Mathew Arnold (1822-1888) came from a distinguished literary family (his two brothers were fixtures in the English literary scene, and his father Thomas, was headmaster at the famed Rugby School). A critic, essayist, and poet, Mathew became a major voice of England’s Victorian Age. Some scholars consider the socially conservative, high-minded Arnold a bridge between the Romantic and Modern Ages, as well as an astute commentator on the events of his day., That said, much of his voluminous work is now read only by scholars. “Dover Beach,” though, remains a staple in college English courses, a favorite of poetry lovers generally, and a fascination to other writers (Ray Bradbury and Ian McEwan among them) who are drawn to it. Why? “Dover Beach” first appeared in 1867, shortly after Charles Darwin published his Origin of Species and the conflict between religion and science raged.
Arnold found himself mired midway between the two worlds…one dead, and the other “powerless to be born.” Clearly, some folks are still caught betwixt and between the two.
This post is second in a sporadic series of happy birthday wishes to poets in the English Language hagiography.
This poem is hardly joyous, but it is not irrelevant this particular Christmas season.
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.