I have always adored Matthew Arnold’s lyric poem Dover Beach. It was written in 1851 when he was on honeymoon with his bride Fanny Lucy (always affectionately known as ‘Flu’) and was first published in 1867. They were staying at the English ferry port of Dover, with its pebbly beach. Arnold began by writing the concluding stanza, and then added the rest on his return to London.
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 Aegean, 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.
The poem begins with a description of the place, with great emphasis on the sounds and the peace of the scene. It’s a stunning description of the beach, the light and the water, and the movement of the lines mirrors the tidal movement. Arnold then remarks on the “eternal note of sadness” of the tide’s ebb and flow. From there he moves to the idea of the “sea of faith” which by that time in Victorian England was no longer providing the comfort and certainty it had before. People had begun to question the teachings of the church. Shelley had written The Necessity of Atheism, the first advocacy of unbelief to be published in England. George Eliot had cast off Christianity and felt “liberated from the wretched giant’s bed of dogmas” which she felt had tortured her soul. Philosopher Thomas Carlyle had begun to question, in the 1840s George Holyoake was the last man in England to be imprisoned for atheism and when Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published in 1859, the church was forced to re-think its orthodoxies. Annie Besant published The Gospel of Atheism in 1877 and in 1888 atheists were allowed to become MPs and give evidence in a court of law. The church, both a religious organisation and a social one, began to lose its power. Arnold is tapping into all this doubt in his poem. He was the son of Dr Thomas Arnold, famous headmaster of Rugby School (mentioned in the novel Tom Brown’s Schooldays) – he had grown up with faith, but like so many others, he had started to question.
Arnold tries to reconcile the beauty of the world with the melancholy truths of hate and struggle. His conclusion is that loving each other is the only certainty that we can hold on to in a world bereft of traditional securities. The poem is about disintegration and is melancholic in tone. The poet uses the ‘pathetic fallacy’, which means that he projects his human feeling of sadness onto inanimate objects such as the sea and the shore. Light gleams and then is gone – darkness remains. The tone is made even sadder by the poet’s repetition of denials – “neither joy, nor love, nor light”.
The sea is a powerful image in the poem. Beautiful to look at at first, it then makes hostile sounds. Then it becomes the metaphorical “sea of faith”, a symbol of a time when religion was experienced without the doubts introduced by science and progress. The certainty of religion is going out with the tide.
Sophocles is brought in to the poem, connecting a time when Christianity did not exist to the present. Clothing is cleverly used. With religion, the world still felt ‘dressed’ (“with a bright girdle furled”), but with faith gone, people are stripped bare and naked.
The poem ends with Arnold addressing his wife, resolved that love is what they must cling to since religious certainty is no longer there. The last line about the “ignorant armies” clashing is powerful, bleak, and sadly still all too true in our world today.
The poem is included on my CD Poetry to Fill a Room which you can order for $22 (postage included) from my shop.
Listen to Tom Hiddleston read the poem:
or being sung by baritone Samuel Barber:
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