THE RECEDING TIDE: ARNOLD’S DOVER BEACH

Michael Schmidt calls Matthew Arnold’s poem Dover Beach “the greatest single poem of the Victorian period.”  Greatness in poetry is a matter of personal taste, but one can say that probably no single poem so eloquently expresses the growing spiritual discomfort of the time. Arnold was born the day before Christmas in 1822; Dover Beach was likely written in 1851, after his marriage.  That means he wrote it when about 29 years old.

It would be easy to suppose that Dover Beach came in reaction to the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, which shook the foundations of Christendom, but actually that book was not published until 1859, some eight years after the poem was written.   Yet Dover Beach — though written earlier, was not published until 1867, eight years after Darwin’s revolutionary book appeared, and by then the feelings of uncertainty and alienation expressed in Dover Beach had become even more widespread due to the immense public controversy over human evolution, which many felt to be in direct conflict with the biblical teaching of creation.  For some the loss of belief in creation as recorded in Genesis was the loss of belief in Christianity in general. That is why for readers at the time of the poem’s publication, Dover Beach bespoke the decay of faith that came with the ever -increasing proofs that the biblical account was simply wrong.  And if one could not trust the biblical account of creation, logical thought ran, who knew what, if any, of the remainder of its accounts were trustworthy, including the Resurrection?

One must keep in mind that even before Darwin, there was a growing gap in the public mind between the nature of the physical world as pictured in the Bible and the nature of the physical world as it was being revealed by the discoveries of science in the early to mid 19th century, particularly the revelations of the growing science of geology and the rising attention paid to fossils and their implications — including the first scientifically-described dinosaur — Megalosaurus — named in 1824 — astonishing creatures nowhere named or revealed in the books of the Bible.

We may say, then, that the crux of the matter is that previously, people had looked to the Bible to explain matters; but in the first half of the 19th century, they had begun to turn instead to science and to related inventions.  And the discoveries of science were often not easy to harmonize with the Bible.

This is, of course, a simplification.  Many still held to literalistic views of the Bible, others modified their views to fit new scientific discoveries while not losing their overall faith in Christianity.  But to others the writing on the wall was plain to read, and today, looking backward, we can see that in the first half of the 19th century, serious cracks were appearing in the edifice of Christian belief that would lead to its even more rapid crumbling in the latter half of the 2oth century.

So Dover Beach has great meaning even today, with the increasing abandonment of Christianity in Europe (and more gradually in America as well).

The meaning we today assign to Dover Beach, then, telescopes the changes of the 19th century into an overall loss of faith in the dictates of clergyman and Bible; and without that faith, many felt the ground slipping away from beneath their feet.  Many found science and invention an inadequate replacement.  Such people were left with that abandoned “we are entirely on our own now” feeling — that sense of being placed between the loss of the presumed certainties of Christianity and the disturbing revelations of science — that Dover Beach best expresses.

Now let’s take a look at the poem:

DOVER BEACH

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-blanch’d 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 furl’d.
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. 

Let’s look at the poem part by part:

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!

We may assume that the poet is standing at an open window in the British seaport of Dover, which is situated just across the English Channel from France, which lies only about 21-22 miles across the Strait of Dover, that portion of the Channel that separates Dover in England from Calais in France.

We do not yet realize it, as the poem begins, but the poet is already speaking to another person.  We may assume, historically, that it is his wife; they spent their honeymoon in Dover.   Of course by extension, it is really the reader.

So Arnold begins by saying that the sea is calm tonight; the tide is full — meaning the sea is at its highest in the tidal cycle — high tide as opposed to low tide.  He tells us the moon lies fair upon the straits, meaning the moon is shining its light down and is reflected beautifully upon the waters in the Dover Strait.

