Critical Appreciation of The Forsaken Merman
“Nothing in Arnold’s verse is more arresting than its elegiac element”, rightly observes Hugh Walker, The Forsaken Merman is among Arnold’s celebrated elegiac poems which were published in his first volume of poems. The Strayed Reveller, and Other Poems(1849). Though Arnold has come to be best known for his meditative poems on Victorian life and times, his early poetry shows that he was a wonderful teller of tales. The Forsaken Merman is such a poignant tale told in verse.
The poem is in the form of a monologue delivered by a merman, who has been deserted by his human wife. The woman had married him, had children by him, and enjoyed all the comforts and luxury of his submarine home. She had been a happy mother and a good wife until she heard the church bell ring during Easter and felt restless. She then left her husband and her children to join her kinsmen in prayers lest she would lose her soul and returned no more to her family.
The merman along with their children waited on the seashore with the fond hope that “Surely she will come again!” he makes a passionate appeal to her to return: “Margaret, hist! come quick, we are here!
Dear heart”, I said, “We are long alone;
The sea grows stormy, the little ones moan.”
But they wait in vain as she lives happily with her kinsmen, though perhaps shedding tears for her deserted children. So the forsaken merman along with the children returns to their under-water home singing sadly
“There dwells a loved one,
But cruel is she!
She left lonely forever
The kings of the sea.””
The seemingly simple story behind The Forsaken Merman is actually multi-layered. No matter what Arnold writes, he cannot avoid making a direct or implicit criticism of his contemporary times. The merman’s existence at the depths of the sea, away from the human township, is meant to be a symbol for an earlier, pagan lifestyle in which life was led peacefully without the interference of any organized religion. The sound of the bells has prompted the woman to depart. Thus the poem contrasts the vitality of paganism against drab Christianity,
The two worlds are so separated from one another that by going on land once the woman is no more able to return to the caverns of the sea, where the merman and their children live. Once the world has accepted Christianity, it can no longer go back to the simple pagan ways. Therefore. The Forsaken Merman may be taken as Arnold’s critique of Christianity, and the adverse effects that he believed it was having on the Victorian people.
Mathew Arnold was greatly disturbed by the loss of religious faith as a result of the advance of the scientific spirit. “The Forsaken Merman’ is pervaded with a deep note of sadness and an intense feeling of nostalgia for the lost happiness. The merman fondly recalls his happy days in the company of his wife but knows that he will have to live as a prisoner of his memories. The poem has a haunting charm because of its thought and music. The ‘wild white horses’ signifies the huge white waves indicating a coming storm while the ‘champ and the chafe’ signifies the hiss and foam at the mouth of the shore.
Arnold does not follow any consistent rhyme scheme throughout the ten stanzas of “The Forsaken Merman’. The abundance of end rhymes gives the poem light and cheerful tone that belies its melancholy subject matter but offers a good reading experience, Arnold was considerably influenced by Coleridge in composing the poem, as Gottfried says, “Arnold had studied the metrics of Christabel and the sea-imagery of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.