This week’s poem is “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold which I have chosen because it sticks in my memory.
Ah, love, let us be trueMatthew Arnold (1822—1888)
To one another!
Poem 164. Dover Beach
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 Aegean, 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.
Matthew Arnold starts this poem with a description of the titular beach as he stands at his window by night—the sea is calm, and he hears the continual swish of the waves as they sweep in and the sound of the shingle as the water endlessly rearranges it. The regular and sonorous whispering makes him melancholy and makes him think of Sophocles who likened the tides of human misery to the rise and fall of the sea.
This leads him on to think of how human faith, so strong in the past, is beginning to ebb and flow, and he observes that the slow deterioration of belief in God is like the way the sea slowly retreats away from the high tide mark, leaving only the stones and pebbles behind to be whipped by the wind.
Finally, he strikes a darker note, noting that although the world seems full of promise, without Christian faith there is no sure hope of happiness or solace and so it is as if everyone is stranded, blind and confused in the middle of a confused struggle between armies that don’t know who or why they are fighting.
I like this poem for its lovely description of the seashore by night, its wistful reflection on Victorian faith, the way Arnold tempers the beauty of the world with dark insinuations that there is really nothing positive that one can find, and the final image of a faithless mankind amidst of a great but incomprehensible battle.
The American poet Anthony Hecht (1923—2004) wrote “The Dover Bitch” as a kind of response to the Arnold poem—it’s the same thing but told from the woman’s perspective. Lines from the poem are quoted by the protagonist of Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury and it has been referenced in many other works of fiction; it is read to Sally Bowles in Cabaret and has inspired songs by the Bangles and Baby Queen and a classical work by Samuel Barber.