Tuesday 20 February 2018

To Marguerite

'Marguerite' is the subject of a number of poems by Matthew Arnold. We know little about her except what the poems themselves tell us and we cannot even be sure that she ever existed. Arnold forbade any biography of him to be written and none has. His family destroyed any letters which might have given us knowledge of the truth of the affair and whether it had any reality, insisting that Marguerite was a fictitious device. This is just possible but the tone of the poems in which she is addressed or spoken of makes it seem unlikely. If there was a Marguerite it appears she was French; that Arnold met her in Switzerland and that they parted perhaps because the Victorian Englishman was shocked by what he saw as her lack of seriousness and depth of feeling, and the small value he thought she put on propriety and chastity.

Matthew Arnold

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.

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