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In his remarks at Richard Holbrooke’s memorial ceremony today, the President said this:

Like the country he served, Richard contained complexities. So full of life, he was a man both confident in himself and curious about others, alive to the world around him with a character that is captured in the words of a Matthew Arnold poem that he admired. “But often, in the din of strife, there rises an unspeakable desire after the knowledge of the buried life; a thirst to spend our fire and restless force in tracking 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.”

It’s a curious choice of poem for Holbrooke, a man of incessant action, with little time for the hushed introspection Arnold’s evoking. Holbrooke’s premature death, rather like the death of Tim Russert (“That man worked too hard,” said Ted Koppel.), seems the almost foreordained end of a tense, hard-charging, public life. He spent his fire and restless force tracking the course of wars. Arnold’s poem, titled “The Buried Life,” is about what’s under public life and global events, what lies beneath one’s public persona and activities; it’s about being very quiet and trying very hard to figure out who you, in particular, authentically are.

If, Arnold writes, we can attain “the deep recesses of our breast,” we can perhaps perceive the otherwise “unregarded river of our life,” the silently pulsing deepest reason for our being. (“[Poetry] may make us from time to time a little more aware of the deeper, unnamed feelings which form the substratum of our being,” wrote T.S. Eliot, “to which we rarely penetrate; for our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves.”)   If we can turn fully away from the distractions of social life, to a place where the “eye sinks inward, and the heart lies plain,” we might be able to see the truth of who we are, the foundational sources of our particular selves, as well as the truth of why we are the way we are, why we are living – have lived – our particular life:

… A man becomes aware of his life’s flow…

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


In his memoir, A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean takes Arnold’s unregarded river and runs with it. He makes the lines I’ve just quoted from Arnold his book’s epigraph.

Maclean’s entire life, his deepest, buried life, takes place along the shore of a river in Montana; his life consists of him standing on the river’s edges, or wading in, in various fly fishing attitudes, with his brother and his father.

Recognizing that this is his core identity, Maclean spends most of his book regarding intensely, again and again, the ecstasy, grace, and enigma of that true original watercourse, that life-defining setting. He is fully aware of his life’s flow, the way in which everything in his life stems from that river. And so his memoir persistently returns to the river whose backdrop is the hills where his life rose.

We can be more precise about the course of Maclean’s life as he perceives it: All of the bends in his existence have in some important sense been efforts to recapture the purity, clarity, passion, and perfection of that original river, that baptismal, vivacious, blessing. His death – the sea where his life goes – will be the oceanic dissolution of his river.

Maclean’s memoir is beautiful because it is hopeful; and it is hopeful because he has been able to sink inward and see what he was, what he is, and what he will be. He has been able to confer coherence on his life by finding a language and an imagery and a narrative that fully contain it.

We can put this more simply. Maclean has achieved a meaningful life, and that meaning is his own, discovered by him, through the process of living.

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One Response to “The Buried Life: Part One”

  1. University Diaries » The Buried Life, Part Two Says:

    […] See Part One, here. […]

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