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.”

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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


                       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


The Fourteenth of February


I think that if this blog could be summed up in a single word, I would choose “Love.”

I have, for reasons all my own, a deep passion for life and for experiencing it with all my senses and the whole of my imagination. If you’re still reading this blog after two months, I suspect you’re in the same boat. What you may not know, however is the role that a very special person played in forming this passion within me.

So today, I want to talk about Love itself. To do so I will focus on the person who is for me the embodiment of it. My wife, Kim.

It is, I think, a sign of how far we’ve fallen as a culture that even a discussion of this greatest of virtues is so easily drawn into the pettiness of politics. Even as a type these words, I worry about who I’m going to offend. “What about those from broken marriages?” “How can I work gender equality in the workplace into this?” “There’s gay marriage now Anderson, what about that?”

Call me an idiot, but I believe that it’s possible to transcend the mechanical and mean world of politics, culture, and economics. Damn Foucault’s torpedoes, I’m going to pull back, with my Love, onto Matthew Arnold’s darkling plain at Dover Beach.

The picture above that I’ve chosen for this piece fully represents my views on the issue. Da Vinci’s anatomical drawings of the human heart represents what is most certainly mechanical and scientific about human beings. We are kept alive by a pump after all. Da Vinci, however, doesn’t leave the object of his study in the realm of cold, heartless fact. He rescues it by rendering it as art – an art that inspires wonder and emotion, and one that creates a new space in which to experience life. This is the human heart. At once, mechanical and transcendent. Leonardo’s genius is in his ability to reconcile this contradiction.

St. Paul started a millennial firestorm with the whole “Wives submit to your husbands” thing. For my entire life, churches have fought and split over the politics of this issue. Yet I ask you to take a look at almost any little church across the land and tell me who keeps it operational. I recently read an article criticizing The Feminine Mystique for being racist and classist. Once we get into politics, just as in the church turf-wars of my youth, it seems division is the only possibility. My point here is not to argue the theologically correct view of women in the church or even the politically correct women, class, and race. I frankly don’t care anymore.

My wife is more than the love of my life. She is its pump. She came into my petty little world and pulled me out into a larger, infinitely richer one. My wife, for reasons that I will never understand, saw something in me that had value and she fought for it. This was no easy fight. Her adversary was a stubborn and ignorant boy, but her essential goodness (combined with a rugged stubbornness of her own) had the day. What’s more, she did not abandon me to my new life. Each day, she lives it with me and teaches me how to live it better. This is a tireless, courageous act that is perpetual and constant. Like the human heart, she contracts and expands to keep the whole system well-nourished and functional. And like Da Vinci, I am in constant awe of her magnificence.

This is important to understand: She is not only my partner. This is not a business relationship. She is part of me. The best part of me, in fact. Her love is not something that is added to my life like a spice. It is not a supplement, but rather a creative energy that gives purpose and meaning to everything I do or experience. Her love is the very landscape upon which my life is lived. It creates my life everyday and enriches each experience as it happens. The legal concept of partnership fails to capture what is magnificent about Kim. If we where merely partners, it would be implied that I have an existence outside my relationship with her. I don’t. Her love once-and-for-all eradicated useless, old-me. Thank God. Without her, I don’t exist at all.

Emptiness into fullness. Fear into joy. If I am an idiot for believing in transcendence, so be it. I have good reason. I have lived it, and I’ve discovered that Love is transcendent. Kim, through a force that science cannot account for or measure, entered into a life, changed it, gave it meaning, and creates it anew each day.

My wife is a miracle.

Happy Valentines Day, honey.

Love is a Dirty, Brutal Thing

Sometimes, an object says more than words ever could. I give you Charlotte.

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Charlotte was once, like all of us, a brightly-colored, firmly-stuffed consumer product available for purchase at a mall. Then one day a 10-month old girl named Nora spotted her. Her reaction was explosive. Her eyes widened as she pointed, bounced, and laughed hysterically in her stroller. Nora’s grandparents, of course, purchased Charlotte and a heavenly match was made in the Disney store. Nora was in love and I like to think that Charlotte was too.

Like any really true love, Nora’s and Charlotte’s was apparent to everyone. It was also not always pretty. Where Nora went, she dragged Charlotte along with her. The bond between the two of them was instant and violent. The intensity and devotion of Nora’s love soon began taking its toll. Charlotte’s wrists withered within the vice of Nora’s loving fist. Yet, the two were becoming one and their relationship warmed everyone’s hearts. Soon, anyone who knew Nora knew Charlotte, and on the few occasions when Charlotte was misplaced, a mob of truly frightened people, grown-ups and children alike, would scour the cabinets, chairs, and laundry baskets to recover the hind-and-seek artist formerly known as Pooh. When she was found, the collective sigh of relief, would shatter windows.

Yes, Charlotte was meant to be a Pooh bear like billions of others, but Nora invested her friend with her own personality. Soon, the familiar, corporate-approved red vest disappeared, replaced, after a time, by a stained, tight-fitting ballerina outfit originally designed for God knows what. And Charlotte wore it well. Like her clothing, her name was also unsanctioned by Disney. “Pooh” was re-christened “Charlotte” in honor of the new baby at Nora’s daycare. In short, Charlotte was adopted, fully assimilating into the identity she and Nora had forged together.  Life had come to Charlotte and, weird as it may sound, Charlotte came to life.

But life, like love, isn’t easy on any of us. The years passed, and though their bond would not wither under the strain of developing toddler-hood, Charlotte’s body would. She was made only of fabric and fluff, while Nora was flesh-and-blood and eventually had to grow teeth. As you might notice in the picture, Charlotte’s nose gradually flattened, a result of its remarkable and unintended utility as a teething ring. For a time, Charlotte’s nose could hardly be found outside Nora’s mouth. Nora would run about the house like a dog, jerking her head from side to side with a gleeful viciousness that stretched and soiled Charlotte’s former nose into a stigmata of her suffering. Charlotte limply waved through the air, battered, but happy to take Nora’s teething pain upon herself.

Then there is the dirt. We all become stained by something as we live and Charlotte is no different. Since she went everywhere with Nora, she, like her human friend, touched everything. Whether it was mud, markers, or masking tape, Charlotte’s life has been spent Joyfully scraping against the wonders of a child’s world, even as the experience wore her bright yellow skin down to a pale, dirty hue.

This is not a sad recollection. Charlotte, to my mind, has had the happiest life of any Pooh that has ever sprung from Disney’s Chinese assembly lines. She has not spent it in a box or on a shelf. She hasn’t followed the rules under which she was born. She hasn’t chosen neatness and perfection over experience. She has lived her life the way we were all meant to. With defiant joy.

Nora will be four very soon and Charlotte is still with her.


She’s still with us. I cannot look at her withered, feeble body and not see the sparkling life of my daughter, as it slowly accumulated on her over time. Charlotte’s life has been a beautiful one because it has captured the glorious brutality of living. She has experienced what it is to be human. Nora’s tears, her saliva, her vomit, as well as her playful joy are all frozen in time in the graying, bleak yellow of Charlotte’s cotton blend skin. Nora has a massive imagination and her exuberant love has required more than one needle-and-thread surgery. Someday, Charlotte will need to be put on a shelf and rewarded with her well-earned rest.

But not quite yet. Please not yet.

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