Matthew Arnold

The Forsaken Merman by Matthew Arnold

‘The Forsaken Merman’ by Matthew Arnold is a melancholy poem in which the speaker, a merman, grieves the loss of his human wife. He’s left alone with their children without the woman he loves.

The poem was published in 1849 and is not one of Matthew Arnold’s most famous poems. But, it is one of the best in his first collection — The Strayed Reveller and Other Rooms. In his ‘The Forsaken Merman,’ the poet contends with themes of betrayal and loss, and parenthood. 

The Forsaken Merman
Matthew Arnold

Come, dear children, let us away;
Down and away below!
Now my brothers call from the bay,
Now the great winds shoreward blow,
Now the salt tides seaward flow;
Now the wild white horses play,
Champ and chafe and toss in the spray.
Children dear, let us away!
This way, this way!

Call her once before you go—
Call once yet!
In a voice that she will know:
"Margaret! Margaret!"
Children's voices should be dear
(Call once more) to a mother's ear;

Children's voices, wild with pain—
Surely she will come again!
Call her once and come away;
This way, this way!
"Mother dear, we cannot stay!
The wild white horses foam and fret."
Margaret! Margaret!

Come, dear children, come away down;
Call no more!
One last look at the white-wall'd town
And the little grey church on the windy shore,
Then come down!
She will not come though you call all day;
Come away, come away!

Children dear, was it yesterday
We heard the sweet bells over the bay?
In the caverns where we lay,
Through the surf and through the swell,
The far-off sound of a silver bell?
Sand-strewn caverns, cool and deep,
Where the winds are all asleep;
Where the spent lights quiver and gleam,
Where the salt weed sways in the stream,
Where the sea-beasts, ranged all round,
Feed in the ooze of their pasture-ground;
Where the sea-snakes coil and twine,
Dry their mail and bask in the brine;
Where great whales come sailing by,
Sail and sail, with unshut eye,
Round the world for ever and aye?
When did music come this way?
Children dear, was it yesterday?

Children dear, was it yesterday
(Call yet once) that she went away?
Once she sate with you and me,
On a red gold throne in the heart of the sea,
And the youngest sate on her knee.
She comb'd its bright hair, and she tended it well,
When down swung the sound of a far-off bell.
She sigh'd, she look'd up through the clear green sea;
She said: "I must go, to my kinsfolk pray
In the little grey church on the shore to-day.
'T will be Easter-time in the world—ah me!
And I lose my poor soul, Merman! here with thee."
I said: "Go up, dear heart, through the waves;
Say thy prayer, and come back to the kind sea-caves!"
She smiled, she went up through the surf in the bay.
Children dear, was it yesterday?

Children dear, were we long alone?
"The sea grows stormy, the little ones moan;
Long prayers," I said, "in the world they say;
Come!" I said; and we rose through the surf in the bay.
We went up the beach, by the sandy down
Where the sea-stocks bloom, to the white-wall'd town;
Through the narrow paved streets, where all was still,
To the little grey church on the windy hill.
From the church came a murmur of folk at their prayers,
But we stood without in the cold blowing airs.
We climb'd on the graves, on the stones worn with rains,
And we gazed up the aisle through the small leaded panes.
She sate by the pillar; we saw her clear:
"Margaret, hist! come quick, we are here!
Dear heart," I said, "we are long alone;
The sea grows stormy, the little ones moan."
But, ah, she gave me never a look,
For her eyes were seal'd to the holy book!
Loud prays the priest; shut stands the door.
Come away, children, call no more!
Come away, come down, call no more!

Down, down, down!
Down to the depths of the sea!
She sits at her wheel in the humming town,
Singing most joyfully.
Hark what she sings: "O joy, O joy,
For the humming street, and the child with its toy!
For the priest, and the bell, and the holy well;
For the wheel where I spun,
And the blessed light of the sun!"
And so she sings her fill,
Singing most joyfully,
Till the spindle drops from her hand,
And the whizzing wheel stands still.
She steals to the window, and looks at the sand,
And over the sand at the sea;
And her eyes are set in a stare;
And anon there breaks a sigh,
And anon there drops a tear,
From a sorrow-clouded eye,
And a heart sorrow-laden,
A long, long sigh;
For the cold strange eyes of a little Mermaiden
And the gleam of her golden hair.

Come away, away children
Come children, come down!
The hoarse wind blows coldly;
Lights shine in the town.
She will start from her slumber
When gusts shake the door;
She will hear the winds howling,
Will hear the waves roar.
We shall see, while above us
The waves roar and whirl,
A ceiling of amber,
A pavement of pearl.
Singing: "Here came a mortal,
But faithless was she!
And alone dwell for ever
The kings of the sea."

