In this poem, Mathew Arnold conceives the life of man’s true self as largely hidden or “buried” past the reach of consciousness and control. Arnold reasons that the failure of external life, whether manifest as a jest or a smile, to bring real rest suggests the presence of some deeper, hidden life:
Yes, yes, we know that we can jest,
We know, we know that we can smile!
But there’s a something in this breast,
To which thy light words bring no rest,
And thy gay smiles no anodyne. (4-8)
Men manipulate their behavior to hide their true selves and for fear of being “met / with blank indifference.” To live thus is to live in “disguises” and remain “alien to the rest / of men.” By contrast, the speaker would find and express his true self rather than veil it.
Arnold recognizes that fate throws a multitude of distractions that possess men, from birth to death, only to keep him from the discovery of his “genuine self.” For instance: “How he would pour himself in every strife, / and well-nigh change his own identity.” (33-34)
One’s external self is mutable as it poses and dissembles, whereas there is an internal self that is constant. This “buried stream” that is our true self is “unregarded”, “blind” in its “certainty” and “eternal” in its flow. It is always there with us, although hidden from our sight.
Arnold presents the true self as revealed to the individual only rarely through “airs” and “echoes,” which come “as from an infinitely distant land.” In his conception, the internal realm of the genuine self is distant, if not strictly inaccessible. It can be gleaned only in rare and special moments of self-revelation:
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. (86-90)
In such rare moments, the buried life of the true identity reveals a self that is ordered, balanced, and at rest.
Link to full poem :https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43585/the-buried-life