Buried Life by Matthew Arnold

‘Buried Life’ by Matthew Arnold  is a ninety-eight line poem which is separated into seven stanzas which vary greatly in line number. There is no consistent rhyme scheme— instead patterns of rhyme vary throughout the stanzas. For example, the first stanza which contains 11 lines and conforms to a pattern of aabacbbdcdb while the third, made up of only two lines, is a rhyming couplet. 

 

Summary of Buried Life

‘Buried Life’ by Matthew Arnold is a monologue through which a distressed speaker analyzes his complicated feelings about his inner life. 

The poem begins by describing an emotional experience had by the speaker in which he is struck by an uncontrollable sadness. He is inflicted with a moment of perception due to his interactions with his lover. The next sections move through the way that “man” lives and how fate determined his obstinacy and inability to understand his own life. 

Nevertheless, one should strive to enter their own “buried life.” It is one’s true self, striped of pretence and the “rush” of the world. 

The poem concludes with the speaker stating that one can see their own buried life in the eyes and touch of their lover. This is a place of peace and easy knowledge. 

 

Analysis of Buried Life

Stanza One

Light flows our war of mocking words, and yet, 

Behold, with tears mine eyes are wet! 

I feel a nameless sadness o’er me roll. 

Yes, yes, we know that we can jest, 

We know, we know that we can smile! 

But there’s a something in this breast, 

To which thy light words bring no rest, 

And thy gay smiles no anodyne. 

Give me thy hand, and hush awhile, 

And turn those limpid eyes on mine, 

And let me read there, love! thy inmost soul. 

The speaker begins this piece by describing his complex emotions in regards to conversational moments with his lover. He speaks on how their words are “light” and gently “mocking” but nevertheless, they made his “eyes…wet!” There is an element of sadness which is present in all their conversation. He is unable to keep it from “roll[ing]” over him. The speaker understands that he shouldn’t feel the way he does but her “gay smiles [are] no anodyne” or salve for his pain. There is something within him that cannot be silenced. 

He asks his lover in the last lines of this section to give him her hand and “hush awhile.” The speaker hopes that through silencing her, and focusing on her “limpid,” or clear, eyes, that he will be able to see into her “inmost soul.”

 

Stanza Two

Alas! is even love too weak 

To unlock the heart, and let it speak? 

Are even lovers powerless to reveal 

To one another what indeed they feel? 

I knew the mass of men conceal’d 

Their thoughts, for fear that if reveal’d 

They would by other men be met 

With blank indifference, or with blame reproved; 

I knew they lived and moved 

Trick’d in disguises, alien to the rest 

Of men, and alien to themselves—and yet 

The same heart beats in every human breast! 

The second stanza, which contains twelve lines, speaks on the power of love. The narrator questions what its capabilities are and if it possible for love “To unlock the heart, and let it speak?” In his distress he is seeking a way out of his pain. He loves this person but he still wonders what love is and what it can do. 

In the fifth line, the speaker moves on to describe a particular experience, or perception of an experience, which influences his own emotions. He understands that men are apt to hide their true feelings for fear of being “met /With blank indifference” from other men. They live in “disguises” and are often “alien to the rest / Of men.” It is clear the speaker disapproves of this way of living, but he does not seem to have a solution for it. He is suffering as much they are. 

 

Stanza Three 

But we, my love!—doth a like spell benumb 

Our hearts, our voices?—must we too be dumb? 

The third stanza is made up of only two lines, which rhyme in a couplet. These lines are quite emotional and profess the speaker’s fear that their love might “behumb” their “hearts” and “voices.” He does not want to be “dumb” as those previously mentioned. 

 

Stanza Four 

Ah! well for us, if even we, 

Even for a moment, can get free 

Our heart, and have our lips unchain’d; 

For that which seals them hath been deep-ordain’d! 

The fourth stanza contains four lines and speaks on the possibility of escaping from the patterns of other loves. He hopes that he and his lover will not have to, at least for a moment, suffer as others have. The speaker states that he will be happy if “Even for a moment” they can get their hearts free and “unchain” their lips. 

 

Stanza Five 

Fate, which foresaw 

How frivolous a baby man would be— 

By what distractions he would be possess’d, 

How he would pour himself in every strife, 

And well-nigh change his own identity— 

That it might keep from his capricious play 

His genuine self, and force him to obey 

Even in his own despite his being’s law, 

Bade through the deep recesses of our breast 

The unregarded river of our life 

Pursue with indiscernible flow its way; 

And that we should not see 

The buried stream, and seem to be 

Eddying at large in blind uncertainty, 

Though driving on with it eternally. 

The fifth stanza is longer. It contains fifteen lines and speaks on the fate of man and how “he” is subject to repetition. He states that man was, and is, subject to fate from the moment he was born. “He” is “frivolous” and subject to easy distraction. Fate “knew” that man would act this way. It understand that “he” would commit himself forever to ‘strife,” a fact which would “keep” him from his “genuine self.” 

