The Buried Life By: Matthew Arnold

The Buried Life
By: Matthew Arnold
Group G:
A Little Bit of HISTORY!!!
During this period there was a move towards factory labour. That is,
the people moved to working collectively rather than working in a
more solitary environment, as they had for hundreds of years. They
lost a significant amount of their personal freedoms in this change.
This loss of freedom, and dramatic change in working situations would
surely contribute to a feeling that they had deviated from their true,
original course.
Indeed, it is likely that the upheaval of the age contributed greatly to
the population's feeling of lack of an original course. Feeling constantly
in flux undoubtedly forces people to believe that their lives are not
going as they should be, and that they have deviated from how they
were meant to exist. It would also lead them to believe that an
alternative, though impossible to achieve, exists.
As England changed, people rapidly moved to the city, in
order to take advantage of new economic opportunities, or
because that was the only place they could get work. This
urbanization meant that people were living in close proximity
to other people they would not, under normal circumstances,
have ever met. This sort of mingling leads to a sharing of
ideas, and could very easily lead to the knowledge of their
buried life.
When the people were encountering these new ideas, they
could very well have come to realize that their life is not what
they would prefer, and not what is natural and desirable.
They would also realize that they are confined by forces
significantly beyond their control, such as the class structure,
their economic status, or any number of other factors,
obviously contributing to the realization that their original
course will remain unattainable, buried, forever.
During this period there was also significant religious
change. As science continued to advance at a rapid pace,
religious ideas that had held sway for hundreds of years
were proven to be unsustainable. By having their religious
ideas challenged, many people would have felt
unanchored, and be brought to feeling restless.
The line “After the knowledge of our buried life” clearly
refers to this phenomenon. As the peoples' awareness
grew, and circumstances changed, so to did their desire to
uncover the way life was meant to be.
It was a combination of all of these factors that leads us to
the complex and intertwined meanings in Mathew
Arnold’s poem, The Buried Life. Although we are only
dealing with a short excerpt, there is still much to be said
line by line, and word by word.
Lines 47-50
• 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;
How these lines portray the
“Buried Life”
• Simply it means that there is this desire,
which is buried within each person, creating
one hidden (buried) life and will remain such
because each person is trapped (buried) in
their social status
• Therefore, there is one buried life buried
inside another life which itself is buried in
the confines of society.
Line by Line
Line 1:
• What was
There rises an
• Interpretation:
There is a longing
in all people that
can never and
will never be
Line 2:
• What was written:
After the knowledge of
our buried life;
• Interpretation:
All eventually come to
realize that each is a
prisoner in their social
Line 3
• What was written:
A thirst to spend
our fire and restless
• Interpretation:
There is a violent
drive in each person
Line 4
•What was
In tracking out our
true, original
In discovering
what life truly
should be
Although there is meaning
portrayed in each line, there is
an even heavier additional
meaning in almost every word.
The slides provided next contain
the Old English definitions, our
interpretations, metaphors and
Victorian and modern day
images as they pertain to the
buried life.
Old English Definition
Unspeakable - Incapable of being
expressed in words; inexpressible,
indescribable, ineffable.
Unspeakable means the same now as it
did in 1852. In this instance, Arnold
seeks to describe man’s desire, a
desire for knowledge of a certain
issue which has not been sought after
• Group interpretation:
indescribable in
terms of never being
able to be expressed
because it is socially
impossible and
damning to do so.
• Modern day imagery:
Shows the inability to
speak without care of
Old English Definition
Desire - 1. The fact or condition of desiring; that feeling or emotion which is directed to
the attainment or possession of some object from which pleasure or satisfaction is
expected; longing, craving; a particular instance of this feeling, a wish.
3. Longing for something lost or missed; regret. Obs.
4. A wish as expressed or stated in words; a request, petition.
5. transf. An object of desire; that which one desires or longs for. (Originally only
“Desire” is most associated with emotion, and in this case it is an adjective; it describes the
tone of the poem. As a noun it is the subject of these four lines. As the tone, Arnold
longs for and requests the reader to consider this wish to know better the “buried life.”
He uses “our” three times in these four lines to better persuade his readers of his
earnestness in this endeavor to wake/arise from the “buried life.” This idea of inclusion
among the classes would probably alienate some readers but the “our” use indicates his
wish for all to work toward a common goal.
