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Matthew Arnold (1822–88). The Poems of Matthew Arnold, 1840–1867. 1909.

Empedocles on Etna, and Other Poems

The Buried Life

[First published 1852. Reprinted 1855.]

LIGHT flows our war of mocking words, and yet,

Behold, with tears my 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 reprov’d:

I knew they liv’d and mov’d

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—does 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 about 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 that beats

So wild, so deep in us, to know

Whence our thoughts 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 talent 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 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 lov’d 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.