Friday, September 2, 2016

"The Sea Of Life"

I may certainly be wrong, but I suspect that most of us believe that our minds our capacious, that we are "open-minded," and that we have the flexibility to change our viewpoints in order to fit changing circumstances. This may be true from an intellectual standpoint.  But I wonder.  A stanza from Philip Larkin's "Continuing to Live" seems accurate to me:

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
        To exist.

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)

"The central stream of what we feel indeed."  This is what I am getting at. Perhaps this can also be described as our emotional inscape (to borrow a lovely word from Gerard Manley Hopkins and to use it in a different context).  Which brings us to Matthew Arnold and "the sea of life."

                  To Marguerite

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.

                         Human Life

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)


Unknown said...

Thank you for this post. I do not know much Arnold except of course Dover Beach, which from reading this post seems in many ways unrepresentative of his work. I look forward to exploring him more.

Graham Guest said...

Matthew Arnold's beautiful and moving Dover Beach, which I've reproduced below, prompted the making, by Don Cupitt, of the 1984 BBC TV series Sea of Faith, which I very much recommend.


The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand;
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the A gaean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

George said...

It seems to me that the sea is an unsatisfactory metaphor for life, as offering spatial dimensions but not a temporal one--at least as it is used in "To Marguerite" as a space of separation. Or perhaps I do wrong to quibble at Arnold's choosing a monosyllable for what seems to be Kant's world of phenomena; yet "life" is a heavily freighted monosyllable.

And "The islands feel the enclasping flow,/And then their endless bounds they know"? "Endless bounds" suggests a problem in calculus, but I suppose that "endless" is meant for "permanent". And I don't understand why, in "Human Life", "Man cannot, though he would, live chance's fool." when chance's fool is what he seems to be. But perhaps "live" means "live content to be".

Finally, I wonder about the use of biography and poetry as guides to each other. Perhaps this is from attending college in the last days of the New Criticism. But Ford Madox Ford said that it was impossible for him to read Byron and Shelley because of all that his parents' generation knew about them: the poetry was impossible to see for the biography. Anyway, thank you for posting some poetry that I had not previously seen.

Fred said...


A cliche I'm sure, but is Marguerite Arnold's Beatrice? Dante's Beatrice led him to Paradise. Perhaps those last three lines of "Human Life" about lost opportunities reflect this?

Thanks for introducing me to Arnold. I've never really looked into his works.

Mudpuddle said...

touching and informative post... quite interesting, Arnold's unintentional reference to continental drift...

Natalie said...

What a brilliant and beautiful entry to your blog. I thought also of "The Buried Life" which adds to and augments your selections:

"Are even lovers powerless to reveal
To one another what indeed they feel?
I knew the mass of men conceal'd
Their thoughts, for fear that if reveal'd
They would by other men be met
With blank indifference, or with blame reproved; "

I also agree with you about the brilliance of the line "The unplumbed, salt, estranging sea".

As always your illustrations are perfect illuminations of your text.

I am old enough to have disposed of the old canard that I can change with time. I am essentially the same person I was at age 4: a book-loving, cat-loving introvert.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Sweeney: You're welcome. I'm pleased that this post may prompt you to look further into Arnold's poetry. As you can tell, I am fond of his verse, and, although I wouldn't go so far as to call him a "neglected" poet, I do think his poems deserve greater attention. If I may, I would suggest a few other poem as a starting point: "The Buried Life," "Growing Old," and "Resignation."

It's good to hear from you again. As ever, thank you very much for stopping by.

Stephen Pentz said...

Graham: Thank you very much for posting "Dover Beach" here. I struggled with whether to talk about it in the post, but decided that the post was too long already. So I am happy that it has found its way here through your comment. It is a beautiful poem, and it is one of the poems that first stimulated my interest in poetry in my younger years. I have never tired of it, and never will.

Thank you as well for the recommendation of the "Sea of Faith" series, which I was not aware of. I was able to find various episodes on YouTube. I watched the first few minutes of the first episode, and will return to it later. It was nice to hear the recitation of the poem with images of the waves and pebbles of the beach (together with the sound of "the grating roar") at the beginning of the opening episode.

As always, I appreciate hearing from you. Thank you for visiting again.

Stephen Pentz said...

George: It's good to hear from you again. I'm beginning to think that Matthew Arnold is simply not your cup of tea! I recall that in July of last year you were critical of both his hexameter translation of part of The Iliad and his thoughts on translating Homer that appeared in one of my posts. We will have to agree to disagree on the aptness of "the sea of life" as a metaphor. I would only say that, for me at least, the seemingly boundless nature of the sea (when you are on it, or standing beside it) has both a spatial and a temporal dimension. Of course, the temporal dimension may be poetic and a matter of fancy, which is perfectly fine, in my view. As for "Human Life": as I mentioned in the post, "Arnold's equivocation is apparent" in the poem, which may account for what appears to be an ambiguity (or a contradiction) in what he means by "chance's fool." But I see your point.