Although definition 3 is now obsolete, it is still applicable in this case because it was a
current definition during the Victorian Era. In noun form, desire is a state of being;
definition 5 is the best description of this poem’s usage.
• Group interpretation:
longing of how badly
people would like to
uncover their buried life
that is set deep within
their souls.
• Modern day imagery:
Looking out or in upon
something that cannot
be obtained
Old English Definition
Knowledge – I.1.a. Acknowledgement, confession. b.
Acknowledgement or recognition of the position or claims (of
any one).
II. Senses derived from the verb KNOW, in its later uses. * The
fact or condition of knowing.
5. a. The fact of knowing a thing, state, etc., or (in general sense) a
person; acquaintance; familiarity gained by experience.
8. a. Acquaintance with a fact; perception, or certain information
of, a fact or matter; state of being aware or informed;
consciousness (of anything). The object is usually a proposition
expressed or implied: e.g. the knowledge that a person is poor,
knowledge of his poverty.
9. a. Intellectual acquaintance with, or perception of, fact or truth;
clear and certain mental apprehension; the fact, state, or
condition of understanding.
The first listed meanings above are now obsolete but there is no reason
to believe I.1.b would not have been understood in the nineteenth
century. It probably is the most applicable definition according to
the poem’s theme, if using an obsolete meaning.
• Group interpretation:
the suddenness of the
onset of insight into
ones own life.
• Modern day imagery: A
light bulb suddenly
shining light to
thoughts that were
once shrouded in
Buried Life
Old English Definition
Buried - 1. a. Laid in a grave, interred. b. Laid, sunk, or concealed under ground.
buried treasure; also fig. and attrib.
“Buried” is rather simple; in this poem it is used figuratively to create the image of
something desirable is concealed. Symbolically, Arnold may mean definition 1.b
rather than 1.a as 1.a projects the idea of this life he is yearning for is dead or
unnatural. (Though perhaps class change/life can be unnatural.) Using the
image of “buried treasure” life is buried underneath the layers of historical
class consciousness, waiting to be unearthed.
Buried Life
• Group Interpretation: Being a prisoner/captive in one’s own life
• Modern Imagery: Captivity from which there is no escape or release
Old English Definition
Thirst - 1. a. The uneasy or painful sensation caused by want
of drink; also, the physical condition resulting from this
2. fig. A vehement desire (of (arch.), for, after something, to
do something).
The most obvious definition of “thirst” would be 2 and it is the
best of the two; however, reflecting upon the use of “uneasy or
painful sensation” used in 1, both are applicable. “Desire” is
reiterated here as “thirst” and it is the uneasy or painful sensation
caused by this that has roused Arnold to seek to know more.
Figuratively he is thirsty for action and is spurred into his quest
for understanding of this “buried life.” Or it can be part of the
idea that he is philosophically thirsty and requires water—the
water of Life.
• Group interpretation:
Desperately requiring
• Modern imagery: Like
water is required for
life, so is the need to
require all that the
soul longs for.
Old English Definition
Spend – 2. absol. To exercise, make, or incur expenditure of money,
goods, means, etc.
3. To expend or employ (labour, material, thought, etc.) in some specified
5. a. To use up; to exhaust or consume by use; to wear out. b. To bring to
a violent end; to destroy; to consume by destruction or wasting; to
disperse or dissipate; to reduce or convert into something.
8. To make use of; to use or employ. Now rare.
“Spend” brings to mind the idea of trade, but Arnold did not mean to trade his
“fire and restless force” for anything. Listed above are a few descriptions of
“spend;” the first two and last are more applicable than 5.a or b. He seeks to
exercise, expend, use or employ his fire (energy) in his pursuit of the “buried
life.” The image of spend as “to bring to a violent end” does in some ways
appear more appropriate for fire and force as does the idea of “to wear out”
as fire will burn itself out eventually. With this word choice, Arnold seems to
unconsciously acknowledge that every revolution or change has its end.
• Group interpretation: to
employ labor, thought,
words, time, as on some
object or in some
• Modern imagery: Portrays
the same type of time and
labor Sisyphus “spends”
forever and never
completing his task in his
Old English Definition
Fire – 13. a. A burning passion or feeling, esp. of love or rage. b. Ardor of temperament;
ardent courage or zeal; fervor, enthusiasm, spirit. c. Liveliness and warmth of
imagination, brightness of fancy; power of genius, vivacity; poetic inspiration.
