Exploration of Self in Matthew Arnold's The Buried Life
One of the modes of poetry theme and content was that of psychological exploration of self, as characterized by the poem "The Buried Life" by Matthew Arnold. Class structure and gender roles were vividly looked at in depth, "definitions of masculinity and femininity were earnestly contested throughout the period, with increasing sharp assaults on traditional roles..." (Longman, p. 1888). What it was to be a man (or woman) was frequently in question, and much of Victorian poetry addressed this.
Arnold felt that, "literature must directly address the moral needs of readers." (Longman, p. 2017) He felt a need to instruct and educate society to a fuller understanding of its democratic goals. "The Buried Life" can be seen as man's struggle against society's forced class and gender roles.
The poem speaks with an "I" point of view, something that was new for the Victorian era, yet which became an increasing mode throughout poetry. We know not who the "I" is in this poem, and I would doubt that it reflects the author himself.
The character of this poem, right from the beginning feels a sadness that comes from the inner struggle between what society depicts as "should" and what a person really feels, "I feel a nameless sadness o'er me roll,/ yes, yes, we know that we can jest,/ we know we, we know that we can smile!/ But there's a something in this breast/ to which thy light words bring no rest." (3-7) There is the beginning sense here that he is starting to see conflict within himself, first characterized by his emotions.
In the second stanza of the poem, nearly all the lines reflect the characters feeling of powerlessness to put a voice to this inner struggle, to be able to call forth the words to express his feelings without being deemed ridiculous or shunned by society, "Alas! is even love too weak/ to unlock the heart, and let it speak?" (12-13) and "Their thoughts, for fear that if revealed/ they would by other men be met/ with blank indifference, or with blame reproved." (17-19) He notes that even though men cannot voice their thoughts and emotions, that "the same heart bets in every human breast!" (23)
The conflict between man and society's ideology is seen further, "Ah! well for us, if even we/ even for a moment, can get free/ our heart, and hour our lips unchained/ for that which seals them hath been deep-ordained!" (26-29) Deep ordained here connotatively means that with society has deemed acceptable, which may not often coincide with what is really felt. Along these lines of social repression of true self unless in acceptable manner, that society felt a person should be molded into an acceptable framework, "And well-nigh change his own identity/ that it might keep from his capricious play/ his genuine...