The Buried Life

Long before it inspired a basic-cable series dedicated to MTV douchebaggery, Matthew Arnold’s 1852 poem, “The Buried Life,” inspired generations to quiet introspection.

Who has not, after all, sensed that there might be something more to life? Something richer? Who has not felt bitter sadness at their inability to escape the immediate demands of life in order to pursue an unclear purpose and invisible meaning? Like generations have before me, I too have found solace and desperate inspiration in its 98 lines, and I wanted to use this forum to experience it’s wisdom once again. After all, as the poem’s speaker suggests, “The same heart beats in every human breast.”

2013-02-14 13.39.16

Upon her retirement, my beloved adviser, Dr. Judith Oster, gave me her copy of The Portable Matthew Arnold, edited by Lionel Trilling. Given the nature of my dissertation, she thought it a poetically appropriate gift and it is precious to me. I love that Lionel Trilling edited it. I love that it identifies itself as “portable,” meaning that art need not be something dead and compartmentalized, but alive and living with me. But mostly, I love that my adviser, mentor, and friend passed its wisdom on to me. With it in my possession, I feel as though I’m a part of a great tradition. And as much as Arnold’s own printed words, I relish Judy’s handwritten marginalia. It captures an image of my intellectual forebear struggling for the first time with great art and great ideas. Seeing the undergraduate underlining and engaged scribbling of my great teacher makes me imagine her life and career as a classical epic, and inspires me to try and carry on her intellectual and moral work. Much of what I know of the “best that’s been thought and said,” she taught me, after all.

Arnold’s poem retains its moving power even in our distracted, immediate age. It’s able to do this because it identifies a human longing that is not bound by time or place.

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

What the speaker identifies is a human desire for meaning. Despite the claims of early Derrida and recent “advances” in science, human beings long for meaning, whether it is actually there or not. Some of us waste that desire seeking out a collection of consumable products or hedonistic frivolity to quench our thirst for meaning. Those things need not be the ends of our desires, however.

Self-absorption is not the only barrier to digging our our buried lives, however. Conversely, some expend their divine longings by assembling a life built on ostensibly good things like family, community, and religion. But these things as ends unto themselves are also inadequate. Indeed, the poem asks,

Alas, is even Love too weak

To unlock the heart, and let it speak?

So what are we to do? What is the point? The point is that there is a point. And too many people miss it.

Those who wish to confine our lives to the mathematics of particle accelerators and the pre-destination of chemistry will not agree with the transcendence this poem conceives of. But, “The Buried Life” suggests that there is something inside each of us, a “true self” that awaits discovery. The notion that the essence of our lives is arbitrary and constructed is an alien one to Arnold here. Yes, much of what we do with our time “in the world’s most crowded streets” is arbitrary and lived entirely in the “din of strife,” but this poem offers a bleak, distant hope that there is an objective beauty to be grasped and experienced. That there is a purpose each of us is born to.

Yet — and this is what can be debilitating — this quest can never be fulfilled and we are therefore Sisyphus, forever pushing that rock uphill. This is the act in which we must find our joy.

I think I must be drawn to this poem at this moment because I’ve seemingly found my calling, the life that was buried in my breast all along.

And yet.

What can explain the fact that these words resonate with me in a manner that destroys any comfort I might otherwise rest in?

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;

One general critique of Arnold’s liberal humanist project is that it closes down free inquiry. It’s deference to “the best that’s been thought and said” is usually cited as an unthinking dedication to tradition. I think that this is a reductionist interpretation, if not patently false. The speaker in this poem sees life as a never ending, beautifully tragic inquiry. There is no comfortable resting on laurels. The philosophical position this poem takes is, I think, consistent with Arnold’s body of poetry and criticism, and it refutes the naive simplicity imposed upon his reputation by the dogmatists of European philosophy. If anything, Arnold provides a tortured, restless window from which to experience the world. It does not allow for confidence or privilege. It requires eternal introspection, all the while knowing that there is no depth at which the answer will be revealed. The poem states this flatly:

Into the mystery of this heart which beats

So wild, so deep in us — to know

Whence our lives come and where they go.

And many a man in his own breast then delves,

But deep enough, alas! None ever mines.

The Blessed Assurance that Arnold is accused of peddling is certainly not evident in these lines. This is a philosophy instead more attuned to the Romanticism of Bruce Springsteen. The ‘Burns and The Boss each find the beauty and truth of life in the Darkness on the Edge of Town. My own attraction to this poem at this moment can probably be traced to my desire to maintain touch with that landscape and the inspiring uncertainties that reside within. Only they can provide a goal worthy of my own “fire and restless force,” spent endlessly trading in my wings on some wheels. In fact, Springsteen’s “Thunder Road,” perfectly captures the spirit of Arnold’s poem.

This sounds rather terrifying and hopeless, I know. “The Buried Life,” however, like Springsteen’s song, also provides a flash of hope that makes the uncertain risks worth taking. Arnold writes:

Only — but this is rare —

When a beloved 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—

Rare though it may be, I have experienced enough of this exhilaration to keep me energized for the endless journey. Like Mary in Springsteen’s great epic, my own Beloved’s hand has offered me the clear vision that reveals the Buried Life. The poem’s last three lines describe that experience:

And then he thinks he knows

The hills where his life rose,

And the sea where it goes.

The brief glimpses of “the point” of my life are what exhilarate me and make me eager for my own time spent in Springsteen’s Edge of Town. I have a beloved wife and family that give me this perspective, and I also have great art. All of us have this; it is our cultural inheritance and we need only claim it. Arnold’s poem, ending as it does with this promise of vision, offers “an air of coolness,” a reason to risk excavating the Buried Life. The poem itself is a “beloved hand” that is “laid in ours.” This is what Judy gave me when she passed her book down to me. This is why we shouldn’t be so bold as to laugh off the best that’s been thought and said.

                      The Buried Life

                                by

                       Matthew Arnold

   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.

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!

But we, my love!—doth a like spell benumb
Our hearts, our voices?—must we too be dumb?

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!

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.

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.
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.
And long we try in vain to speak and act
Our hidden self, and what we say and do
Is eloquent, is well—but ’tis 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!
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 belov’ed 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 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.

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.

Arnold's grave

6 thoughts on “The Buried Life

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s