Arnold sees a light gleam and then vanish in darkness off where he knows the French Coast lies — probably the appearing-vanishing light of a lighthouse on that far shore.  The cliffs of England — the famous White Cliffs of Dover — stand glimmering in the moonlight and rise vast and high at the edge of the water.  They are white chalk cliffs, composed largely of calcium carbonate formed from the fossil skeletons of countless one-celled sea creatures.  Arnold began by telling us “the sea is calm,” and now says the white cliffs stand “out in the tranquil bay.”  That repetition adds to the sense of peace.

And now Arnold issues his invitation to the unseen person with him:  “Come to the window; sweet is the night-air.”  And then comes a sudden change in the poem, with the word “only”:

Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanch’d 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.

Having told us all is peace and beauty, now he adds an “except,” by beginning his next sentence with the word “Only….”

He points out this exception by drawing attention to the line of white spray where the waves of the ocean meet the shore, “where the sea meets the moon-blanched land.”  “Moon-blanch’d” means turned whitish in appearance by the moonlight.

 “Listen!” he urges:

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.

Arnold’s companion (and we, of course) now hear the sound made by the sea as the incoming waves roll and cast the pebbles landward atop other pebbles, and then the retreating wave pulls and rolls them out seaward again, countless pebbles grating together.  So we know this is not a sandy beach, but rather a “shingle” beach, one made of rocks and pebbles.  We hear the grating roar of pebbles grinding on pebbles all along that line where sea and land meet.  We hear it cease and begin again with each arriving wave as it rolls and casts its pebbles “up the high strand,” meaning up the higher beach.  This pushing and pulling of the waves upon the pebbles at the water line creates a “tremulous cadence” — meaning the rising and falling beat caused by the slow, repetitive sound of the sea and its pebbles, cast forward and pulled back.

These grating pebbles and waves with their repetitive cadence “bring the eternal note of sadness in.”  Arnold tells us that in spite of the beauty and tranquility of the night and the sea and the cliffs, the sound of the pebbles grating in the waves brings in that eternal feeling of sadness, which here manifests as sound –an eternal note that lies behind all the fleeting “sound” of happiness and peace.

Arnold’s next remarks add the depth of centuries, of time past, to what he has already said:

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,

Sophocles (496-406 B.C.  was an ancient Greek writer of tragedies.  Arnold tells us that the tragedian heard the same eternal note of sadness that he hears in the waves at Dover, only Sophocles heard it long before on the Aegean Sea, which lies between Greece and Turkey.  It brought to Socrates’ mind the turbid (dark, filled with sediment, in turmoil) ebb and flow (decrease and increase, like the waters receding and advancing again, in an endless cycle) of human misery.

If Arnold had something definite from the works of Sophocles in mind, it may have been these lines from a chorus in his work Antigone:

For others, once
the gods have rocked a house to its foundations
the ruin will never cease, cresting on and on
from one generation on throughout the race—
like a great mounting tide
driven on by savage northern gales,
surging over the dead black depths
roiling up from the bottom dark heaves of sand
and the headlands, taking the storm’s onslaught full-force,
roar, and the low moaning
echoes on and on
(Chorus 656-666, translated by Fagles)

We need not be too literal about that, however.  The important matter is that Arnold is saying that the same sadness he hears in the waves of the the Strait of Dover in the 19th century was heard many centuries before by the tragedian Sophocles in the waves of the Aegean Sea against its shore, and Arnold feels it gave Sophocles the impulse to thought in writing.

“We find also in the sound a thought,” Arnold says, meaning that it inspires a thought in him, as it did in Sophocles; and then he tells us what particular thought it inspires in him at Dover.

He makes an analogy:

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
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.

Just as the tide is full tonight, he says, so the Sea of Faith was once full, meaning that life was once filled with religious faith (by which, of course, he means the Christian faith).  That Sea of Faith once encircled the world (Arnold means primarily the British/European world) like a shining belt (he uses the old term for a belt or sash, “girdle”). “Furl’d” (furled) here means “rolled up around” like a sash encircling the earth.

