A copy of Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” is a posting some of you requested after our meeting on “The Collapse of Western Civilization.”(*) If you read my “Phlebas the Sailor” commentary in The Waste Land selection, you might guess I have a predilection for watery poems with metrical schemes imitative of the verses’ content. And poems of a tragic theme. “The sea is calm tonight. / The tide is full, the moon lies fair / Upon the straits”; already you can hear the iambic “swish-swásh” of ebb and flow. And then by stanza ending a “grating roar of pebbles” with a tremulous back and forth cadence, beginning and ceasing, indicating “an eternal note of sadness.”
Certainly to look back at this Victorian poem of sadness, of things retreating and passing away, is “a view from the future.” In the United Sates, we are encouraged to be optimistic dreamers; our culture has not acquired, or lived with, a tragic sense of life as many cultures of Europe obviously have. Think of Ireland, Spain and, of course, Greece. Through our propaganda we are told of winning wars that quite obviously we have lost. The war in which “ignorant armies clash by night” might very well be those of ongoing martial conflicts, sudden invasions, and thoughtless marauding, but also the armies can be ideological combatants, as unreconcilable as bands espousing plain reason, secular humanists against those of devout faith, and runaway corporate powers and complicit politicians, the plutocratic elite, against large committees of scientists warning governments of potential catastrophes if they continue destructive industrial practices without severe regulation. The decades (century!) of the Darwinian/Creationist debates look feeble and tired compared with the enormity of the mistaken judgment (an Aristotelian hamartia, i.e. “missing the mark,” by benighted leadership) that can bring on a global tragedy if the reports of earth and atmospheric scientists are ignored. Privations will demand adjustments, but greater consciousness is required nationally and universally if the world of people are going to grow up and take responsibility as the witting agents of change and redemption.
My reason for choosing the poem, therefore, came from seeing it as a significant expression of the sadness of our time (the Sophoclean allusion), the sea, beach and tidal imagery, and the loss of a Faith that had once the force to unite. In a time of growing incertitude, of individual impotence, of “worlds” colliding over many issues, the problem has emerged about “Seeing clearly,” about “Hearing” and “Listening,” as the poem’s speaker urges a “love” to draw near in trust. How do we draw people together for concerted action, not only to discuss strategies of change but to engage as trusting partners in practical behaviors to improve the health of the earth as we are “swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight”?
In the 1960s a Beat-inspired rock group The Fugs performed a version of “Dover Beach” (from the last stanza) on their album Tenderness Junction. Listen to it on the following website: http://www.allmusic.com/album/tenderness-junction-mw0000778605. Choose the cut #8, Dover Beach. For those interested, Allen Ginsberg and Fugs companions sing a fairly hypnotic Hare Krishna on cut #5.
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.
Mathew Arnold (1822-1888)
*In his work, Culture and Anarchy, Arnold outlines a contrast between the poles of Hebraic and Hellenistic thought. One wrapped around with laws to keep the thinkers locked in habits of life, as found in many biblical tales of error by departing from custom or law; the other encouraging free-thinking to challenge the authorities, as, say, Prometheus challenged Zeus over the keeping of fire from humankind. Obviously, somewhere between the tried-and-true and the experiment with the new one might strike a note of harmony, but even Arnold does not find certitude guaranteed by the “sweetness and light” of Hellenistic mentality.