But, children, at midnight,
When soft the winds blow,
When clear falls the moonlight,
When spring-tides are low;
When sweet airs come seaward
From heaths starr'd with broom,
And high rocks throw mildly
On the blanch'd sands a gloom;
Up the still, glistening beaches,
Up the creeks we will hie,
Over banks of bright seaweed
The ebb-tide leaves dry.
We will gaze, from the sand-hills,
At the white, sleeping town;
At the church on the hill-side—
And then come back down.
Singing: "There dwells a loved one,
But cruel is she!
She left lonely for ever
The kings of the sea."
The Forsaken Merman by Matthew Arnold


Summary

‘The Forsaken Merman’ by Matthew Arnold is a heart-wrenching poem of loss and betrayal that focuses on a merman who loses his wife to the allure of humankind and dry land. 

The poem begins with the speaker describing how it’s time for him and his children to swim back to their underwater home. They’ve had to accept that their wife and mother, a human woman, has abandoned them to return to humanity and a Christian life. 

The merman describes what happened, how she felt as though she was going to be damned unless she went to Easter service, and how she never came back from the small grey church. They tried to retrieve her, but she had no interest in even speaking to them. 

Themes 

The main theme of this poem is loss. The merman suffers a painful betrayal when his human wife abandons him and their children. She decides to go to land to attend an Easter church service but never comes back. She decides she’s happier there and shows no regard for her family. They all experience a great deal of sorrow, and feelings of abandonment because of her decisions. The speaker, the forsaken merman has trouble coming to terms with the loss but he eventually accepts it (at least to an extent).

Structure and Form 

‘The Forsaken Merman’ by Matthew Arnold is a ten-stanza lament that is divided into stanzas of varying lengths. The first stanza is nine lines long, the second: six, the third: nine, the fourth: seven, the fifth: eighteen, the sixth: sixteen, the seventh: twenty-one, the eighth: twenty-three, the ninth: sixteen, and the tenth: twenty. The poem uses rhyme throughout, but there is no single pattern that’s used throughout. This includes simple couplets, like AABB, and alternate rhymes, like ABAB.

Literary Devices 

Throughout this poem, the poet uses a few literary devices. These include: 

  • Anaphora: the repetition of the same word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “Now” in stanza one. 
  • Repetition: the use of the same literary device multiple times in a poem. For instance, the father’s calls to his children, telling them that its’ time to “away.” 
  • Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “Champ and chafe” in stanza one as well as “wild white” in stanza three. 
  • Persona: a persona is an invented point of view that a poet uses to write. In this case, Arnold chose to write from the persona of a merman who was abandoned by his human wife. 


Detailed Analysis 

Stanzas One and Two

Come, dear children, let us away;

Down and away below!

Now my brothers call from the bay,

Now the great winds shoreward blow,

Now the salt tides seaward flow;

Now the wild white horses play,

Champ and chafe and toss in the spray.

Children dear, let us away!

This way, this way!

Call her once before you go—

Call once yet!

In a voice that she will know:

“Margaret! Margaret!”

Children’s voices should be dear

(Call once more) to a mother’s ear;

In the first few lines of ‘The Forsaken Merman,’ the speaker, a merman (a male mermaid), begins by addressing his children. He tells them that it’s time for them to leave wherever they are, near the shore, and dive back into the depths of the ocean. The merman’s family is calling to him from further out in the bay, telling him that it’s time to go home. 

The poet uses literary devices like anaphora in these lines, as well as repetition more generally, to give the poem a song-like feeling. This becomes more mournful as the poem progresses. 

The poet also uses alliteration in these lines with “wild white” and “salt tides seaward.” 

Before the children and the father go back into the depths of the sea, he tells them that they should call out to their mother. Her name is Margaret, and he hopes, faintly, that the sound of her children’s voices will get her attention. The sound of her children should be “dear” to the mother’s ear. But, as the next lines reveal, this isn’t the case. 

Stanzas Three and Four

Children’s voices, wild with pain—

Surely she will come again!

Call her once and come away;

This way, this way!

“Mother dear, we cannot stay!

The wild white horses foam and fret.”

Margaret! Margaret!



Come, dear children, come away down;

Call no more!

One last look at the white-wall’d town

And the little grey church on the windy shore,

Then come down!

She will not come though you call all day;

Come away, come away!

