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Featured Poem: Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold

Written by Lisa Spurgin, 15th August 2011

Only two weeks ago we were all stunned by the unexpected events occurring in another country, many miles away. Feeling second-hand shockwaves was unsettling enough but having them hit much closer to home and noticeably rock the foundations of everyday life puts things on a different scale. Of course, we can’t exactly compare the Norwegian tragedy with the rioting that arose in cities across the UK over the past week, but both have evoked very similar feelings in their wake: disbelief, distress, devastation and, perhaps above all else, complete incomprehension. As with Norway, the media summarised and captured the collective shock in a few iconic images – buildings aflame, a silhouetted figure leaping from a blaze – and already, the phoenix is rising from the ashes, the ruins and wreckage being repaired (and tackled with several thousand brushes and brooms) and true community spirit is battling onward.

Recent events in this seeming summer of discontent have brought a range of emotions to the fore, some more dominant than others. There is little question that both as a causing factor and also as a consequent effect stirred in onlookers, anger, rage and fury were strongly in evidence. While such darker emotions should certainly be explored (without bombarding readers with a number of different poems, I’d like to point you to a poem brought to the attention by ‘r’ in last week’s Featured Poem comments, Anger by Cesar Vallejo; a provoking take on the particular sentiment and especially apt to consider in the light of proceedings), what is needed now – especially in the haze of an uncertain aftermath, whereby tensions have not been wholly eradicated but hopefully the initial frenzy has fizzled out – is some calm, tranquillity and repose.

As a counterpoint to the city – frenetic and hectic even in less obviously fraught times – a scene of serenity and certain retreat can always be found on the edges, on the shores and at the beach; the setting for this famous poem by Matthew Arnold. The outer picture certainly is calm – the opening reveals as much – but actually, as is discovered as the poem continues, true retreat is hard to come by, even in the most peaceful surroundings. Deeply melancholic, Arnold presents to us a mixture of sorrowful trepidation and reflective contemplation, with thoughts accentuated by the cacophony of sounds all around; this is a poem that makes especially beautiful use of its setting, sounds and rhythms intertwining with language and a tumult of emotion. I find that the closing stanza – in particular its last three lines – have acute relevance to the happenings of the last few days, as confusing and utterly alarming as actions have been. There is an air of melancholy generally at this precise moment in time, yet there is evidence out there to prove that there isn't a total lack of joy and love, certitude and peace amongst ‘the turbid ebb and flow of human misery’ – and some calm deep within can still be found.

Dover Beach

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.

Matthew Arnold (1822-1888)

2 thoughts on “Featured Poem: Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold

[…] remaining traces of summer are washed away by the tide (as well as increasing amounts of rainfall). As Matthew Arnold demonstrated, setting out to shore doesn’t always offer unspoilt escapism from the grind of city life or […]

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