In Saundra Segan Wheeler’s scholarly article “The motive of return in Matthew Arnold’s writings,” she discusses Arnold’s passions and drives towards writing, taking influence from important literary figures such as Aristotle and Voltaire. Wheeler compares Arnold to the writer Longinus, who “interweaves language of his own with that of the authors he admires,” making him very much a product of his influences.
Wheeler then goes into an in depth examining of Arnold’s writing. “Arnold, the poetic craftsman, is commenting on the reductive nature of broad-based praise” in works like “Merope,” and Arnold also “advises his reader to establish a willed pattern of return.” Return, in this context, means return to the mother, of childhood, to the womb, in essence. Arnold’s works are perpetually about the human need to be safe and return to the simplicity of our childhood and home, which “Merope” and “The Buried Life” help to express.
Much is made of Arnold’s attempts to subvert and play with classical tragic form. The myth of Merope is one prominent example, as he seeks to penetrate the form of the work and transform it, allowing “everything else to follow” and fall into place. Wheeler states that Arnold feels it is important to have a closer connection with the unconscious in their writings, which can be conveyed by playing with ancient stories and myths, as they can tap into as-yet-unrecognized feelings and emotions for the writer and audience alike.
Wheeler brings Freud in to the conversation, discussing the Oedipus complex as one way to look at return through the eyes of Matthew Arnold. As return, for Arnold, can be seen as “the Oedipal scene,” the writer can often be terrified of presenting that context. “Art appears to be designed, in part, to mask shame,” says Wheeler, as the goal of writers, according to Arnold, is to convey that desire for returning to such a primal place through metaphor in lieu of overt expression.
While “The Buried Life” is discussed among other stories of Arnold’s, there are many insights that are explored within this work. According to Wheeler, the poem “echoes Wordsworth,” in particular the short story “Tintern Abbey,” speaking directly about “disembody[ing] return” and showing that there is a unique passion towards finding out what our ‘buried lives’ are. Wordsworth and Arnold are also said to be similar in that they place ‘metaphysical overtones’ to the word “joy,” acting as a spiritual place of happiness rather than a simple emotion. Wheeler finds plenty of romanticism in the poem, but yet tempers it with notions that Arnold “demanded that an idea of the world control one’s imaginative enterprise,” exercising caution and restraint, not letting emotions and affection “rend in a thousand shreds this life of ours.”
More notes on “The Buried Life” reveal more research on the poem. For example, she quotes other scholars who “see Arnold’s struggle in ‘The Buried Life’ as an attempt to rejoin the mother, to reverse the process of birth, by means of communion with the beloved.” This is meant to demonstrate that Arnold’s appeal for a return to joy and simplicity is an example of wanting to be returned to the womb, where the cares of the natural world are no longer a burden. Also, Wheeler quotes J. Hillis Miller in saying that the poem is meant to “open a channel to the lost sources of joy” and allow “that joy to flow into the reader from the places where it has lain buried.”
I feel as if this article has quite a bit to say about Matthew Arnold’s writing style, and it allows for an incredible amount of context when just looking at one work. By examining what Arnold says and feels about other writers, and exploring a particular theme of Arnold’s (the theme of return), the article provides a comprehensive picture of the man, making sense of the work as you see more of the person who wrote it. I now feel as though I have a better picture of how Arnold writes and why he writes, which allows me to draw greater significance from the work itself. Given Wheeler’s focus on return, I feel that “The Buried Life” is a very good example of an appeal to returning to a simpler time, when people did not have their own secrets and identities that were not hidden from everyone. Arnold is stating that the “knowledge of our buried life” in the poem is something that everyone seeks; the unconscious desires should become conscious, so that we can carry on with our lives as our true selves.
Wheeler, Saundra. "The motive of return in Matthew Arnold's writings.." Nineteenth-Century
Prose. 16.1 (1988): 1. Print.