Poetry of Matthew Arnold and Walt Whitman


The Hidden Self:

The poetry of Matthew Arnold and Walt Whitman

Helen Vendler wrote that a work of poetry “offers a personal sense of the world” (Vendler, 287). Of all the themes of poetry, the personal quest for a sense of “true self,” and authenticity — the essence of true being is one of the most prevalent. Indeed, much of the poetry of Matthew Arnold and Walt Whitman is an excellent example of this theme — specifically in how the self, the world, and true reality of life is an immense struggle to behold. Specifically, the poems, The Buried Life (Arnold), and Are You The New Person, Drawn Toward Me?, Ah, Poverty, Wincings, Sulking Retreats, and Sulkings, and In Paths Untrodden (Whitman), seem to show most clearly how both of these men sensed, searched for, and struggled to maintain a sense of self amid the world.

Of all the emotions that are evoked in the words of Matthew Arnold’s, The Buried Life, the reader is immediately hit by a sense of heavy sadness. Although some critics assert that in its essence, the poem is about the perils of love — and in putting our confidence in being able to find true meaning and comfort in its warm embrace, the real essence of what comes to the surface (in as much as it is not “buried”), is the despair of the buried authentic self.

In the poem, Arnold evokes a world with which many are all too familiar. Indeed, many would say that the buried life he describes in the poem is the universal human struggle, a representation of a harsh world in which the individual vaguely aware of a freedom he or she has buried long ago…perhaps in childhood. Arnold writes, “With tears mine eyes are wet!” — the reader knows that sadness will be the theme, but a “nameless sadness…” A melancholy to which, perhaps all artistic people are all too familiar. A sadness, “To which thy light words bring no rest,/And thy gay smiles no anodyne.” Here, Arnold alludes to the frivolity, the facade of the “gay world” — of the inability of the world to mask the nameless reality just beneath the surface, that, despite the varied distractions of the “surface” life, occasionally comes to the surface, evoking the dull ache of longing.

He goes on, “Give me thy hand, and hush awhile,/And turn those limpid eyes on mine,/And let me read there, love!/Thy inmost soul…” “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?” Here, he alludes to a world in which even the most supposedly “honest” bond between people, the flush of true romantic love, is no match for the buried truth…that the true essence of any man or woman is not only buried, but buried even under the spell of the supposedly all powerful love. More:

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!

Here, he touches on the truth that lies buried, yet, even as he senses its “nameless” presence, he is unable to escape from its elusivity…that is, Arnold knows that men — like him — live in fear of others “discovering” just who they really are. Only, he can glimpse, if, but for a moment, that the truth is everyone is exactly the same, of the same essence, fears, and essential being.

In essence, Arnold is simply pointing to the obvious — or what should be obvious — that is the terrible enforced world of artificiality — of an empty surface life in which we waste away the bulk of our conscious moments, and of the real life, the buried life, which we glimpse only in isolated moments, tinged with pain.

But, why then, does it seem that not every man or woman seems to be effected by this sadness, the occasional realizations of the moment that the true self is most often buried? Why do some feel it so acutely, and seem to suffer intensely enough to perhaps drown, shoot, or gas themselves to escape the pain (Woolf, Hemingway, Plath)? He writes, “Fate, which foresaw/How frivolous a baby man would be — /by what distractions he would be possessed…” Is it not better to remain possessed rather than to be aware of the tremendous self-duplicity, that man’s desire to “pour himself in every strife” is not due to nobility, bravery, or meaning, but to an elaborately erected facade of a real life?

So too, the contemporary of Arnold, Walt Whitman, had a gift for evoking the “hidden self,” as well as the pain that arises from its remembrance. Take, for example, his short poem, “Are You the New Person, Drawn Toward Me?”

In this poem, Whitman begins by stating, “Are you the new person drawn toward me?/To begin with, take warning — I am surely far different from what you suppose.” Here, he not only asserts the existence of his hidden self — a plain statement, I am not what you imagine I am…however, one senses, like in Arnold’s work, a melancholy — yet a melancholy touched by perhaps just a bit of shame. He continues, “Do you think it so easy to have me become your lover?/Do you think the friendship of me would be unalloy’d satisfaction?” Indeed, he is almost chastising the “other,” or the outside world’s perception of him based on his own facade, a facade he recognizes as inauthentic, while at the same time calling up his own fears about himself. He goes on, “Do you see no further than this facade — this smooth and tolerant manner of me?/…Have you thought, O dreamer, that it may be all maya, illusion?

So, too, Whitman continues this theme of a buried reality in the poem, “Ah Poverties, Wincings Sulky Retreats.” Here, Whitman is more specific about the varied distractions of the inauthentic life that cover any sense of the truly real. He writes:

AH poverties, wincings, and sulky retreats!/Ah you foes that in conflict have overcome me!/…You degradations — you tussle with passions and appetites:/You smarts from dissatisfied friendships, (ah wounds, the sharpest of all;)/You toil of painful and choked articulations — you meanness;/You shallow tongue-talks at tables, (my tongue the shallowest of any;)/You broken resolutions, you racking angers, you smother’d ennuis;/Ah, think not you finally triumph — My real self has yet to come forth/…It shall yet stand up the soldier of unquestion’d victory.

Unquestionably, what is interesting here is not just Whitman’s ability to clearly illustrate the myriad ways in which the human being is deluded away from the “real self” — deluded by the actions, frivolities, emotions, disappointments, and angers of life — for although this short poem does a masterful job of evoking every man and woman’s frivolity in the face of authenticity, but in his sense of hope at the end, and in his belief that his true self will eventually triumph — an optimism that Arnold clearly does not share.

