Poetry Project V: “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold

This is the fifth installment of the occasional poetry series. The analysis is written by Bishop Richard Williamson. You may find the others here on TrueRestoration.blogspot.com. If you are interested in specifically Catholic poetry by a contemporary author, you might consider picking up Fr. Lawrence Smith's We Call Thee Blessed, a collection of Marian sonnets.

***

The sea is calm to-night.

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 A gaean, 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's "Dover Beach" is a poem that deserves its fame and popularity. Its dark message can discourage some readers, but the message is serious and very well expressed in poetic form. It also makes perfect sense if one believes that the modern world has gone off track...

THE POET

Arnold (1822-1888) was the eldest son of Dr Thomas Arnold, the famous trail-blazer of that English public school system which would provide the British Empire with generations of administrators devoted to their imperial duty. After receiving at Rugby and Oxford an excellent classical education, which shows in "Dover Beach", Arnold took in 1851 a job as inspector of schools which gave him a regular income for the rest of his life. It also enabled him to marry two months later, and to write both poetry and works of social, cultural and religious criticism until he died. A highly cultivated and thoughtful man, he shows in "Dover Beach" a grave pre-occupation with the religious heart dying out of modern civilization. Here is the content of "Dover Beach":--

VERSE 1 : Setting the Scene.

In a house or hotel overlooking the beach at Dover where the English Channel between France and England is at its narrowest, the poet is staying with his beloved, actually his recently married wife. Looking out of the window over the moon-lit sea, at glimmers of France in the distance and at the famous white cliffs of Dover closer by, he calls his beloved (line 9) to join him in contemplating the scene, because it is inspiring him with far-reaching thoughts: in the sound of the waves, the surf ever rolling back and forth, he is hearing an ancient sadness.

VERSE 2 : Down the Ages.

As a classical scholar, Arnold's mind was well furnished with human parallels from the ancient world. He recalls how the Greek playwright Sophocles (496 - 406 B.C) in his famous play “Antigone” heard in the same sound of the sea the same echo of human sadness: there is a grief in this “valley of tears” which is common to men of all times and places.

VERSE 3 : The 19th Century.

Arnold's mind turns to his own time, the -- for England -- outwardly great and glorious Victorian age when Britannia ruled those waves. However, he sees clearly how England is losing the Christian Faith, which was once like the glorious sea at full tide but is now ebbing away, leaving behind a bare shore with nothing but stones.

VERSE 4 : All that remains.

The poet turns to his beloved, surely by now sharing his train of thought, and proposes that they cling together through life because all they truly have is one another. In the terrible last five lines of the poem Arnold declares that the world around them has neither light nor certainty nor love, but only darkness and confusion and strife.

OUR OWN DARKNESS.

Coming from Arnold, a gifted Protestant born with a silver spoon in his mouth in a Protestant country at the height of its worldwide power, such a dark conclusion may seem surprising. "Dover Beach" dates from 1851 or 1852, soon after his marriage -- surely the world lay at the young couple’s feet. Yet here he is, instructing his beloved that all they have is one another ! "One another" is certainly a modern solution. Do not the Western nations presently have a suicidally low birth-rate because so many youngsters -- and oldsters -- see identically nothing to live for except the "partner", their love-nest, and weekends and vacations together ? Forget children ! They get in the way ! In fact Arnold and his wife went on to have six children together, so maybe his life was not quite as dark as the message of "Dover Beach". But how marvellously the poem expresses that message !

THE POETRY.

 

"Dover Beach" has only 37 lines, of unequal length and divided unequally between the four verses. Contrast such irregularity with, for instance, the sublime metronomic plod of Gray's famous "Elegy”. Yet it is a notable feature of "Dover Beach" how perfectly the lines and verses match the poem's content.

The vocabulary is rich ("moon-blanched", "tremulous", etc.) but not excessively so, because the thought remains limpid. There are two main images, both powerful. The first, following Sophocles, compares the rise and fall of the Faith (captalised by Arnold) to the rise and fall of the sea: at high tide -- Arnold must be thinking of the Middle Ages. Once upon a time the Faith wrapped the world and "Merrie Englande" in brightness (l. 21-23). In mid-19th century the Faith is ebbing away, leaving only a bare and dreary beach behind it. More bare and dreary today than ever ! The second main image compares modern life to the fighting of armies by night (l 35-37), which deal out blows without being able to tell friend from foe. Is that not a picture of contemporary wars (not only military in nature), where the true enemy stays hidden, making those fight one another who should be true friends ?

