The quest for individuation: a Jungian looks at Matthew Arnold’s “The Buried Life”

Intelligent Life, the free cultural news magazine of The Economist, recently featured a fascinating several day exploration of the labyrinthian stream flowing beneath Paris’ infrastructure with its scenarios ranging from party venues to ossuaries and catacombs.

In those outliers of thought that often follow a stimulus, I found myself musing a poem I had presumed I’d long ago relegated to absentia, seeing I retired from college teaching seven years ago.  But there it was, Matthew Arnold’s “The Buried Life,” in bold dress on my mental screen, refulgent in its own musings, pre-Freud, pre-Jung, cogently exploring in all its ebb and flow the subterranean river of the Unconscious that lies deep within all of us, frequently surfacing to veto or check our best intent with intuitive urgency.

Then I thought of  Jung’s concept of the Shadow, that primordial aspect of ourselves that can express itself suddenly, individually and collectively, when repressed or unintegrated into consciousness, disrupting relationships and even contributing to social disorder.  It isn’t evil in itself, or some kind of resident demon we try our best to confine.  The Shadow, no intrinsically Hyde element spotting the cultured Dr. Jekyll of the day world, has potentiality for making ourselves whole as we acknowledge undeveloped aspects of ourselves.

Arnold’s prescient poem acknowledges the Shadow’s salient wisdom in shaping our psyches, especially in regard to our inhibitions, though of course he comes too early (1822-1886) to use that term. On the surface, the poem muses on how even lovers sometimes paradoxically conceal themselves from each other, given the intransigent ego in all of us. Here, the poem begins its prison imagery, prominent throughout the poem.

      Alas! Is even love too weak to unlock the heart, and let it speak?
      even lovers powerless to reveal
      To one another what indeed they feel?

But the poem probes far deeper in exploring a resident conflict within ourselves arising from the tension between the Ego and the Unconscious, or Shadow element familiar to Jungians.

    Ah! well for us, if even we,
   Even for a moment, can get free
   Our heart, and have our lips unchained;
   For that which seals them hath been deep-ordained!

Arnold gives tribute to this dimension working its will in us, instinctually, covertly, as our true source of identity.  It works in stealth to keep us from tampering with its design to foster wholeness, for the human proclivity is to falsify true feelings in servility to convention:

    Fate, which foresaw
    How frivolous a baby man would be–
    By what distractions he would be possessed,
    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 at large in blind uncertainty,
    Though driving on with it eternally.

This is hardly Freud’s dynamic of repression at work, but rather the Jungian perspective that each of us is actually two entities in antithesis.  The “unregarded river” can be thought of as our instinctual self, defiant of culture, and a legacy of our evolutionary past, the Shadow entity resident in us analogous to the dark side of the moon. 

Amid the often banality of our commercial world, we sometimes long for communion with this alter ego.  Adroitly, Arnold coalesces mining and river imagery here.  We yearn to track the line of ourselves, plumb to its depths, and extract its ore.  At this level, the poem anticipates Jung’s concept of “individuation,” or the quest for wholeness; a pilgrimage for conjunction of the Conscious and the Unconscious:

    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 inquireInto the mystery of the heart which beats
    So wild, so deep in us–to know
    Whence our lives come and where they go. 

Alas, we never do succeed wholly, so deep is that hidden Self, and so we withdraw from the fray, giving ourselves up to distractions:

    But deep enough, alas! none ever mines
    Hardly had skill to utter one of all
    The nameless feelings that course through our breast,
    But they course on forever unexpressed.
    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!

But neither can we escape this longing within for something more:

    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.

Sometimes, however, there occur those transient moments lovers experience, near mystical, when we intuit and achieve unity with our instinctual self, fathom all things about ourselves, and live genuinely with those we love:

    When our world-deafened ear
    Is by the tones of a loved voice caressed–
    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 forever 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.

Some years ago, psychiatrist Reuven Bar-Levav cogently observed that “most people today are at least superficially aware of unconscious motives, but few realize how powerful and how prevalent they are.  Man is not what he claims to be” (Thinking in the Shadows, p. 19).  Arnold uncannily fathomed this in “The Buried Life” more than 150 years ago, anticipating depth psychology and Jung in particular.  Across the years,  I have always found this poem riveting for its profundity, beauty and sincerity.

I hope you will like this poem, too.

Do well.  Be well. 


Author: RJ

Retired English prof (Ph. D., UNC), who likes to garden, blog, pursue languages (especially Spanish) and to share in serious discussion on vital issues such as global warming, the role of government, energy alternatives, etc. Am a vegan and, yes, a tree hugger enthusiastically. If you write me, I'll answer.

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