Finally, in Whitman’s poem, “In Paths Untrodden,” he again masterfully evokes the sense of the “real world,” or the real life as being “paths untrodden,” hiding in the “margins of pond waters,/Escaped from the life that exhibits itself.” Like Arnold, who writes of “capricious play” keeping him from “his genuine self, and force him to obey…/…the thousand nothings of the hour…/, Whitman also notes that so much real life is wasted on the wrong “offering to feed my soul;” that he suffers from trying to fill the void left by the buried self with meaningless activity, “pleasures, profits, eruditions, conformities…” that is life is whittled away by false striving that can never lead to real fulfillment.

Instead, Whitman writes, the real world is found, “Here, by myself, away from the clank of the world./Tallying and talk’d to here by tongues aromatic…” And declares, “Strong upon me the life that does not exhibit itself, yet contains all the rest…” Indeed, “all the rest” is all that is.

To be sure, in all four poems here, “The Buried Life,” “Are You the New Person, Drawn Toward Me? “Ah Poverty, Wincings Sulky Retreats,” and “In Paths Untrodden,” the world is portrayed as a shadow place…a realm of deception, both toward others, as well as ourselves. Further, the world is sad, hopeless, and perhaps unredeemable in Arnold’s work, as it is also sad, and perhaps a little angry in Whitman’s. However, In Whitman’s poetry, one gets a sense of hope, or, if not hope, of perhaps, more accurately, defiance. Indeed, one sense that Whitman truly feels that living the “true life,” fully unearthing and possessing the buried life is possible for him.

Of course, in all four of these poems, one cannot read them as a group and sense that the poets all see the world as a problem; for, through all four poems the reader is acutely aware that the authors are significantly troubled by the, somewhat, “dual existence,” men and women are forced to lead in the world. Although the fact that Arnold and Whitman are both, at least, aware of their buried lives, seems to be a mark in their favor, as well as a mark above the common man, the human condition is, nonetheless, acutely painful.

Although many might argue that “The Buried Life” is ultimately resolved with the lines:

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.

There, nonetheless, remains a melancholy tone that does not abate, even as “A man becomes aware of his life’s flow, / And hears its winding murmur…” Perhaps, to Arnold, the poem is resolved, yet its gray mist remains.

Whitman’s poems, on the other hand, seem to hold a strident tone that either gives one hope in his confidence in his ability to unearth his buried life, or tempts the reader to imagine his complete self-delusion on the matter — almost as if his defiance and declaration of success over the false world is simply another facade of bravado. For, where Arnold shows despair most clearly, Whitman almost belts it out, while, in the end, slapping down the pain of inauthenticity by brute will alone.

In addition, both poets seem to be using the poems as a kind of cathartic device by which they can work out their angst concerning the false lives they feel (or have felt) forced to lead. Indeed, all four poems seem so similar in theme and message, as well as so familiar on the individual reader level, that the somehow, universal quality of the suffering of the human condition comes through. Not only does the reader notice the same issues in their own life, but he or she recognizes the poems role in the poets’ lives.

Of course, the concept of “reality” is central in all four poems. Not only is a dual reality presented in all four poems, “The buried life,” “paths untrodden,” “different from what you suppose,” and “all illusion.” Yet, reality is presented as something far deeper than the mere existence of dual worlds (perhaps dueling worlds). Instead, in all four poems, reality is represented as an undercurrent that does not enjoy equal time with the artificially life of “the world,” a fact that Arnold touches on when he writes, “Ah! Well for us, if even we/Even for a moment, can get free/Our heart, and have our lips umchain’d;/For that which seals them hath been deep-ordained!” Whitman also acknowledges this struggle, this inequality of time in which the two realities can dominate one’s consciousness. He writes, “my real self has yet to come forth.” That Whitman writes this sentence, acknowledging that at 41 years of age, his real self has yet to come forth, indicates the extreme imbalance between he two realities — as well as the inherent difficulty in accessing the deeper one.

When Helen Vendler wore that poetry offers “a personal sense of the world” (Vendler, 287), she couldn’t be more correct than in the case of the four poems presented here. Not only does the poetry of Matthew Arnold and Walt Whitman give the reader an extremely clear sense of their “personal sense of the world,” but they have the rare distinction of possessing the trait of truly great poetry. For if mere poetry can offer the author’s personal sense of the world, the great poetry of Arnold and Whitman evoke the readers sense of the word, for the words resonate with universal truth. Indeed, the buried life, and the life of illusion are all too familiar to humankind as a whole — even if they seek to bury it all the deeper for the pain it evokes. Arnold and Whitman do not shy away from that pain, however, and through their poetry, they illuminate the “real world” for those of us who are too timid to evoke it on our own.

Works Cited

Vendler, Helen.

Arnold, Matthew. Stedman, Edmund Clarence, ed. “The Buried Life.” A Victorian Anthology, 1837-1895. Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1895; Bartleby.com, 2003.

A www.bartleby.com/246/.Retrieved from Web site on April 20, 2004.

Whitman, Walt. “In Paths Untrodden.,” “Are You the New Person, Drawn Toward Me?” “Ah Poverty, Wincings Sulky Retreats. http://www.poemhunter.com/p/m/poem.asp?poet=3108&poem=15513Retrieved from Web site on April 20, 2004.

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