Gorgeous and dramatic, this poem is a response to the rapid pace of change that defines modern life. It’s also one of the most moving love poems I’ve read. Thank you to my parents for introducing me to it.
Dover Beach, by Matthew Arnold (listen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1lhYGreRA6c)
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
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.
This poem begins with peace. Calm sea, fair moon, sweet night-air: all contribute to the general sense of tranquillity on Dover beach, where the poem is set. But the promise of calm is soon broken by the violence of the ‘grating roar’ of water against pebbles. In the echoing roar of the waves crashing repeatedly against the shore, Arnold hears ‘an eternal note of sadness’. This takes him two thousand years back in history, to imagine that the ancient Athenian playwright Sophocles heard the same ‘human misery’ when he stood on the coast of the Aegean Sea.
What has happened? To understand this dramatic shift of perspective, we must understand that Arnold’s view of Dover beach is a wide and metaphorical one. Dover’s cliffs are ‘the cliffs of England’; and its beach has come to stand for the whole nation. At the time Arnold was writing, this nation was transforming into something almost unrecognisably different. Scientific and technological progress had driven mass industrialisation and unprecedented social change. Traditional Christian faith was being severely challenged by the work of Darwin and other scientists. This is what leads Arnold to connect the full tide at Dover to once-full tide of ‘the Sea of Faith’, which is now retreating. The tide has become a symbol for transience amidst the great sea-changes of society. And Arnold is not optimistic about these changes: though the new land ‘seems’ like one of dreams, it has no real ‘joy, nor love, nor light, / Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain’.
What can you do when everything around you is changing? What can you do when those changes don’t even seem to be for the better? Fortunately for us, Arnold was writing not only at a time of unsettling social transformation, but also during his own honeymoon on Dover beach. His answer to these questions is a startling and moving injunction to his beloved: ‘Ah, love, let us be true / To one another!’. At times like these, he suggests, all you can do is take strength in the truth of your connection with others. Whether this is a meaningful solution is left uncertain by the ominous ending of the poem, where ‘ignorant armies clash by night’. Perhaps it is rather our only option.
All my love,