‘No man is an island’ is a famous quotation by John Donne the most famous metaphysical poet. But Mathew Arnold’s philosophy of life is extremely contradictory when compared to Donne’s view of life. He is a typical product of the age of enlightenment when humans started discovering new things and the industrial revolution altered the very structure of society. Loneliness is an integral part of the life of a man who had held the post of Inspector and toured schools all his life. Psychological isolation is a theme that runs in all of his major poems like To Marguerite and Dover Beach.
As we turn the pages of history we come across the figure of Marguerite and of a romance that blossomed between Arnold and Marguerite in Switzerland. According, to critic Laurence Lerner their romance was an unhappy one but it is also the subject of numerous poems by the same poet. Maybe this experience has also helped him to shape his belief in life that we must moderate our wishes than go for joys that lie outside our reach.
Arnold’s tone is largely pessimistic in the poem. He declares the virtual isolation into which man’s life has been shunted. This is not a matter of voluntary choice and not necessarily for someone like Arnold. There are wide swathes of water that permanently separate him from his fellow beings. The desire for establishing communication remains as they remain conscious of their presence in their need for companionship.
For surely once, they feel, we were Parts of a continent.
The poet is obviously remorseful and nostalgic, there is also a wish to go back but it is an impossible feat. Scientific beliefs and religious believes converge together in this poem. Whereas it is held by geologists that landmasses broke from the same continent and drifted apart the same metaphor is applied to our spiritual condition. We have grown distant and presently its impossible in a way to bridge the differences. Arnold argues that the present state of things will remain unchanged and until God wills, nothing can change in the Universe.
In the last stanza, he expresses the pain of lovers, what could have kept them apart to ‘render vain their deep desires. The answer to the last question is God, and the faith in God that is held by men of contemporary times does not provide the same hope as much of it is tainted by modern science.
As it has been already stated in the summary Arnold’s poems are thematically opposed to Donne’s lines ‘No man is an island.’ None of us are alone we are interdependent and rely on each other. Our dependence can be emotional and physical. But Arnold looks at the failure to establish any communication. If we are able to do that it would have made us happy but unfortunately, that does not happen. Seas separate us and as we remain afloat on small islands, we can discover the nightingale’s sweet voice. Our awareness of each other does not stop the pain.
The strong undercurrent that runs in the poem is the sense of disbelief in scientific discoveries. Not everything new that was being discovered was welcomed by the Victorian male. They looked at them with a great deal of suspicion. The theory of evolution propounded by Darwin was virtually canceled by Arnold and his contemporaries. They believed that inventions made during the period were causing the waning of faith.
Arnold ends the poem with a pathetic lament, ‘We mortal millions live alone. It is one of Arnold’s most famous lines. The juxtaposition of two opposing words makes it terribly grave. Isolation was a realistic fact of Victorian life and people just feared living alone. Arnold for one thing suffered from loneliness. The mood of the sentence was one of unease that naturally aligns with the poem’s sorrowful and angry tone.
Arnold’s isolation is to a level self-imposed. This isolation has come after a romantically hopeless relationship after which he has failed to communicate with anyone new. The object of his affection remains the same though the woman has probably deserted him. He cannot distance himself from the experience though the woman has disappeared from his life. He speaks of her in metaphorical terms and associates her with everything beautiful. Nightingales, starry nights, and lovely notes make him feel nostalgic.
He then comments on the impossibility of the situation and the seeming absurdity of the lover or himself to transcend the present and be a part of the past. He cannot connect with the sound or the romantic images. Yet again the awareness of love comes with pain but still, it is preferable to being ignorant and having not fallen in love even once at all. The overall worldview is such that a desire to make a human connection remains but the failure to do so is profound and the frustration lingers. He can only grimly state ‘longing’s fire / Should be, as soon as kindled, cool’d?’
The poem is written in iambic tetrameter and it is generally understood that it is about unfulfilled love. The poem reflects the condition of modern society. It is not only the poet but there are others like him who try to connect but fail to do so and meanwhile suffer from frustration and rejection.
Visual images dominate the poem. Imageries are used beautifully it is as transparent as ever, islands are separated by seas and at times they are also auditory in nature. The sea rolls past your ears and the poet’s grief only accumulates, the pain gets intense until the heart thuds with a longing for the unattainable.
The theme of faith recurs in Mathew Arnold’s poem. It is not just religious faith that Mathew Arnold deals with but it is also his faith in human beings that come under tough scrutiny. Scientific discoveries have also somewhat obscured the idea of faith. Love is a subtle thing in life and as it requires one to risk beyond the limit yet it can be an issue of grave consternation if it fails to make a mark.
Nature in Arnold’s poems is associated with the concept of purity and it serves as an anchor of his deepest thoughts. Natural metaphors of great beauty are spun together and are part of all his canonical works.