The Buried Life

The Buried Life is a hauntingly beautiful poem written by Matthew Arnold in 1852. The dynamic of the poem centres on the transformation of a “nameless sadness” into the “winding murmur” of “life’s flow.” The Buried Life offers remarkable poetic insight into a profound change in the secret world of our inner identity, meaning, and purpose. The poem embraces a timeless resonance that deserves contemplation. The energetic realm of the poem offers the possibility of a new way of belonging to the natural flow of life.


Corridor, French Quarter, New Orleans

Corridor, French Quarter, New Orleans

The horror of being buried alive is symbolic of our darkest fears. To be buried alive is to die a horrific death in which we are slowly enclosed and suffocated by the weight of the earth falling in on us. In its darkest expression, time slows down and our awareness expands but we remain completely helpless to call out or save ourselves. All there is left to do is to feel the cold damp earth gradually begin to enclose our body until death arrives. But not even death comes to our aid.

The meaning of a buried life is a loss of identity, an absence of meaning, and a deprivation of purpose. Our life has become buried under the weight of imposed requirements, expectations, and assumptions. Outwardly, we may appear successful, confident, and untrammelled by the deeper undercurrents of life. This success, however, is ultimately contrived, unfulfilling, and artificial.

Erving Goffman insightfully reveals that the presentation of self in everyday life is an act of theatre in which we learn to wear masks, manufacture identities, create characters, and act out roles. Our social facade is inauthentic, and many of us perform roles simply to survive the requirements of performance in the modern world. Culture is a form of experimental theatre.

The theatre of cultural assimilation, however, is the precise source of a buried life. While some people may remain strangely comfortable in the superficial theatrics of “progress,” many people feel a deeper longing – a nameless sadness – that lies outside of our cultural confines. The buried life is a journey into the alchemy of personal transformation and a core symbol of our journey into the second half of life.

To live a life of contingency is a form of deep suffering and angst. As we continue to wait for just the right conditions to emerge that will allow us to reclaim our authenticity, life passes us by. In midlife we begin to feel the true nature of time in our body, and the presence of our own mortality begins to whisper to us from a hidden place. As the pain of waiting intensifies, the feeling of impermanence begins to grate and cut into our sensibilities.

The awareness of our own buried life is a gift in disguise. Deep personal change rarely comes without internal suffering; the energy of suffering is ultimately the source of our release. And, as Arnold beautifully expresses, the pain of a buried life ultimately clears the way for our own renewal.

The Buried Life

“Alas! is even love too weak
To unlock the heart, and let it speak?”

The Buried Life is a invitation to personal transformation. It is a dynamic that originates in the painful midlife realization of failing to have lived an authentic life coupled with the reality of our own approaching mortality. Our life becomes buried under the inertia of contingency and a toxic sense of practicality; to have lived a buried life means we have lived a provisional existence in which our deepest aspirations remain unlived.

“I feel a nameless sadness o’er me roll.”

Arnold invokes a nameless sadness, which is a primal calling from the invisible realm of the soul. It is a sense of anguish that permeates body and mind so magnificently that we are unable to cry. The nameless sadness is the harbinger of our sudden awakening in the dark forest of a buried life. We become entombed by it. It is a confusing, melancholy weight, that inspires deep undercurrents of mourning in our spirit.

“I knew they lived and moved
Trick’d in disguises, alien to the rest
Of man, and alien to themselves–and yet
The same heart beats in every human breast!”

To be trick’d in disguises is to assume a false identity. Arnold effectively foreshadows Goffman’s insights into everyday life as theatre. The problem of having to live according to a manufactured identity has reached epic proportions today. We have become so completely enslaved by the external requirements of “progress” and the insipid, limp narrative of modern survival that we have become alien to the rest and alien to ourselves. Yet Arnold reminds us of an essential truth: we are one, that the same heart beats in every human breast.

“Fate, which foresaw
How frivolous a baby humanity would be -
By what distractions he would be possess’d,
How he would pour himself in every strife,
And well-nigh change his own identity”

Arnold condemns the pursuits of his society as being largely childish and frivolous. He characterizes his culture as being driven by frivolous distractions. It seems that little has changed over the past 150 years. The pursuit of frivolous distractions has reached suicidal proportions in today’s society. The toxicity of unsustainable consumption, rampant materialism, and intentional environmental destruction is the modern epicentre of the buried life. Midway through the poem, we reach what are perhaps the most famous lines:

“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.”

These remarkable lines beautifully capture the very essence of the midlife passage. Dante offered an awakening in the midst of a dark wood; Arnold describes an unspeakable desire that arises in the world’s most crowded streets. We come to the realization that we have lost our way in life, often in spite of our external successes and appearances. The embrace of our buried life mercilessly demands a new adventure, and that adventure is relentlessly focused on the inner quest for authenticity.

