meet again!
Who ordered, that their longing's fire
Should be, as soon as kindled, cooled?
Who renders vain their deep desire? --
A God, a God their severance ruled!
And bade betwixt their shores to be
The unplumbed, salt, estranging sea.
Matthew Arnold, Empedocles on Etna, and Other Poems (1852).
I am quite fond of this poem. There are very few opening lines as fine as "Yes! in the sea of life enisled." Likewise, there are very few closing lines as fine as "The unplumbed, salt, estranging sea." And, of course, there is this: "We mortal millions live alone," with the telling and lovely italicization. It is a wonderful poem, and Arnold is a wonderful poet, a fact that tends to be obscured by the circumstance that he essentially stopped writing poetry at about the age of 45 and turned himself into a literary and cultural critic (an excellent and prescient one).
The poem was written in the aftermath of Arnold's final parting from "Marguerite," the mysterious woman he met twice in Switzerland (in September of 1848 and September of 1849) and never saw again. These encounters led to a poetic sequence titled "Switzerland," which includes "To Marguerite." But did the encounters actually occur? Much scholarly ink has been spilled debating the issue of whether Marguerite was a blue-eyed, lilac-kerchiefed young woman from France, another young woman from England, or an imaginary "lost love" invented by Arnold.
(Anyone interested in the question may wish to begin with the chapter titled "Arnold's Marguerite" in Paull F. Baum's Ten Studies in the Poetry of Matthew Arnold (Duke University Press 1958), the chapter titled "The Idea of Love" in G. Robert Stange's Matthew Arnold: The Poet as Humanist (Princeton University Press 1967), or the article "Arnold and 'Marguerite' -- Continued" by Miriam Allott in Victorian Poetry, Volume 23, No. 2 (Summer 1985), pages 125-143.)
I prefer to believe that Marguerite existed. But, whether she did or not, there is no denying the passion of "To Marguerite," and the depth of feeling in Arnold's articulation of how we find ourselves in the World.
Samuel Bough, "Seascape"
Arnold returned to the image of "the sea of life" in "The Terrace at Berne," his last poem about Marguerite. It was inspired by a visit he made to Berne in 1859, ten years after their final parting at Thun, which is not far from Berne. Here are the closing stanzas:
Like driftwood spars, which meet and pass
Upon the boundless ocean-plain,
So on the sea of life, alas!
Man meets man -- meets, and quits again.
I knew it when my life was young;
I feel it still, now youth is o'er.
-- The mists are on the mountain hung,
And Marguerite I shall see no more.
Matthew Arnold, Poems (1869).
The islands of "To Marguerite" have been supplanted by "driftwood spars": we are adrift rather than fixed in place. But we are still separated from one another and alone. I find "I knew it when my life was young" to be particularly affecting. I don't know why. It just is.
But was Arnold's parting from Marguerite, and the accompanying feeling that he had lost (forsaken?) the love of his life, the sole source of his passionate apostrophes on "the sea of life" in "To Marguerite" and "The Terrace at Berne"? I think not. Consider these lines:
For most men in a brazen prison live,
Where, in the sun's hot eye,
With heads bent o'er their toil, they languidly
Their lives to some unmeaning taskwork give,
Dreaming of nought beyond their prison-wall.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
And the rest, a few,
Escape their prison and depart
On the wide ocean of life anew.
There the freed prisoner, where'er his heart
Listeth, will sail;
Nor doth he know how there prevail,
Despotic on that sea,
Trade-winds which cross it from eternity.
Matthew Arnold, "A Summer Night," lines 37-41, 51-58, in Empedocles on Etna, and Other Poems (1852).
Although "the wide ocean of life" may appear to be an escape from "prison," alas, it is not: the escapee seeks "some false, impossible shore" and, amid "the roar/Of sea and wind," "he too disappears, and comes no more." ("A Summer Night," lines 69-71, 73.) These lines are not the product of lost or unrequited love. Rather, they reflect Arnold's essential feelings about the nature of our existence on earth, as does this prose statement from one of his notebooks:
"We lie outstretched on a vast wave of the starlit sea of life, balancing backwards and forwards with it: we desire the shore, but we shall reach it only when our wave reaches it."
