Random Poetry: “Dover Beach”

Dover Beach

by Matthew Arnold

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.

Text via Public Domain Poetry

So, you knew it couldn’t be more Yeats, nor could I use Shelley, Blake, or Whitman, right? Because this is random poetry and I mentioned all of those last week.

Today we have Matthew Arnold. I know very little about his poetry, but I know a bit about the man himself and his life’s work. So let me just talk about that. He had a stellar academic career as a very young man — he even worked with Wordsworth — but he ended up a private secretary and that did not allow him to earn enough money to support a family. So he got himself appointed, in 1851, one of Her Majesty’s school inspectors. He was married two months later and ended up having six children.

In 1869, he published a work of social criticism titled Culture and Anarchy. I have a copy and have read it, and it was influential in its day. The casual use of the word “philistine” to mean “barbarian” in English owes as much to Arnold as it does to the Bible. “Sweetness and Light,” the way we use it today, is also an Arnoldism, though that phrase was originated by Jonathan Swift. Lots of intellectual debts are owed to Culture and Anarchy.

As best I can tell, “Dover Beach” was written during, or just after, Arnold’s honeymoon at Dover. I know it well. It’s one of a handful of poems (along with Gray’s Elegy and a couple of Tennyson’s) that just kept appearing six inches in front of my nose again and again and again no matter what I did to stave them off, when I was a boy.

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