"God has become a Deus absconditus, hidden somewhere behind the silence of infinite spaces, and our literary symbols can make only the most distant allusions to him, or to the natural world which used to be his abiding place and home." (Miller, 68) This quote taken from J. Hillis Miller's article "The Theme of the disappearance of God in Victorian poetry" is reflected in Matthew Arnold's poem, "To Marguerite - Continued". This poem is not only a comment on love, and human isolation, but on religious doubt, a central issue in the Victorian era. In the course of developing the theme of religious doubt, and conveying tone in this poem, Arnold also employs a number of poetic techniques and literary devices.
It is important to note that questions of God and religion are inevitably raised in response to a particular social environment. Religious doubt is not a homogenous concept, and appreciation of the particular nature of Arnold’s doubt requires some contextual understanding. The Victorian Era unfolded against an increasingly industrialized, scientific backdrop – commerce, manufacturing ability and the individualisation of society produced a burgeoning middle class in England. ‘Progress’ was manifested in creations of man and the age of machinery. No longer were men and women bound to seek truth or comfort in religious teaching; indeed, the rejection of God, is in some ways, a reflection of mankind’s belief in its own ability to obtain truth.
The first stanza of ‘To Marguerite’ sets a metaphor for Arnold’s particular sense of religious disconnect. Humanity is represented as a series of islands, surrounded by ‘life’ (the water that flows between). Beginning in first-person, the first stanza almost immediately conveys the bitter essence of Arnold’s argument: “Dotting the shoreless watery wild / We mortal millions live alone.” (Lines 3-4, p 303). The italicisation of “alone” is particularly significant, as is the punctuation following (a full-stop), as it is the only time that Arnold uses these language techniques in the poem. The tone is emphatic, more so given the preceding alliterative reference to ‘mortal millions’. Despite the fact that we are so many and so similar, each of us doomed to our own mortality, we still exist in a state of fundamental isolation. The sense of loneliness established in the first stanza is not so much individual to Arnold, but rather a collective experience of disconnect.
The stanza ends in a continuation of the island/sea metaphor, but switches to third-person, as if to reinforce that Arnold is referring to mankind as a set of individuals, as opposed to merely himself. “The islands feel the enclasping flow, and then their endless bounds they know” (lines 5-6). The use of paradox in this line is particularly compelling. The water that both separates and connects the islands (humanity) serves to make them aware of their ‘endless bounds’. In a religious context, it seems as though Arnold is suggesting that while each...