As for "the use of biography and poetry as guides to each other": again, I can see your point. I grew up with Cleanth Brooks's The Well Wrought Urn and his and Warren's Understanding Poetry, and I am an admirer of John Crowe Ransom, so you'll not find me complaining about the New Criticism. But, like most critical "movements," it fell into extremes. I believe that biographical background is essential to understanding poets, but not necessarily to understanding their individual poems. Thus, I feel that I have a greater appreciation of the poetry of say, Hardy, Edward Thomas, and Housman by virtue of knowing what I know about their lives. To cite just one instance: one can certainly read Hardy's "Poems 1912-13" without knowing anything about the relationship of the poems to Hardy's marriage, its deterioration, Emma's sudden death, and Hardy's subsequent regret, but, for me at least, my appreciation of the poems is increased by knowing the biographical background. But do I seek out a biographical source for each poem I read by Hardy, Thomas, and Housman? No.

As for Arnold and Marguerite: well, since Arnold wrote a poem titled "To Marguerite," and mentions her by name in "The Terrace at Berne," I'd say that we are entirely justified in considering the biographical background of the Marguerite/Switzerland poems. (Just as we are justified in considering the biographical background of Arnold's "Faded Leaves" sequence, which arises out of his courtship of the woman who became his wife.) Is any of this necessary to evaluating whether we like or dislike the poems? No. But it is worth knowing, in my view. But, of course, all of this is a matter of opinion, and I appreciate your view on the matter.

As always, thank you very much for visiting, and for sharing your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: That's an interesting parallel. Although it seems that Arnold, rather than being led to Paradise, was led into regret over what he had lost -- which is, as you say, reflected in the final three lines of "Human Life." Your point is a good one: their brief encounters with Beatrice and Marguerite took on an imaginative importance for Dante and Arnold that they never expected -- and which gave us some wonderful poetry.

Thank you very much for visiting again. It's always nice to hear from you.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mudpuddle: Thank you for your kind words about the post.

Hah! I hadn't thought of continental drift in connection with "For surely once, they feel, we were/Parts of a single continent." Given the Victorian struggle between Charles Darwin/evolution and God which preoccupied Arnold and other thinkers of the era, the coincidence seems appropriate.

Thank you for stopping by again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Natalie: Thank you very much for your kind words about the post, which I greatly appreciate. And thank you as well for the lines from "The Buried Life," which fit perfectly in this context. Your placing the lines next to "The unplumbed, salt, estranging sea" prompted me to realize how estrangement, distance, and aloneness (as opposed to "loneliness") are such key themes in Arnold's poetry.

I completely agree with your comment about not "chang[ing] with time" and our essential character. I, too, believe that the essence of who we are is something that becomes evident early in life (although it may take us some time to realize it). For me, this is not a matter of "psychology" or of any other "social science." I prefer to think of it as our soul. Or, better, the Japanese word "kokoro" or the Chinese word "xin," both of which embody a combination of heart/mind/spirit.

Thank you for visiting again, and for sharing your thoughts.

George said...

Stephen, yes, clearly my "open-mindedness" when it comes to Matthew Arnold is mighty narrow. His prose seems to me better than his poetry, but his main lines of argument often weakened by the awkward position of a clerical caste that had lost confidence in its vocation. His poetry seems to me to use too many words elaborating metaphors, where a simpler poet might have left the metaphor implicit, or another poet might have been briefer and explicit, as Eliot in

... I have heard the key
Turn in the door and turn once only
We think of the key, each in his own prison
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison

Having said that, though my essential character seems to be on the quarrelsome side, I will try to be more constructive in future comments, and leave alone certain poets.

Stephen Pentz said...

George: Thank you very much for your follow-up comment. First of all: I have never found any of your comments here to be anything other than "constructive." They always prompt me to think more deeply about the subject at hand, which by definition makes them "constructive." So please don't ever edit yourself!

Second, I apologize if my defense of Arnold was too strident. After 32 years of practicing law, I fear that by now I instinctively leap to the defense of my client -- my "client" in this case being Matthew Arnold.

Finally, I think that you and I are in general agreement that Arnold (and other Victorian poets, by the way) tended not to be as "brief" and "explicit" as we moderns might like them to be. (I have returned to Tennyson this past week -- there is another case in point!) Believe me, when reading Arnold's poetry, I sometimes think: "Come on, Matthew! Just say it!" This is why I perhaps place inordinate value upon short poems by Arnold such as "Below the surface-stream" and "Destiny": in those poems he seems to (at last!) speak in unedited fashion directly from his heart. Thus, you and I may not be so far apart after all.

Again, thank you very much for your follow-up thoughts, which I greatly appreciate. And please do not ever feel that you should moderate or self-edit your comments. Once more, I apologize if the lawyer side of me makes me too contentious in arguing the cases of my poet-clients!

RT said...

All worthwhile -- again, as usual -- and you remind me with your posting this time of the Nature v. nurture argument when it comes to the theme(s) advanced in the chosen poems. In other words, who are we, and how did we come to be who we are? May I offer another perspective on the issue by providing a link to my posting and small discussion of a Wordsworth poem:

We have difficulties knowing who we are, but Wordsworth -- among others, including the poets you cite and your discussion -- help us better understand the answer(s).

Thank you.

Stephen Pentz said...

R. T.: Thank you very much for your kind words about the post. And thank you as well for the link to your post on Wordsworth's poem. I think the lines "I could wish my days to be/Bound each to each by natural piety" fit well with the idea that we ought to be aware of, and protective of, the inner instincts and images that make us who we are -- however we arrived at them, or however they came to us.

As ever, I appreciate hearing your thoughts. Thanks for visiting again.