The speaker of "Absence" addresses his lover (Marguerite) after a period of separation. As the poem begins, he is staring into the eyes of a stranger, which remind him of her own eyes.
He shudders, remembering the day they were separated, and laments that life has not replaced his passions with wiser thoughts and feelings. Instead, he is doomed to remain in love while far away.
He admits that he and Marguerite must eventually forget one another, though they do not want to. He describes his attempt to reach her in the "light," and then ends by exclaiming, "Stay with me, Marguerite, still!"
Marguerite in an interesting figure in Arnold's work. Though he frequently writes about and to her, it remains unclear whether she was actually a real person. Some historians believe that Arnold had a love affair with a Marguerite in Switzerland, while others have written about his "fantasy" Marguerite as if she did not truly exist. Regardless, Arnold uses the figure to represent love in all its guises, both its glories and challenges.
And in this case, love is presented more as a curse than as a blessing. Certainly, the pure feelings are wonderful for the speaker, but they cause him turmoil because his beloved is not near. As a result, he describes love as "the curse of life." What blessings love brings are more than matched by the burden. This contradiction aligns with Arnold's frequent portrayal of transcendent possibility in other poems. He usually presents the possibility of transcendence from the ordinary, modern world, but then laments that such transcendence is almost impossible to realize. Here, the fact that Marguerite exists only pains him, since he cannot have her.
(Considering the use of the "light" imagery, it is possible that Marguerite has died. The stanza suggests an attempt to find her in a transcendent, heavenly realm, and then his disappointment at not finding her that way. Regardless of whether she is in fact dead, her removal is more than just temporary.)
Interestingly, the speaker frames the search in the context of time, which is personified in the final stanza. Time is a frequent theme for Arnold, most notably in "Consolation." In that poem, time is presented as fleeting, a force we cannot control. Here, Time has driven the two lovers apart, suggesting the same sort of inevitable power that the speaker cannot hope to conquer.
The rhythm, rhyme, and meter of this poem almost produce a singsong effect. The lines are short and precise, and follow a simple ABAB pattern, all of which creates a fast and whimsical effect, ironic considering the speaker's sorrow. However, this is not an accident, but rather underscores Arnold's intention: to express an intense feeling of passion rather than a complicated intellectual exploration. Perhaps the poem's most wonderful irony is that such a simple, easy sentiment is nevertheless so completely tragic and unconquerable. To be without love might be easy to articulate, but it is impossible to understand.