This quote is one of Arnold's most famous. The italicization of the word "alone" underscores the meaning of this passage: modern life is one of solitude. Though people are surrounded by millions of others, they lack any substantial connection, which was not always the case. In this poem and others, he suggests that a dwindling faith is the cause of such disconnection, but the cause is less pernicious than the effect, a distance that keeps humans from reaching their greatest potential, achievable through community and nature. The quote serves as a concise summation of a theme that Arnold refers to time and again.
"With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in."
These two lines represent a shift in the poem; at the beginning of this long first stanza, Arnold describes the natural surroundings at the shore of Dover Beach as calm, peaceful, and beautiful. Now, though, the sea has begun to churn up pebbles with a "grating roar," and "the eternal note of sadness sets in." For Arnold, this sadness reflects mankind's lack of faith. Further, this tumult is not temporary; because of the way the world has changed, people are more and more divorced from their connection to nature and their greater potential. Thus, Arnold sees in nature both wonder - for it can help man transcend the world's limitations - and cause for sadness - since mankind seems to be moving further away from such potential escape.
"Free from the sick fatigue, the languid doubt,
Which much to have tried, in much been baffled, brings.
O life unlike to ours!"
In these three lines, the poem's speaker explains the idea of the Scholar-Gipsy, who long before had left his studies at Oxford to wander the world and nature in search of truth. The decision took great courage, since to leave the exhausting, deceitful world, the Scholar-Gipsy had to entirely eschew society. For the speaker, this man must have survived, since he was free from the "sick fatigue" that wears normal men out. In other words, the speaker argues here that living amongst nature breeds a certain type of immortality. By focusing on truth rather than on superficial desires, we can transcend our limitations and reach a higher plane of existence.
"And that sweet city with her dreaming spires,
She needs not June for beauty's heightening."
This poem is most remembered for these two lines, which describe the spires of Oxford. The speaker looks on them from the pastures, the way he once did with his friend Arthur Hugh Clough. The lines suggest that the city is beautiful all the time, and not only in the summer. They give a bit of insight into the vital role that Oxford played in Arnold's life; he spent his student years studying there, and much of his adult life teaching there. Though Arnold often paints the city in a negative light, he is also clearly tied to Oxford the way many of us are tied to our homes, as these lines indicate.
"The world but feels the present's spell,
The poet feels the past as well."
This is a powerful set of lines from the end of "Bacchanalia." Arnold often expresses his belief that poetry is an extremely difficult art, and that poets are the most dedicated kind of artists. These lines elaborate on that idea, saying that while the world is only affected by what's occurring in the present, the poet feels all the impact of the past as well as the present. His art contains the entire span of time, in other words. In a larger sense, Arnold's work reflects this philosophy - while he is obsessed with the way modernization has changed society, he often focuses on the way the past informs that understanding.
"Is there no life, but these alone?
Madman or slave, must man be one?"
In the two stanzas before this couplet, Arnold describes the binary nature of modern life: either one works and toils his life away (thereby dying without experiencing anything outside his "prison"), or he tries to defy society's pressure to conform. Unfortunately, the latter option carries the burden of being considered a "madman," since the courageous soul would be misunderstood for having shirked off all society. In these two lines, Arnold pleads to know whether or not there is another option — he does not want to live in either of these ways, and hence feels uneasy about life. In many ways, this inner conflict runs throughout almost all of the poems detailed in this ClassicNote.
"The bleak, stern hour,
Whose severe moments
I would annihilate,
Is pass'd by others
In warmth, light, joy."
In this stanza, Arnold expresses a fascinating idea about time. One person might consider a particular moment to be full of "joy," while others might find that same moment "severe." While some might do anything to lengthen an hour of pure bliss, someone else might suffer greatly during that hour, and wish it to pass quickly. The implicit idea here is that mankind can never truly understand the greater perspective of time. Instead, we are always limited by own perspectives, an idea Arnold elsewhere explores as a deficit of human experience.
"O human soul! as long as thou canst so
Set up a mark of everlasting light,
Above the howling senses' ebb and flow,
To cheer thee, and to right thee if thou roam -
Not with lost toil thou labourest through the night!
Thou mak'st the heaven thou hop'st indeed thy home."
The second half of this sonnet describes the lesson Arnold wants his reader to understand. As long as one remains faithful, believing in a greater order, he will not be lost, overworked, or unhappy; he will always have his faith to cheer him. Such fortitude is particularly important since the world otherwise beats us down into abject submission. The speaker of this poem learns this lesson through an encounter with a preacher, who remains cheerful despite surrounding misery because of his belief in God.
"She will not ask of aliens, but of friends,
Of sharers in a common human fate."
This passage is one of Arnold's most overtly political. In this poem, a "tramp" refuses to beg from the upper class. Because they do not understand her "common human fate," the upper class are considered as "aliens." The idea is that social class drives people apart, making them foreign to one another, and ultimately limiting the empathy strangers might have for one another. Ultimately, is a social expression of an idea Arnold explores through most of his work: the modern world has separated us from one another.
"One moment, on the rapid’s top, our boat
Hung pois’d—and then the darting River of Life,
Loud thundering, bore us by: swift, swift it foam’d."
Throughout this poem, Arnold used a river journey as a metaphor for life — in these few lines, he makes the metaphor explicit by calling this river the "River of Life." At this point in the poem, the River of Life has just swiftly carried them by the waving women outside the cottage. It was a moment that could have brought them great serenity, some freedom from life's limitations. However, they did not make the choice to turn down romance; life made the decision for them, denying them this escape. Overall, these lines illustrate the point that life can be beautiful, but also difficult.
Matthew Arnold: Poems Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Matthew Arnold: Poems is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.