Something about gray weather near the end of May puts me in a quasi-canonical mood. Kind of. Also, in the interest of at least partial disclosure, I spent most of my afternoon reading Melanie Klein and various Kleinians. This seems at least obscurely relevant to what I’m about to inflict on you, and stands in for all those other things I can’t say in this semi-professional space.

270. “Isolation” by Matthew Arnold ( 1822-1888 )

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;

O 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–

O might our marges meet again!

Who order’d that their longing’s fire

Should be, as soon as kindl’d, cool’d?

A God, a God their severance rul’d;

And bade betwixt their shores to be

The unplumb’d, salt, estranging sea.

(1852, 1857)

Oh, Matthew Arnold. You have a way of making me feel like the Dover Bitch (“To have been brought / All the way down from London, and then be addressed / As a sort of mournful cosmic last resort / Is really tough on a girl, and she was pretty”)–even when I’m in the mood to be much more serious, liable to feel guilty about how I never really believed in the “object as in itself it really is” and I may have kind of used Tennyson to poke fun at your whole “Buried Life” troping–even though I think it’s a much better poem than its omission from the Oxford Book of Victorian Verse suggests.

But the thing about this poem–yeah, I get it. Believe me. You thought nineteenth century society was all estranging, try living among Facebook and Twitter and Gchat and *still* feeling enisled and isolated–yes, there’s something about these fictions of connectedness that are always throwing the gaps in intimacy into stark relief, at least for a certain kind of personality…I think part of what you and I share–what allows, for instance, a poem like “Dover Beach” to stop me in my tracks as if I am encountering it for the first time every time I read it–is a genuine wish for things to be better than in themselves they really are–things, of course, beginning with ourselves as we really are.

Except that this poem bothers me in ways that “Dover Beach” and “The Buried Life” don’t. A rather forecful interior voice calls out, “It’s so whiny!”–hence, I’m sure, the Dover Bitch thing. The scientific language of the third stanza, coupled with the image of a severing God in the fourth, takes this mounting sense of helplessness over the top–it’s a kind of geological version of Tennyson’s “Lotos-Eaters,” where the self-administered narcotic lethargy has become a matter of mindless plate tectonics–a situation in which we not only cannot intervene, but we are never asked nor expected to. This seems like kind of a troubling model for thinking human relations. Not that I haven’t been guilty of this myself. And it’s also not like you invented the trope exactly…it’s just–maybe it’s that first line. “Yes” as in response to something, a gesture that necessarily opens and connects this poem to something–as in, it is not itself an island (more on this anon)–but it’s followed by this very disconnected non-image image of being “in the sea of life enisled”–we don’t even know what’s “enisled” until the “we” of line 4. (Thanks, GRE reading sections!) It’s meant to be oppressive, I know, meant to make us feel boxed in–and, again, the limitedness of these human/islands is thrown up against the limitlessness of whatever it is that estranges us, which is given a kind of absolute power of separation and force and movement and expansion. This isn’t your sea of faith.

But it still is the *sea*–which I think is why this metaphor seems so frustratingly partial to me. The sea separates but it also connects and moves and allows–for instance, the “lovely notes” of the nightingales to travel across great distances. Instead of longing for the time when we were all one big supercontinent (yawner), why can’t there be another way of understanding the archipelago, as it were?

Yes, Matthew Arnold, I know it’s your poem. But the answer may have more to do with the title that Arthur Quiller-Couch chose to attach to this particular set of stanzas in the OBVV. To call this poem “Isolation,” as you did in the 1857 edition of your Poems and as AQC does here, rather reinforces that whole enislement, forcing us to see ourselves as fixed in our estrangement, about which we can do nothing.

On the other hand, if we were going to approach this poem as, “To Marguerite, in returning a volume of the Letters of Ortis” (as we would do if we were reading this poem in 1852 or thereabouts), things change a bit. Personally, I might have just let you keep that copy of the Letters of Ortis, even though I can’t get it on Google Books. And what makes this all more confusing, of course, is that “To Marguerite” in the 1857 edition is a different poem and this one also appears as “To Marguerite: Continued.”

My point in going through all of this (and I’m sure someone’s untangled this somewhere) is only to highlight this very obvious tension, wherein a poem that seems to be about the fixity of isolation is itself part of a conversation with another person (even an imaginatively projected one) and with other texts, real or not. And on the one hand this makes me even more annoyed by this poem–not only is it positing an entire lack of agency, it’s doing so while making use of agency that it isn’t supposed to have. And that’s the kind of thing that Coleridge is always going to do better.

But then again. The act of responding to this poem has helped shake me out of some of my own despair, at least temporarily. Nothing you say here is anything that doesn’t cross my mind on a regular basis, that I wasn’t thinking about tonight. I came to the OBVV looking to have my own sense of something articulated and reinforced in a way that would help me gain some comfort. In this, you failed miserably, taking all those thoughts that I was hoping to cherish a little longer and taking them to such an extreme that it’s making me intervene to say, “No–this isn’t how it has to be”–and to look for possibilities within the poem of thinking these relations differently.

Because maybe we’re not the islands–maybe we’re just on the islands. And if that’s the case, then there doesn’t have to be this absolutely estranging space between us–if the longing is already there as a connection, that’s something. Sure, we can’t turn back the tide of divine severance. But we can teach ourselves how to build boats, right?

Yes, that’s right. I’m On A Boat.

Also, a quick follow up on one of the recent Poems of the Week. When I was consulting the Penguin Book of Victorian Verse (a collection of rather more recent vintage) to see what its stance on the Marguerite poems were, I noticed that Emily Bronte’s “Stanzas”–which I wrote about here–made it into this anthology as well, with a few changes. The poem does contain the final stanza that Mia mentioned in her editor’s note, but–perhaps more intriguingly–the poem is attributed to either Emily or Charlotte. Daniel Karlin’s editor’s notes mention that this poem was originally published in a memorial edition of Wuthering Heights (edited by Charlotte) in 1850–but apparently there’s some debate about the authorship. Karlin’s source is Janet Gezari’s edition of Emily Bronte’s Complete Poems (Penguin, 1992)–but, sadly, GoogleBooks is giving me only a snippet view. Alas.