Matthew Arnold, The Yale Manuscript (edited by S. O. A. Ullmann) (University of Michigan Press 1989), page 195.
Samuel Bough, "Fishing Boats Running Into Port: Dysart Harbour" (1854)
The idea that our life is set on a predetermined course, and that we are in the hands of "destiny" or "fate," is one that recurs often in Arnold's poetry, and in his contemplations on "the sea of life." Arnold is by turns resigned to, and resentful of, this state of affairs.
What mortal, when he saw,
Life's voyage done, his heavenly Friend,
Could ever yet dare tell him fearlessly:
'I have kept uninfringed my nature's law;
The inly-written chart thou gavest me,
To guide me, I have steered by to the end'?
Ah! let us make no claim,
On life's incognisable sea,
To too exact a steering of our way;
Let us not fret and fear to miss our aim,
If some fair coast have lured us to make stay,
Or some friend hailed us to keep company.
Ay! we would each fain drive
At random, and not steer by rule.
Weakness! and worse, weakness bestowed in vain!
Winds from our side the unsuiting consort rive,
We rush by coasts where we had lief remain;
Man cannot, though he would, live chance's fool.
No! as the foaming swath
Of torn-up water, on the main,
Falls heavily away with long-drawn roar
On either side the black deep-furrowed path
Cut by an onward-labouring vessel's prore,
And never touches the ship-side again;
Even so we leave behind,
As, chartered by some unknown Powers,
We stem across the sea of life by night,
The joys which were not for our use designed;
The friends to whom we had no natural right,
The homes that were not destined to be ours.
Matthew Arnold, Empedocles on Etna, and Other Poems (1852). "Prore" (line 23) is an obsolete form of "prow." Kenneth Allott (editor), The Poems of Matthew Arnold, page 140. "Stem" (line 27) means to hold to a fixed course. Ibid.
Arnold's equivocation is apparent. On the one hand, he suggests that we have been "chartered by some unknown Powers" who have laid out a course for us, from which we ought not to deviate. On the other hand, one senses his regret at having to surrender the ability to "drive/At random, and not steer by rule." And how sad the final three lines of the poem are! Look at what we must leave behind as we accept the course of our destiny: "The joys which were not for our use designed;/The friends to whom we had no natural right,/The homes that were not destined to be ours."
Arnold wrote the poem soon after he parted from Marguerite for the final time, which gives an added poignance to those three lines. One is left to ponder whether "Human Life" is an exercise in rationalization or a cry of despair. Perhaps both.
Samuel Bough, "Looking Across the Forth" (1855)
However, in the following poem, Arnold leaves equivocation behind and wonderfully speaks from his heart and soul. Here is "the central stream" of what he "feel[s] indeed."
Why each is striving, from of old,
To love more deeply than he can?
Still would be true, yet still grows cold?
-- Ask of the Powers that sport with man!
They yoked in him, for endless strife,
A heart of ice, a soul of fire;
And hurled him on the Field of Life,
An aimless unallayed Desire.
Matthew Arnold, Empedocles on Etna, and Other Poems (1852).
"Destiny" was another of the poems written by Arnold soon after Marguerite's disappearance from his life. The passion of the poem makes clear that he knew exactly what had happened and what he had walked away from. He attempts to shift responsibility to "destiny" and to "the Powers that sport with man," but I think he knows better: after all, it is his "heart of ice" and his "soul of fire."
I suspect that the emotion expressed by Arnold in the poem took him aback: although he subsequently published collected editions of his poems four times in his life (in 1869, 1877, 1881, and 1885) he did not reprint "Destiny" in any of those editions. It remained hidden away in Empedocles on Etna, and Other Poems, a volume that does not even bear Arnold's name as author: the title page states simply: "By A." It is worth noting that, in the volume, "Destiny" appears immediately before "To Marguerite." Yes, Arnold knew exactly what had happened.
Samuel Bough, "Shipyard at Dumbarton" (1855)