The rhyming of "Dover Beach" is also erratic, following no regular pattern, but it is there. Only three lines of the 37 do not rhyme, and the 34 rhymes serve well in marking the ends of the lines, because in their erratic length lies not the mere disorder of modern poets but the mastery of a true poet. 20 lines are pentameters with five beats, or "feet", 10 lines are tetrameters (four feet), six lines are trimeters (three feet), and "The Sea of Faith" has two feet. Therefore the poem's staple diet is the classic iambic pentameter, interspersed with shorter lines. Notice especially how the shorter lines serve in lines 9 -14 and 24 -28 to evoke that motion of the sea which is the basic inspiration of "Dover Beach": 9, a pause as if to listen; 11, a pause as between waves; 14 as if to linger on the sadness; 24, as if to hear; 26, the quietness of the night; 28, the bareness of the stony beach. "Dover Beach" cries out to be read aloud, when it will appear how skilfully Arnold uses these shorter lines to convey the sense of the Faith's "melancholy, long, withdrawing roar".

CONCLUSION.

And so we come back to Arnold's message. Like his father, Arnold had a deep concern for religion, and he could see that the triumph of liberalism was spelling the death of organised religion, and therewith a dark future. He once said, "At the present moment two things about the Christian religion must surely be clear to anybody with eyes in his head. One is, that men cannot do without it; the other that they cannot do with it as it is". This is part of the dark message of "Dover Beach" -- there is no hope for Christianity.

Now Catholics may be tempted to dismiss Arnold's pessimism by saying that it only applies to his Protestantism, but they should not be too complacent. Vatican II demonstrated that the mass of Catholic bishops felt the same thing about the future of Catholicism, otherwise why would they have voted to transform it at the Council as they did to make it fit the modern world better? At least humanly speaking, Arnold was certainly a better man than the ringleaders of that official apostasy. The Conciliar collapse of so many Catholic churchmen proves that he was far from altogether wrong when he foresaw Christianity being overcome by the modern world.

Then are we bound to share in the dark conclusion of "Dover Beach" ? By no means. It is true, but it is not the whole truth. By an interesting coincidence another famous English pooet, on the same beach, listening to the same surf, wrote:

"...Listen, the mighty Being is awake

And doth with his eternal motion make

A sound like thunder, everlastingly..."

No doubt Wordsworth had the advantage over Arnold that he was writing some 50 years earlier, when liberalism could still seem full of promise. and when it was not yet blocking man's vision of God through His creation. And over Wordsworth an uncorrupted Catholic has the additional advantage of knowing that the goodness of God extends infinitely further than such mere beauties of Nature as the sea, however inspiring such beauties are. Nevertheless, such a Catholic will also not fail to appreciate the skill of Arnold's "Dover Beach" in expressing one great truth -- the world is indeed dark when God disappears from men's view.

Stephen Heiner

Stephen lives in Paris, France, where he attends Mass celebrated by the clergy of the IMBC. He founded True Restoration in 2006.

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3 Responses

  1. penitent99 says:

    His Excellency is no mean wielder of words himself. I wonder if he has written any verse.

  2. BLYFOX says:

    I mean it as a complement to point out that His Excellency's contributions are commutual with those of Dr. D.A. White's.

    William Butler Yeats, I think, paid homage to Arnold's concept with this four-line poem:

    "Though the Great Song return no more,
    There's keen delight in what we have;
    The rattle of pebbles on the shore
    Under the receding wave."

    We, much to our shame, are the quintessential age of "keen delight."

    How weak. How ephemeral.

    My regards to Bishop Williamson for his continual, one hopes perpetual, contribution.

    Woe to those who do not comprehend the force of culture and/or "culture."

    Our minds are far more maleable than we would like to belive.

    Neil G. Barclay