Friday, June 11, 2010

Dover Beach - Matthew Arnold

Today and tomorrow (Saturday's) poems need to be read together, as tomorrow's is a poem "about" today's.  Matthew Arnold (1822 - 1888) was one of 19th century England's best known social critics and poets.  He worked as an inspector of schools, but was also a professor of poetry at Oxford, and traveled fairly widely, including to America, to lecture on contemporary education and democracy.  Arnold's poetic legacy is more based on his place in addressing the intrusion - and effect - of all the societal changes in mid-19th century-onward England, than in poems that were purely "art".  He believed that poetry should reflect a philosophy.  (I believe a good poem helps us access emotions and understandings about ourselves and those emotions.)  Some regard him as the transition from Victorian Romanticism to Modernism.  But that's for literary critics.  I am not partial to him at all and actually learned of his poetry through tomorrow's poem by Anthony Hecht referencing this one.  "Dover Beach", written in 1867, has those literary allusions that were expected to be known and understood by readers.  It also has a self-pitying tone and understated emotion, which is what tomorrow's poem skewers.  It was very popular and has been cited by others in later creative works, including "Fahrenheit 451" by Ray Bradbury.   The last lines of the last strophe (verse) are quoted often.  The best way to get the most from both poems (this one and tomorrow's "Dover Bitch") is to read this one first, then tomorrow's, then this one again.  (If you do, you'll qualify as actually caring about poetry and get a "Poetry Geek" pin - leave your email address in the "Comments"....)


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 Agean, 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 - English

1 comment:

Leo Fong said...

An amusing if unoriginal artifice on Hechts part, but why the anger directed at some so long dead. Some works shine forth and are timeless while others are products of there age and only relevant in context. Hecht must be rather green as age I find doesn't dull the edge but rather informs it with sympathy