The children’s voices are filled with pain, longing for their mother, who has abandoned them for the allure of humanity and dry land. She’s on land, entirely uninterested in her family. The children know they can’t stay, as does the merman himself, and they are forced to “come away down” into the ocean and “Call no more.” They are giving up on the mother ever caring about them again. 

They should take one last look at the town she’s left them for, the father says, and then go down into the water. There’s nothing they can do to get her attention. 

Stanza Five 

Children dear, was it yesterday

We heard the sweet bells over the bay?

In the caverns where we lay,

Through the surf and through the swell,

The far-off sound of a silver bell?

Sand-strewn caverns, cool and deep,

Where the winds are all asleep;

Where the spent lights quiver and gleam,

Where the salt weed sways in the stream,

Where the sea-beasts, ranged all round,

Feed in the ooze of their pasture-ground;

Where the sea-snakes coil and twine,

Dry their mail and bask in the brine;

Where great whales come sailing by,

Sail and sail, with unshut eye,

Round the world for ever and aye?

When did music come this way?

Children dear, was it yesterday?

Stanza five is far longer than the first four stanzas and provides a great deal of detail and imagery. The father is speaking to his children still, asking them (rhetorically) if it was only yesterday that they were safe in their home and her the “far-off sound of a silver bell.” 

It was a beautiful sound, clearly, but one that he believed shouldn’t e more beautiful than their home. He describes it in several lines, depicting the movement of the sea week, the “sea-beasts,” and the great whales that come sailing by. There is a great deal of wonder in their underwater home. But, the mother leaves it all behind. 

Stanza Six 

Children dear, was it yesterday

(Call yet once) that she went away?

Once she sate with you and me,

On a red gold throne in the heart of the sea,

And the youngest sate on her knee.

She comb’d its bright hair, and she tended it well,

When down swung the sound of a far-off bell.

She sigh’d, she look’d up through the clear green sea;

She said: “I must go, to my kinsfolk pray

In the little grey church on the shore to-day.

‘T will be Easter-time in the world—ah me!

And I lose my poor soul, Merman! here with thee.”

I said: “Go up, dear heart, through the waves;

Say thy prayer, and come back to the kind sea-caves!”

She smiled, she went up through the surf in the bay.

Children dear, was it yesterday?

The father goes on, emphasizing that it seems like it was only yesterday that the sound of music reached their home and that “she went away.” She was once sitting alongside her husband and her children “in the heart of the sea.” She was a caring mother and a very beautiful wife. She did everything that a mother and wife should do. That is until she heard the sound of the “far-off bell.” 

She had to go to her “kinsfolk” in the village where the church bell (the sound from stanza five) was ringing. She believed that if she didn’t go to Easter service that she’d “lose [her] poor soul” or be damned. Staying with the man who loves her would mean she’d be going against her Christian beliefs. 

Her husband told her that she should go to the church service if its what she wanted to do. He doesn’t want her to be unhappy and is very willing to allow her this task. She smiled and departed through the “surf in the bay.” It feels like it was only yesterday she left. But it’s clearly been longer. 

Stanza Seven 

Children dear, were we long alone?

“The sea grows stormy, the little ones moan;

Long prayers,” I said, “in the world they say;

Come!” I said; and we rose through the surf in the bay.

We went up the beach, by the sandy down

Where the sea-stocks bloom, to the white-wall’d town;

Through the narrow paved streets, where all was still,

To the little grey church on the windy hill.

From the church came a murmur of folk at their prayers,

But we stood without in the cold blowing airs.

We climb’d on the graves, on the stones worn with rains,

And we gazed up the aisle through the small leaded panes.

She sate by the pillar; we saw her clear:

“Margaret, hist! come quick, we are here!

Dear heart,” I said, “we are long alone;

The sea grows stormy, the little ones moan.”

But, ah, she gave me never a look,

For her eyes were seal’d to the holy book!

Loud prays the priest; shut stands the door.

Come away, children, call no more!

Come away, come down, call no more!

The seventh stanza is also quite long. The speaker recalls how he and his children went out of the water and onto land, looking for the mother. They went into the world and to the “little grey church” after an unknown period of time. 

There were people inside the church praying, and they looked inside. She was there with the humans praying for the Easter holiday. They called out to her, begging her to return to the sea with them as it had been too long. She never even turned around to look at her husband, though. She kept her eyes on the “holy book,” unwilling to be swayed by her husband and children. 

The priest shut the door in their faces, and now the father and his children are forsaken, forced to accept that the mother has truly abandoned them for the human world. 

Stanza Eight 

Down, down, down!

Down to the depths of the sea!

She sits at her wheel in the humming town,

Singing most joyfully.

Hark what she sings: “O joy, O joy,

For the humming street, and the child with its toy!

