Monday, 12 May 2014

Dover Beach

Dover Beach

Matthew Arnold;
probably written in about 1851 or 2.


The sea is calm tonight.

The tide is full, the moon lies fair

Upon the straits; on the French coast the light

Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,

Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.

Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!

Only, from the long line of spray

Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,

Listen! you hear the grating roar

Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,

At their return, up the high strand,

Begin, and cease, and then again begin,

With tremulous cadence slow, and bring

The eternal note of sadness in.


Sophocles long ago

Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought

Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow

Of human misery; we

Find also in the sound a thought,

Hearing it by this distant northern sea.


The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating, to the breath

Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear

And naked shingles of the world.


Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! for the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.




I was born near Dover and grew up there, so Arnold’s great poem has special resonance for me. Irreverently, I imagine him standing, late at night, on the balcony of their first floor front room at the White Cliffs Hotel, watching and listening as the sea breaks on the shingle, smoking a last cigarette (Matthew, not the sea), racking his brains for the next line and his wife calling from their cozy double bed ‘Come on in Matty, you’ll catch your death out there.’

Great poem? It has become a much-anthologized classic, but largely because of its historical importance, marking the crisis (and for once that’s the right word) in Christianity caused by Darwin’s theory of evolution: intelligent, educated Christians such as Arnold were having to admit its cogency, and it was difficult — many felt impossible — to reconcile evolutionary theory with Christian doctrine. The problem is explained fascinatingly in Dennis Potter’s television work ‘Where Adam Stood’.

But I’m not so sure it’s a great poem, for all that I love it. True, ‘melancholy, long, withdrawing roar’ is magnificent, and ‘ignorant armies clash by night’ is at least memorable, which is important in poetry. But the transition ‘The Sea of Faith/ Was once, too, at the full’ is clumsy, and there is something strained and desperate (though perhaps that’s the point) about the last verse’s appeal ‘Ah, love, let us be true / To one another’.

Still and all. Wish I could write something that good.

Oh, look: for all that I know it almost by heart, I’ve just read it again, slowly and carefully. Yes, it’s great.


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