Psychological isolation is a theme that runs as a vein throughout Matthew Arnold’s poetry which has won much critical acclaim. Poems like “Dover Beach” and “To Marguerite” reverse the argument made by John Donne, the metaphysical poet, that “No man is an island”, by emphasizing that mortals have indeed become permanently “enisled”.
A metaphor is set up in the first stanza comparing humans to islands surrounded by life and the world around them, the sea. A vein of pessimism runs through this poem, “To Marguerite”, with Arnold declaring that man has been enisled with wide swathes of water separating him from fellow humans. It seems like that is the way things are going to remain. The human race is doomed to isolation.
The dominant metaphor "the sea of life" is carried over to second stanza where Arnold sets up the meeting across the seas between the isolated isles of himself and Marguerite. He provides for their meeting within the metaphor of isolated islands by a "But when" device that allows for the moon's light, sweeping winds, starry nights and the pouring note of nightingales' songs.
Stanza three exults the chance encounter of these floating, wind swept, song enchanted isles whose margins ("marges"), or boundaries, meet under magical nights. He proclaims the islands to have been united at some distant time: "For surely once, they feel, we were / Parts of a single continent!" Yet, in the same poetic breath, he separates them yet longs for another encounter:
Now round us spreads the watery plain--
Oh might our marges meet again!
Stanza four introduces the question of "Who" ordered the islands be separated and answers that it was Divine Providence that decreed it be so: "A God, a God their severance ruled!" The stanza ends with a return the "sea of life" metaphor saying the sea is once again between the shores of the islands, himself and Marguerite.
(And bade betwixt their shores to be
The unplumb'd, salt, estranging sea.)
The line "We mortal millions live alone" is one of Arnold's most famous. It is so effective for a number of reasons; first, the juxtaposition of "millions" and "alone" is eerie and unsettling; surrounded by so many people all the time, it is hard for any of us to imagine feeling entirely alone. The word alone is italicized to stress that fact; in Victorian England, human isolation was extremely prominent, and being alone was a realistic fear. The terminal punctuation at the end of this line also adds to its potency. There are very few lines that end terminally in this poem; most are halted by commas, which is a subtle form of enjambment (when a sentence continues from one line to another). The period at the end of this sentence allows it to resonate with a reader all the more strongly, since the next line is a whole new idea rather than a continuation of this one. The overall effect is one of unease, which naturally aligns with the sadness and anger at the poem's center.
This poem highlights in particular the isolation brought on by romantic feelings. In stanza 2, Arnold uses metaphors of nightingales, starry nights, and "lovely notes" to illustrate the connection between people. Naturally, these are romantic images. However, he then negates the potential to connect with these sounds in the subsequent two stanzas, suggesting the impossibility of such intimate connection. Yet again, the awareness of love is worse than ignorance of it, since the former eventually leads to "despair." Overall, the poem espouses an extremely pessimistic worldview, one that acknowledges the potential for human connection, but then expresses frustration that "longing's fire/Should be, as soon as kindled, cool'd."
This poem is typical of much of Arnold’s poetry with its pessimistic tone and emphasis on alienation, isolation and longing for bonding that does not happen.