While man’s outer nature might be set, there is a part of human existence which runs within one’s mind. This is the “buried stream” of which the narrator speaks. It is “blind” in its “certainty” and driving on through eternity. There is no way to pin down the thoughts which are within “the deep recesses of our breast.” 

 

Related poetry:   Biography of Matthew Arnold

Stanza Six 

Lines 1-10

But often, in the world’s most crowded streets, 

But often, in the din of strife, 

There rises an unspeakable desire 

After the knowledge of our buried life; 

A thirst to spend our fire and restless force 

In tracking out our true, original course; 

A longing to inquire 

Into the mystery of this heart which beats 

So wild, so deep in us—to know 

Whence our lives come and where they go. 

In the first part of the sixth stanza the speaker discusses how, and when, the inner, “buried” emotions and thoughts within one’s subconscious come out. There are moments, the speaker states, “in the din of strife” during which “There rises an unspeakable desire.” (This is the same emotion which he was experiencing in the first stanza when a deep sadness came over him.) It is not something one can consciously control or understand. It stems from the “knowledge of our buried life.” 

The desire is defined in the next lines with an explanation of its source. It comes from a longing for investigation. As soon as one experiences even a portion of they own “buried life” they will want to return there and delve deeper into the experiences. 

This whole idea is summed up beautifully and succinctly in the three lines…

Into the mystery of this heart which beats 

So wild, so deep in us—to know 

Whence our lives come and where they go.

 

Lines 11-19

And many a man in his own breast then delves, 

But deep enough, alas! none ever mines. 

And we have been on many thousand lines, 

And we have shown, on each, spirit and power; 

But hardly have we, for one little hour, 

Been on our own line, have we been ourselves— 

Hardly had skill to utter one of all 

The nameless feelings that course through our breast, 

But they course on for ever unexpress’d. 

In the next portion of the stanza the speaker states that although men have investigated their own being, none have ever “mine[d]” deep enough. “We” may have “shown…spirit and power,” but there has yet to be one person who has had the ability to “utter…/ The nameless feelings that course through our breast.”

 

Lines 20-27 

And long we try in vain to speak and act 

Our hidden self, and what we say and do 

Is eloquent, is well—but ‘t is not true! 

And then we will no more be rack’d 

With inward striving, and demand 

Of all the thousand nothings of the hour 

Their stupefying power; 

Ah yes, and they benumb us at our call! 

The next section continues in the same vein by describing how “long” it has been that man has tired to “speak and act” about his “buried life.” One might speak eloquently and with apparent truth, but that is not the case. The following lines depict the inner reaction of one who is unable to full express themselves.  They will be “benumbed” by “stupefying power” and unable to heed the “call” of their prospective lives. 

 

Lines 28-41 

Yet still, from time to time, vague and forlorn, 

From the soul’s subterranean depth upborne 

As from an infinitely distant land, 

Come airs, and floating echoes, and convey 

A melancholy into all our day. 

Only—but this is rare— 

When a belovèd hand is laid in ours, 

When, jaded with the rush and glare 

Of the interminable hours, 

Our eyes can in another’s eyes read clear, 

When our world-deafen’d ear 

Is by the tones of a loved voice caress’d— 

A bolt is shot back somewhere in our breast, 

And a lost pulse of feeling stirs again. 

The next set of lines the speaker backtracks once more, stating that although most of the time people are unable to express themselves, one’s inner self still comes through. There are moments where from “the soul’s subterranean depth” there come “floating echoes” that convey “A melancholy into all our days.” One feels a small part of their true being and this sliver influences one’s whole outlook 

There is a stipulation though, this experience is only possible when “a belovéd hand is laid in ours.” Another’s “eyes,” which are “clear” of the “rush and glare” of the world. Their voice can “caress” one’s mind and restart one’s heart. 

 

Lines 42- 46

The eye sinks inward, and the heart lies plain, 

And what we mean, we say, and what we would, we know. 

A man becomes aware of his life’s flow, 

And hears its winding murmur; and he sees 

The meadows where it glides, the sun, the breeze. 

In the final lines of the sixth stanza there is an introduction to what living as one’s true self is like. The “heart” will be laid “plain” and one will “say” what they mean without reservation. 

He states that “A man becomes aware” in these moments one will hear a “winding murmur” and see a “meadow” which is filled with “the sun, the breeze.” One will be cast into a world of peace and easy existence. 

 

Stanza Seven 

And there arrives a lull in the hot race 

Wherein he doth for ever chase 

That flying and elusive shadow, rest. 

An air of coolness plays upon his face, 

And an unwonted calm pervades his breast. 

And then he thinks he knows 

The hills where his life rose, 

And the sea where it goes. 

The final stanza, which is composed of eight lines, brings the speaker to the conclusion of his monologue. He speaks of the moment described in the previous stanza as being the end of a “hot race.” 

It is a way of living that is “elusive.” The race will bring one through different realms and finally to a state of being which is defined by “unwonted calm” and a “coolness.” One will “think he knows / The hills where his life rose” and the destination of his life. It is a confidence in living which is rarely experienced. 

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