For the priest, and the bell, and the holy well;

For the wheel where I spun,

And the blessed light of the sun!”

And so she sings her fill,

Singing most joyfully,

Till the spindle drops from her hand,

And the whizzing wheel stands still.

She steals to the window, and looks at the sand,

And over the sand at the sea;

And her eyes are set in a stare;

And anon there breaks a sigh,

And anon there drops a tear,

From a sorrow-clouded eye,

And a heart sorrow-laden,

A long, long sigh;

For the cold strange eyes of a little Mermaid

And the gleam of her golden hair.

The eighth stanza contains the actions and feelings of the mother. The father describes how the mother is sitting at her “wheel in the humming town,” singing and seeming to be quite happy. He draws his children’s attention to her song, making sure they hear how content she is. 

She sings the lines “O joy, O joy” and blesses the sun that she can feel so much stronger on her skin than when she was in the water. 

She seems quite content and very okay with her decision to leave her underwater home and mermaid family. Her eyes are cold and strange, unlike the eyes of the woman the merman fell in love with. He can’t help but cry for her and his family’s loss. 

Stanza Nine 

Come away, away children

Come children, come down!

The hoarse wind blows coldly;

Lights shine in the town.

She will start from her slumber

When gusts shake the door;

She will hear the winds howling,

Will hear the waves roar.

We shall see, while above us

The waves roar and whirl,

A ceiling of amber,

A pavement of pearl.

Singing: “Here came a mortal,

But faithless was she!

And alone dwell for ever

The kings of the sea.”

In stanza nine, the father again tells his children that they need to come away from the town as their mother is going to go to bed soon. She’ll hear the winds howling and the waves roaring near her new home on land. While she has a scary experience with the weather, under the water, things are calm and beautiful. The speaker draws a stark contrast between where the woman lives now and what she left behind. 

Underwater, they’ll sing about her and recall how “faithless was she” and how no one will ever be tricked by someone like her again. 

Stanza Ten 

But, children, at midnight,

When soft the winds blow,

When clear falls the moonlight,

When spring-tides are low;

When sweet airs come seaward

From heaths starr’d with broom,

And high rocks throw mildly

On the blanch’d sands a gloom;

Up the still, glistening beaches,

Up the creeks we will hie,

Over banks of bright seaweed

The ebb-tide leaves dry.

We will gaze, from the sand-hills,

At the white, sleeping town;

At the church on the hill-side—

And then come back down.

Singing: “There dwells a loved one,

But cruel is she!

She left lonely for ever

The kings of the sea.”

In the final stanza of this sorrowful poem, the speaker tells his children that when the farther is calm, and the tides are low that they’ll swim to the surface and gaze into the town. There, they’ll look for their mother and wife.

They’ll see the small church she left them for (that pales in comparison to the beauty found underwater) and sing about her cruelty. They still love her, but she abounded them and left “lonely for ever / The kings of the sea.” 

It’s clear that while they’re able to accept that she’s gone, they can’t quite get over the emotional loss. They are still going to pine for her. 

FAQs 

What is the tone of ‘The Forsaken Merman?’

The tone is mournful and depressed. The speaker, a merman who is abandoned by his wife, describes how she left him and their children behind in favor of dry land and a small grey church. 

What is the message of ‘The Forsaken Merman?’

The message is that some losses are unavoidable and unchanging. The speaker learns that no matter how hard he calls for his wife (the mother of his children) that she’s never going to come back to him. He can’t do anything to make her return to their underwater kingdom. 

What type of poem is ‘The Forsaken Merman?’

‘The Forsaken Merman’ is a long, ten-stanza poem that uses a changing rhyme scheme. A lot of the time, the poet uses an alternate pattern of ABAB, while at other times, the pattern changes to include couplets and may look like AABBCC. 

Who is Margaret in ‘The Forsaken Merman?’

Margaret in ‘The Foresaken Merman’ is a human woman who left her merman husband. She leaves their home underwater and makes a home for herself on land. 

Who composed the poem ‘The Forsaken Merman?’

‘The Forsaken Merman’ was composed by Matthew Arnold. It was published in 1849 in The Strayed Reveller and Other Rooms, the first collection of poems the author published. 


Similar Poetry 

Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other Matthew Arnold poems. For example: 

  • Buried Life’ – a monologue in which a speaker discusses his feelings and inner life. 
  • Growing Old’ – is a poem about the realities of aging and how losing one’s youth ends youthful expectations. 
  • Longing’ – is about a speaker’s longing to have their lover visit them in their dreams. 

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About
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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