On The Darkling Plain with Matthew Arnold

the old bath.JPG
The Old Bath and  Clematis ‘Warszawska Nike’

This morning, continuing my journey through The Oxford Book of English Verse, I stopped at Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’, which I’ve not read for five, ten, maybe more, years. When I saw it, I thought, another angry poem. Clearly, I am  looking for them.

But most angry poems won’t do for me – they are trite, warmongering, simple. I want to experience complexity of thought, not simple anger: I’ve got enough of that. Tomorrow I’ll probably go back to Silas Marner for that reason: I love the way George Eliot unpicks complex human situations and lays all the parts out for us to see and feel and understand.

And, looking again, a second ‘but’: it is not an angry poem. It is sad, and withdrawing from the world. Read it aloud, dear readers, and read it slowly.

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.

Here we have two people in a room overlooking the Channel on what seems a lovely summer night.  One says to the other, ‘Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!’ but as they speak they note something else:

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.

Have you heard that slow, turning cadence ?  There’s a rhythm of sadness to it for me when I walk on the beach at a full tide, but I don’t know how much that is connected to this poem – did I learn to think that about beach-noise froim Matthew Arnold? Or maybe that ‘note of sadness’ existed quite aside from the poem?

As I remember Matthew Arnold,  Matthew Arnold, hearing the same sound, remembers Sophocles:

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.

I don’t know what in Sophocles Matthew Arnold is referring to. I could look it up and might do so, in case someone in my reading group wanted to know.  But more likely, someone in my reading group might well have never have heard of Sophocles.  Never perhaps heard of the Aegean.  So I might want to be ready to ask if anyone in the group  could explain those words to the everyone else. And if I had looked up the reference, I’d keep it in reserve, until asked. And then I’d want to say ‘I looked it up.’ Why?

Because facts are nothing in literature, in Shared Reading. This is not chemistry, this is not engineering. Facts often get in the way, and give inexperienced readers the feeling that there is stuff to learn and that  they are ignorant. That feeling stops people engaging with their whole hearts with the poem itself.  Be kind but bold, we say at The Reader. Bold enough to bring a poem like ‘Dover Beach’ to your reading group, kind enough to improvise ways to share its content with other people. You don’t need the facts to understand the poem, because Matthew Arnold here gives us everything we need to know:

Someone, somewhere else, long ago heard this and thought he heard  the ebb and flow of human misery. Now we have the same experience, with a different thought,  in a different time and place.

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.

This stanza is particular to Matthew Arnold’s own time and place, and a group would have to stop here and think about what ‘the sea of faith’ might have meant to the writer. As a Reader Leader, I might also want to know something, some fact, about that – though I might not need to  talk about it.

Some facts: The poem was written in 1851. The literal truth of Christianity was under attack from liberal intellectual thinkers and from science – Lyell’s Principles of Geology had been around since the 1830s, and the argument for the world not having been created in six days was beginning to be widely accepted. Origin of Species was published in 1859. The French naturalist Lamarck  had introduced the idea that there might be a connection between humans and orangutans… and George Eliot writing under her own original name,  Marian Evans, had published her translation of Strauss’ Life of Jesus, which made Jesus a historical rather than a  Biblical figurein 1846.  Even as he wrote, the status of  Christianity, which might have seemed so permanent, was under attack, was changing, was perhaps, to use Matthew Arnold’s word, ‘withdrawing’.

But it is not the fact I am interested in here. It’s the feeling of the poetry:

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

What do I feel? Loss, loss, loss. If things in the world are being lost, stripped away, if old beliefs and comforts are removed… what’s left? Well, says Matthew Arnold, there is still personal love. There is still us, in this room.

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.

But that sense of  a private relationship being able to carry you through… I don’t know, it seems a genuine plea, for a genuine love, yet  it feels overwhelmed by what is outside the window. But it remains true that when the world explodes for me, close family and close friends hold it/me together. So, yes, a personal love can and does make a difference. But the world, oh, the world…

Of course, the worse it is out there, the more need we have of something, someone, in here. We might talk about love, but we’d also want to talk about friendship – and a poem I might want to go on to with my group would be  Tessimond’s ‘Not Love, Perhaps’. I’ll read it tomorrow.

But to go back to the poem: what’s happening between these two at the window is undermined by what is out there, and so we come to some of the most painful lines in poetry:

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;

When I am in the line ‘like a land of dreams,/So various, so beautiful, so new’  I believe it.

And even as I rise to the surface and come out of the line, I do believe in such moments of possibility.  I have to. But when I stop to give a couple of quid to the homeless girl outside the British Library, her face a mass of sores, she’s a glue-sniffer, she looks sixty and is probably twenty-three, her eyes are pleading and lost, she’s come from Care and needs to come and live in my house and be cared for by me but  when I stop there and try to imagine the cost I  personally cannot pay to fix this girl’s life, then I feel  that neither I nor world really does have the possibility of  ‘joy, nor love, nor light,/Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain’. I give her fiver and hurry away, knowing she’ll spend it on drugs. As I head to Euston for the 19.07, I’m asking myself and not for the first time, should I leave The Reader and go to work in a homeless charity?

I move, as the lines do, between those two sets of feelings.

I think of the people, families, children, dying in  Grenfell Tower. The people who died or were injured on Westminster Bridge, at Borough Market, at Finsbury Park Mosque. I think of the power of personal feelings of failure or disconnect, and the  effect of those broken feelings on the world. People do bad things. On a different level, I think of  the disjunct between personal love and public responsibility. People do bad things.

I imagine myself making  bad decisions and ask myself, what would make a difference to the way I made those decisions?

And I end, in 2017,  where Matthew Arnold ended, in 1851:

And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
Hard reading today. Thank you for sticking with me.
For a different take on Dover Beach, the poet Carol Rumens offers her reading of this great poem here.

2 thoughts on “On The Darkling Plain with Matthew Arnold

  1. Elaine Bentley June 22, 2017 / 9:36 am

    I love your daily blogs, I lead a group in Tavistock Devon and get inspiration from the poems that you choose and it helps to explore with you the depths of the poems. I am also inspired by your energy!

    • drjanedavis June 22, 2017 / 12:59 pm

      Thank you, Elaine – its a real pleasure to know there are Reader Leaders out there reading the posts – makes me feel that daily practice hour is useful. Do you connect to our Reader Membership site at all?

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