The Buried Life by Matthew Arnold Summary: 2022

This poem summary focuses on the long, ninety-eight line poem ‘The Buried Life’ by the Victorian poet Matthew Arnold. Arnold often writes about what he considers to be aspects of the universal human condition. Examples of such poems are ‘Dover Beach’ and ‘The Buried Life’. While ‘Dover Beach’ deals with man’s alienation, ‘The Buried Life’ deals with the lack of authenticity in most human emotions. Go  through The Buried Life by Matthew Arnold Summary.

The Buried Life by Matthew Arnold Summary

‘The Buried Life’ consists of seven stanzas in all, and each of these stanzas consists of a variable number of lines. The first stanza is made up of eleven lines. Here we find an unnamed speaker addressing his beloved in the first person. It is safe to assume that the speaker is Arnold himself. Here Arnold tells his beloved that even though they joke around and they smile amongst themselves, a strange kind of sorrow weighs heavily on his breast. There is no respite from this sorrow – neither by way of his beloved’s “light words”, nor through her “gay smiles”. He anticipates that there is only one way out – for his beloved to hold his hand, stop speaking, and let him read into her soul through her eyes.

The second stanza is made up of twelve lines. Here Arnold asks his beloved whether love is not strong enough to unlock the secrets of the human heart, and whether lovers do not indeed have the power to reveal their innermost thoughts to each other. Arnold knows of men who prefer to keep their thoughts to themselves, because if they revealed these thoughts, their fellow men would either act indifferent towards them, or scorn them. These men, he says, live in a disguised form, and are alienated both from their fellow men and from themselves. Yet why they should be so is a mystery to Arnold, because he believes that all human beings’ thoughts are similar, and hence they should feel no apprehension revealing these to each other.

The third stanza is made up of only two lines, but those lines bear a powerful passion in them. Arnold asks his beloved in a tone of desperation whether the two of them are also bound by the same spell, and therefore, are unable to voice their thoughts between themselves.

The fourth stanza is made up of four lines. In this stanza, Arnold seems to rationalize why they cannot express their emotions in front of each other. He says that the chain that keeps the heart and the mouth separated has its roots deeper down than one can imagine.

The fifth stanza is made up of fifteen lines. Here Arnold says that it is fate that makes man take every measure he possibly can to disguise his true self – whether it is the many ways in which he distracts himself, the many quarrels he has with his fellow men, or the fact that he is willing even to change his own identity. Next, Arnold compares the true current of our thoughts with a river that keeps flowing, but does not know which way to go. It is as if our innermost thoughts are always trying to find a way out, but we have effectively closed off every outlet for them to escape from our breasts.

The sixth stanza, the longest one, is made up of forty-six lines. Here Arnold describes how we sometimes feel an irresistible urge to gain knowledge of our inner lives while walking through the most crowded streets, among so much noise that it fills our ears completely. This is a kind of thirst to spend every force we can summon to figure out the course of our deepest thoughts. This is also a longing to ask where our inner lives have their origin, and where their end. In response to this feeling, many men look into their hearts but can never reach deep enough to find the answers.

We read and talk about the philosophy of others, but our own philosophy remains unexpressed and unexplored. We try hard to “speak and act/ Our hidden self”, but what comes out of such efforts is ultimately a falsity. Finally we stop trying and become immune to the call for greater knowledge of our true selves. However, time and again faint echoes of that self come rising upward from the “soul’s subterranean depth”. This only happens when one is with his beloved and can hold her hand, look into her eyes, listen to her soothing voice. At such a time, a man is able to articulate the feelings in his heart and mean what he says.

The seventh and final stanza is made up of eight lines. Here Arnold describes how in that moment, man can take a rest from chasing after the “elusive shadow” of his soul, can feel a cool breeze blowing over him, and for once, be peaceful. Evoking once more the metaphor of the river of man’s thoughts, Arnold says that man can finally conjecture where its source and its destination are. Hope you enjoyed reading the line by line summary of The Buried Life by Matthew Arnold. Read more: The Buried Life Analysis by Matthew Arnold

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