Welcoming Wonder: Day 3

Dover Beach
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 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.


Karen Swallow Prior

Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach” laments the loss of that hope. Arnold was the epitome of the modern man who publicly professed optimism for the social progress he saw around him was at odds with his personal sense of melancholy and mournfulness at the passing of a simpler age. In studying the body of literature of this time, one can see clearly that this loss of faith was met first with confusion but then with despair. Arnold bespeaks such anguish starkly in “Dover Beach.” The famous Cliffs of Dover that guard that beach have for millennia served both literally and figuratively as a source of strength for England, a buttress against even the closest and most menacing of enemies.

But the cliffs were unable to provide harbor for an attack greater than that conveyed by even the fiercest weapons of war—the erosion of the faith that had defined the nation’s identity since the years of the Roman Empire.

Like the cliffs, religion, too, before the age of doubt, was a source of strength not only to England but to all of civilization. “Dover Beach” depicts a view of this encompassing “sea of faith” after it has receded as a result of the skepticism of the modern age. The dramatic situation of the poem places the speaker at the window of a room at Dover Beach from which he looks out at the night sea. As he watches the gleaming lights on the French coast, the poem opens on a note of futility as he listens to…

. . . 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.

The speaker eventually contemplates the ebbing sea before him, which reminds him of the “Sea of Faith.” Like the literal sea in front of him, this metaphorical sea “was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore / Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.” Like the sea, the age of faith, too, is withdrawing with a “melancholy, long withdrawing roar.”

In the absence of faith, the speaker turns to the nearest solace he can find: love.

If they can but “be true to one another,” then together they can face a world that seems “so various, so beautiful, so new.” But here the tone of the poem shifts from mere melancholy to near-despair. The fact is, the speaker admits in concluding the poem, that this world, from which faith has retreated,

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.

 

How can doubt help faith to grow from the heart to the mind?

John 1: 1-5

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

 

 Karen Swallow Prior, from Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me

Booked draws on classics like Great Expectations, delights such as Charlotte’s Web, the poetry of Hopkins and Donne, and more. This thoughtful, straight-up memoir will be pure pleasure for book-lovers, teachers, and anyone who has struggled to find a way to articulate the inexpressible through a love of story.

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