Used here as a metaphor for the zeal for life, especially that of Arnold’s idealist
Hellenism. He wanted the people to realize the principles espoused by the Greeks
in their use of art and aesthetics. Fire is a primal element and Arnold’s word use
implies a return to this primal state or rather a return to “the way we were.” It is
also one of the most visible elements and this suggests a need for obvious action
from the people in order to change society. Fire is energy as well and Arnold asks
his audience to spend their energy toward the realization of the poem’s goals.
• Group interpretation: violent energy
• Modern imagery: Burning of every fiber towards a single conclusion.
Restless Force
Old English Definition
Force - I. Strength, power. 1. a. Physical strength, might, or vigour, as an
attribute of living beings.
3. a. Power or might (of a ruler, realm, or the like); esp. military strength or
4. concr. a. A body of armed men, an army.
5. a. Physical strength or power exerted upon an object; esp. the use of physical
strength to constrain the action of persons; violence or physical coercion. To
make force: to use violence to.
“Force” to our modern minds has a military connotation among others and it did
during Arnold’s time as well. While he was not necessarily calling for military
or violent action as the impetus of change, “fire” and “force” make a very
powerful connection and perhaps unconsciously echo the fears of revolution
many had. Up until this point in these four lines, it appeared that Arnold was
calling for philosophical action because desire, knowledge and fire are not
physical action. But with the addition of “force,” he introduces the idea of
being more than armchair activists and asks readers to be a part of the social
Restless Force
•Group interpretation: undying inherent
ability for change
•Modern imagery: Like the constant
blowing winds that move the sands in the
desert, new dunes are always created.
Old English Definition
Track - I. 1. a. trans. To follow up the track or
footsteps of; to trace the course or movements of;
to pursue by or as by the track left; with down,
out, up, to follow up or trace until found or
caught. Also fig.
Although there are several other meanings or at least
directions “track” may take, because Arnold
followed the word by “out” (“tracking out”) it is
best to use the above definition. It is obvious he
means to pursue “our true, original course” rather
than any other meaning of the word.
• Group
interpretation: to
intensively explore
and pursue a path
or course
• Modern imagery:
Following a fixed
route that one
finally finds when
searching or upon
Old English Definition
True - A. adj. 2.b. In more general sense: Of
the right kind, such as it should be,
While “true” is generally used in the stead
of “loyal” or “faithful,” in this instance
Arnold used it to signify the course of life
“as it should be.” He pictures a society in
which life is a reflection of art and
• Group interpretation: being in
accordance to the actual state of
conditions of how life should be
• Modern imagery: Life as creation
intended it to be without bias.
Original Course
Old English Definition
Original – A. adj. 1. a. That is the origin or source of something; from which something springs, proceeds,
or is derived; primary.
2. a. Belonging to the beginning or earliest stage of something; existing at or from the first; earliest, first in
In his work Hebraism and Hellenism, Arnold explores the class-bound “ordinary selves” that he wished
man to rise above. He defined the three classes in the following ways: “the ‘Barbarian’ aristocracy
who value individualism, courage, and athleticism over intellect and sensitivity; the middle-class
Philistines who stubbornly resist new ideas; and the dangerously ‘raw and half-developed’ working
class he calls simply ‘the Populace’” (1589). These three classes represent the ways that man has
separated his inward self from his outward self; by turning his thoughts and efforts inward, man
would be able to remedy much of what is wrong with society and create a more peaceful world as
was in the Victorians’ idealistic Greece. Essentially man needs to return to his roots to be reborn
(resurrected from the “buried life”).
Original Course
• Group interpretation: The way of life that should have been
attained (would exist in nature) as apposed to what it had
become (boundaries placed on it by society)
• Modern imagery: The road less traveled for it is surrounded by
mountainous barriers.
So what is buried life?
• In short, Arnold seems to think that all
social classes are buried within the
confines of society; however, the desire to
unbury themselves is itself buried which
creates another buried life within the life
that they are all buried in. The idea creates
a picture of a grave that has been covered
three-fold ultimately prohibiting anything to
be resurrected from these inner problems.