The Buried Life
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.
Who are we? Where did we come from, and where are we going? Even to ourselves, as we sit at home or hurry through the city streets, we remain a bewildering mystery.
Matthew Arnold’s haunting poem, “The Buried Life,” describes our yearning to know our own heart. In this short extract, not even “the world’s most crowded streets” can stifle the “unspeakable desire” to find our most essential self. The word “unspeakable” suggests that such knowledge cannot be put into words—and is somehow deemed obscene by others. The true individual is terrifying to the group.
This stubborn desire can arise at the most unexpected of moments: a moment filled with joy and panic. Suddenly, after years of contentment, we question everything. Has the course of our life gone surprisingly wrong? Has a burning dream of ours been left to die? Is it now too late to change, too late to live a life we can be proud of?
Throughout the poem, Arnold searches for the elusive spark of truth. He starts by addressing an unnamed woman. He reflects on the charming and brittle “war of mocking words” between them, but hungers for a deeper, more significant bond. He yearns for her to place her hand in his, and for her “limpid eyes” to reveal her “inmost soul.” Yet even love seems unable to bridge the gap between them.
He wonders about the price we pay by trying to escape from fate. We hide behind a false persona and allow ourselves to be possessed by distractions—even turning our identity inside out. We do anything to avoid obeying our “being’s law.” Anything to avoid our most profound feelings. They are too shattering for the status quo.
Arnold’s poem is alive with emotion. When he speaks of the “mystery” of our heart, which beats “so wild, so deep” in us, our heart seems to beat with greater urgency, responding intuitively, instinctively, to each word. Few poems touch with more subtle and searing power, in Arnold’s phrase, “the soul’s subterranean depth.”
Arnold ends the poem on a note of guarded optimism, evoking certain moments when life does seem to reveal its inner meaning: When “our eyes can in another’s eyes read clear.” When our ear “is by the tones of a loved voice caressed.” Then the “heart lies plain” and we connect to “life’s flow.”
We feel this ebb and flow in the poem’s rhythm itself, as it sweeps us into a confrontation with ourselves, our fear of stagnancy, and our secret hope for renewal. Do we follow the dangerous freedom of our heart or slip back into the crowd?
Matthew Arnold (1822–1888) was a British poet and cultural critic. He is most famous for his poem “Dover Beach.”
Christopher Nield is a poet living in London.