The soul is our fire and restless force and our ultimate source of wisdom. Our soul exists on the very edge between what is possible to know, and what remains hidden on the other side of our awareness. Intuition is the language of soulful experience. The pursuit of a vocation is our true occupation in life. This is, in the end, our true, original course.

“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.”

The midlife passage into the second half of life offers the recovery of a lost pulse of feeling. We begin to feel a different tempo in our sensibilities. The outward grasping and clinging that caused our suffering begins to recede. Time is no longer mechanical and clock-driven; we return to the natural rhythms of life’s flow.

Nature is a healing force; when we isolate ourselves from the natural world our body and mind suffer in its absence. The winding murmur of life’s flow imbues and animates the meadows, sun, and the breeze.

The Natural Flow of Life

One of the most remarkable expressions of this return to life’s flow in my own experience is a deeper and more sacred awareness of nature. Not long ago, on my way to work early one cold winter morning, I saw a luminous golden-amber moon directly ahead of me. It offered a deep, resonate presence that quite literally silenced my mind completely. There was, for a brief moment, only the awareness of the moon. Experiences like these symbolize the recovery of our lost pulse and are the solution to the nameless sadness.

The experience was so powerful that the idea of taking a picture of it seemed completely absurd.

By returning to the earth, and constantly working to retrieve our ability to be fully present in the natural world, we begin to dig our way up and out of our buried life.

A common element in our life course is a return to the earth. During the first half of life we become distances and isolated from the natural world. This is the source of a great deal of our psychological suffering. When we are “educated” about nature, we don’t experience nature as much we learn to objectify it using names, labels, categories, and classifications. We wrongly believe that we “understand,” “have knowledge,” or are “closer to” nature if we can label its parts and describe it as a system of interaction.

Knowledge often breeds arrogance. The suicidal path of economic “progress” in the world originates in a remarkably virulent form of arrogance. There is no real or meaningful form of progress that results in the commodification of the earth.

Each one of us will feel to pull of authenticity if we quiet ourselves enough to sense it. The lost pulse of feeling results from our disconnection and abuse of the natural world. The winding murmur of life’s flow is the true call of authenticity.

As we lift ourselves ever so gradually out of our buried life, we begin to sense the winding murmur nearby and glide back into the natural rhythms of life’s flow.

And then he thinks he knows
The hills where his life rose,
And the sea where it goes.


  1. marena charron says

    I knew intellectually how the caregiving had, on many levels, “buried ” my life, but only now am I grasping the emotional implications……it is not only a question of hours in a day being freed, but also the space in my head.
    Of course consolation comes from my Aged P’s long and healthy lives,but their demise( Mum at 97, Dad at 101) leaves so much room that I am wandering a bit aimlessly at the moment.
    I take heart that you feel you are still on this post Parental -deparure voyage of discovery.Thanks, Brian.

    • says

      The feeling of wandering aimlessly is one I experienced too. In the aftermath of losing our elderly parents we move through a powerful internal threshold in our own lives. We have only ever known life in a way that includes the physical presence of our parents. Then, suddenly, they have disappeared and we find ourselves standing on a new and unfamiliar terrain in their absence. Even though much of the external world appears to be the same, the felt-meaning of our own life has shifted and we sense and feel the presence of the world around us differently.

      In my own experience, internal wandering was an imposed necessity, and very uncomfortable. However, while I was wandering and feeling abandoned, insights gradually emerged and a subtle sense of release whispered from a hidden place. Grieving is a profoundly creative (and deeply painful) process that transforms our identity, as well as our sense of meaning and purpose in life.

      Thank you once again for offering such an important and insightful comment.

      Kind regards,

  2. marena charron says

    I have been reading your work for a long time.It has helped sustain me during the dying of my 2 Very Aged Parents within the past 16 months..Your insights are remarkable. This particular piece leaves me breathless as I look to discovering who I am now that my caregiving days are over…..what has been buried…what can now bubble up…the poem is magnificent and your words are so poignsnt and powerful.Thank you.

    • says

      Dear Marena,

      I am saddened to hear about your parents, and I hope the grief and bereavement you are experiencing is merciful.

      I found myself relating quite closely to the experiences you described for me. Your words inspired many memories.

      I can recall quite vividly the period of time shortly after the death of my parents. I was suddenly no longer a caregiver. In the weeks and months that followed I was shocked at just how much of my identity had been given to the role of caregiver. It is one of the most important and profoundly difficult roles I have ever known. It changed me in very deep and profound ways.

      And then, all of a sudden, my role as caregiver simply disappeared. I felt lost and alone even though my outside life remained largely the same. In addition, I felt a lingering uncertainty about how my life should now proceed. I had to re-establish my identity and my priorities in life. It was difficult work, and I believe that to this day I still am working on the new inner dynamics that originated in the death of my parents.

      I am very grateful for your kind words. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts with me, and I appreciate you being a part of my work here in Exploring Life.

      Kind regards,

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