This poem summary focuses on ‘The Forsaken Merman’ by the English poet Matthew Arnold. Matthew Arnold (24 December 1822 – 15 April 1888) was an English poet and cultural critic who worked as an inspector of schools. He was the son of Thomas Arnold, the famed headmaster of Rugby School, and brother to both Tom Arnold, literary professor, and William Delafield Arnold, novelist and colonial administrator. Matthew Arnold has been characterized as a sage writer, a type of writer who chastises and instructs the reader on contemporary social issues. This poem is made up of ten stanzas. Each of these stanzas is again made up of a varying number of lines. The speaker in the poem is the eponymous merman himself, and he is speaking to his children in the first person. Here is a complete line-by-line summary of The Forsaken Merman.
The Forsaken Merman: Summary
The first stanza consists of nine lines. In this stanza, the merman tells his children to move away from the shore back to their habitation in the depths of the sea. His fellow mermen are calling out to them to return, he says. Tumultuous winds have started blowing over the shore, and the high tide is separating land from sea with the fierceness it is creating in the waves. The “wild white horses” that were galloping on the shore risk being swept away in this stormy weather. The merman then proceeds to lead his children towards his home, pointing the way out to them.
The second stanza consists of six lines. In this stanza, we are first introduced to an absent female figure, for the merman entreats his children to call out to her just once before they begin their journey homeward. Then we come to know that the absent woman’s name is Margaret, for the merman is sure that if the children call out to her by that name, she will be able to recognize their voices. Finally, we realize that Margaret is actually the merman’s wife because he tells his children that their mother is very fond of their voices and will surely return if she hears them.
The third stanza consists of seven lines. In this stanza, the merman tells his children that their mother will not be able to bear the pain in their voices as they entreat her to come and will surely listen to their appeal. The children must call out to her once before leaving and tell her that they will be unable to wait for her on the shore any longer, for the weather has gotten altogether unbearable, as one can see from the fretting of the horses on the shore. Then, in a gesture of desperation, he himself calls out to his wife by her name twice.
The fourth stanza consists of seven lines again. Continuing with the forsaken merman explanation, the merman urges his children to stop calling out to Margaret and start on their way home. They must glance only one last time at the white walls of the buildings in town and the diminutive grey church that stands at one end of it, on the shore. Seeming to give up hope, he tells his children that their mother will not appear even if they keep calling her name the entire day.
The fifth stanza consists of eighteen lines. In this stanza, the merman asks his children whether it was yesterday when they had heard the bells of the church ringing, as they were resting in their caverns beneath the sea. He then goes on to describe the tranquillity of those caverns, saying that they are embedded with soft sand and are both cool and deep within. The lights from the shore almost die out by the time they reach the caverns. However, this low light creates a magical effect as the seaweeds sway in time with the current of the water. Sea-beasts live all around the caverns and feast on the slime on the seafloor. Sea snakes are visible as they coil and uncoil themselves. So are whales, which seem never to sleep but rather to keep swimming continuously till they traverse all the sea and oceans of the earth. The stanza ends with the merman once again asking if it was yesterday that the musical sounds of the bell were heard by them all.
The sixth stanza consists of sixteen lines. Here the merman continues questioning his children and asks whether it was yesterday when their mother had left. He starts reminiscing about how Margaret used to spend her time on “a red gold throne in the heart of the sea,” with their youngest child seated on her lap. In fact, it was this child’s hair that she was combing when she heard the bells of the church, sighed, and said that she must go there, where her kinsmen are all praying, since Easter is on its way, and if she doesn’t pray, then she will lose her soul. In reply, the merman had told her to go up to the church, finish her prayer, and return swiftly to the underwater caverns where they stayed. She had left with a smile, but he can’t remember where it was yesterday. His grief over the absence of his wife has made him lose track of time, so much so that he isn’t able to recall how long she has been gone.
The seventh stanza consists of twenty-one lines. Here the merman asks the next logical question to his children – whether they have been living without Margaret for a long time or not. The smaller children start to moan about how stormy the sea is getting. He then urges his children again to get going, saying that the prayers of human beings must take a long time indeed. He recalls how they had started the day walking up the beach till they reached the town on its shore. The narrow paths leading to the church (which was at an elevated location) were deserted. From inside the church, they could hear people praying, but they did not go in. Instead, they went to the cemetery behind the church and stood on the gravestone to look into the church through its windowpanes. They saw their mother sitting by the pillar, and the merman called out to her, asking her to hasten to the place where they were all waiting for her, for the smaller children were growing anxious about the stormy weather. He himself felt that they had been away from her for a very long time. However, Margaret was staring into the Bible so intently that she overlooked the merman. The priest was praying loudly, and the door remained closed. This is why he has been telling his children to stop calling out to their mothers and to begin their journey back home.
The eighth stanza consists of twenty-three lines. In this stanza, the merman tells his children that they must go down to the sea, for their mother appears to be happy on land, as she sits and the spinning wheel and sings joyfully about all that she sees in the human world. However, that note of mirth is not pure. As the spindle of her wheel drops down to the ground, and she stoops to pick it up, for a moment, she gazes longingly out of the window at sea, and as she remembers her husband and children, she sighs and sheds tears.
The ninth stanza consists of sixteen lines. Here the merman tells his children that when the evening falls, their mother will be able to hear the storm – the gusts of wind and the roar of the waves. From their dwelling beneath the sea, they will also be able to see the light from the shore shimmering on the surface of the water, making it take on the hues of amber and pearl. However, by then, the gap will have gotten too large to bridge, and a prophetic voice will say that since their mother has been faithless, she will never be able to return, and they – the kings of the sea – will live alone forever.
The tenth and final stanza consists of twenty lines. Here the merman tells his children that at midnight, the violent winds will subside, the moon will come out from behind the clouds, low tide will set in, the “sweet air” from grassy areas will blow over the sea, and the rocks will cast their shadow on the sand. At that time, they will again make the long journey into town and towards the church. While returning from there, they will sing about how a loved one of theirs lives in that town, but that she has been cruel enough to leave the kings of the sea alone forever. I hope you enjoyed reading the summary of The Forsaken Merman. If you’re interested in going through the critical analysis of The Forsaken Merman, we have got that covered as well.