Saturday, April 2, 2011

That Poem Again

It doesn’t have to be a poem. Maybe it’s a passage in a book, or a painting. Maybe a scene in a teevee show or a movie. Maybe famous, maybe not. But it touches you somehow, you remember it. And it unaccountably pops up from time to time in your life.

Such a poem, for me, is Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.”

You don’t have to be a poetry lover to have encountered “Dover Beach.” It is widely anthologized and betcha a lot of you read it in high school or college. Not limited in its appeal to pointy-heads, it is one of the most famous poems in the English language, and not one at which literary critics often turn up their noses, or at least not very high. (Arnold was a critic and essayist in addition to being a poet.) It was written in the early 1850’s, but not published until 1867. Although Arnold is not highly regarded as a poet today, and his other writings are mostly ignored, nobody, it seems, doesn’t like “Dover Beach.”

The question, to which I will return momentarily, is: why?

First, a note on that popping-up I mentioned in the first paragraph. Myself, I don’t remember studying this poem in high school. I think I first encountered it when I was a teenager in a marvelous Pocket Books paperback, A Concise Treasury of Great Poems, edited by the famous critic (and poet) Louis Untermeyer. Yes, here it is.  17th printing in 1968; ninety-five cents, and full of riches.

I didn’t know what it meant. But it stayed with me. I would turn to it from time to time, and the more I read it, the more I thought I got it, but I was never quite sure, and I never cared. This was decades before the Internet could reveal in a few seconds what literary analysts think it means. No matter; I always loved the poem.

Around 20 years ago, I went to live for a few years in the San Diego area. My favorite place to hang out just to sit and think was the bluff overlooking the Del Mar beach. And up and down the coast, where the beach was rockier, I remember hearing for the first time the popping and crackling of the breakers lifting and dropping small rocks near the end of the waterline. And I thought of that line from “Dover Beach” – you’ll see it in a minute – that I never quite understood, and then I did.

In those same days there was a young woman in whom I was interested. The first time I spoke with her on the phone, we were talking about favorite places, and she mentioned the sea, because it was “egoless.” I mentioned “Dover Beach,” and she stopped short – she’d been talking to some other swain just the day or so previously, who had also commended the poem to her.

And today, I was reading a marvelous novel, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, and in a central scene, the eminent professor recites from memory, and then calls for analyses of, “Dover Beach,” which the protagonist botches.  And it got me thinking about the poem again.

Dover Beach, and the White Cliffs
 Dover Beach, of course, is the beach at the famous White Cliffs of Dover that overlook the English Channel and, as the poet suggests, allows a view France across the straits. The most popular interpretation of the poem is that it was written at the historical juncture where scientific discovery and Victorian materialism were calling traditional religious faith into question. The poet seems to regret this, but calls out to his beloved for comfort and reaffirmation as they witness the destructive philosophical battles of the age. (It is believed that early drafts of the poem were composed by Arnold on his honeymoon at Dover.)   That is certainly a credible interpretation of the poem.
The mid-to late nineteenth was an incredible time, to be sure. The theory of evolution, Maxwell’s electromagnetic theories, the explosion in discoveries in astronomy and physics – it was a tough time for traditional religion. But why would a poem with that as its subject -- if that is its subject, as it is still regarded as a “difficult” poem in some circles – be of any interest to us today?

Matthew Arnold
For one reason: It is beautiful.

I find new beauty, exquisite new artistic strategies in it, every time I read it.  The phrasing, the rhymes, the punctuation, the shift in point of view, and most of all the radical shifts in focus from -- and implicit connections between -- the greatest questions of the age to the most intimate personal relationships.

This hastily-composed article is not going to be able to explain why some things are beautiful to the senses, or to the perceiving brain. Or, perhaps I could say with every bit as much credibility, the perceiving heart. It may be evolutionary; it may be godly; it may be a condition instilled by culture.

I don’t know, but I know this – meaning is important, but it is not everything. Logic and science and analysis – gotta have ‘em, but if that’s all you have then you will be undernourished indeed.

Enough. Find a quiet place and read “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold.  In fact, read it twice.


     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.


  1. Steve...nicely done and a poem well recommended. I had not read it before...thanks.

    Vicki O.

  2. That's excellent, VO, glad I could make an introduction.