“But now,” he says, “I only hear its long, withdrawing roar.”  He perceives that the Sea of Faith is receding, pulling away from the world just as the water of high tide will gradually ebb away from the Dover shore.  He knows the tide at Dover will recede, and already he senses the Sea of Faith ebbing, its tide going out.  He “hears” it retreating, “to the breath of the night wind,” meaning that he sees faith fading away like the tide receding on the shore below him in the night, as the cool wind of night blows.  By combining this recession of faith with the coolness of the night wind (remember that the night air was previously “sweet?”) he makes the air of night, which formerly had seemed fresh and tranquil, into a kind of cold darkness stealing over the world with the loss of faith.  Faith is disappearing “down the vast edges drear and naked shingles of the world.”  By “shingles,” again Arnold means shingle beaches — beaches of rocks and pebbles rather than sand.  That gives us a picture of bleakness and harshness as faith pulls away from the world, its receding tide leaving behind only dreariness and emptiness and naked, rocky shoreline — the world as Arnold perceived it to be without religious faith.

And now Arnold gives us the emotion that comes to him as a result of this picture of the loss of faith in 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. 

He tells the person with him, “Let us at least be true and faithful to one another, because we have nothing else upon which to rely now.”  The world that seems to be a land of dreams, so varied and so new, is now really — Arnold feels — just an illusion.  Now that faith is gone, we see it as it is without that faith.  It has no joy, no love, no light, no certainty, no peace, no help for pain.  It is as though we find ourselves in the darkness on a plain (“darkling plain”) swept with the confused alarms (calls to arms, urgings to battle, warning sounds) of struggle and flight, where ignorant armies come together violently and clash in battle by night.

So in essence, Arnold is saying:

The night is beautiful and tranquil here on the Strait of Dover, with the moonlight shining on water and land, and a light appearing and  disappearing far off on the coast of France.  Come to the window, because the night air is sweet.

Except, look down there where the waves of the sea meet the land.  I hear the pebbles carried forward and pulled back by the waves; I hear the pebbles grating on one another, creating a dull roar.  Sophocles heard the same sound centuries ago on the shore of the Aegean sea, and the sound evokes an eternal sadness.  It makes me think of an analogy:

Just as the tide is full tonight, so the Sea of Faith was once full — people had a belief on which to base their lives and thoughts.  But now that belief is fading and disappearing.  I can sense it disappearing just as the tide turns, and as it recedes, the waves pull back from the shore below me, retreating into the darkness, leaving only harshness and bare “reality” behind.

Oh, my love, let us at least be true and faithful to each other, because there is no other refuge left to us in this world, which seems to offer so much but really offers only illusions; and we are left here alone in the darkness and conflict, just as if we were on a plain in the dark of night, filled with the noises and cries of battle while all around us ignorant armies clash.

Of course such a simple summary has none of the poetry of the poem itself!

I should add that there is an interpretation of the following lines that makes no sense to me:

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.

Again and again you will see it stated on the Internet that the words “But now I only hear” really mean, “But now I alone hear.”  I do not think that is a defensible interpretation.  The clear sense of the phrasing means essentially, “Once the Sea of Faith was full, but now I hear only its withdrawal from the world, like the sea pulling away from the shore into the darkness.”  To state that Arnold means “I alone hear” would mean that he was the only one in the middle of the 19th century who perceived or felt that faith was beginning to disappear from the world, and historically we know that to be untrue; so I do not think that is a likely thing for Arnold to assert.  One should stick to the plain meaning of the language here, in my view, without needlessly confusing the matter.

As for the “ignorant armies” clashing by night, it is possible that Arnold borrowed this notion from an ancient historical account by Thucydides of the Battle of Epipolae, where Athenians and Syracusans fought one another in the confusing darkness.  Arnold, of course, applies it to human conflict and confusion in the darkness left by the retreat of the bright “Sea of Faith”– human dissension in general, in a world that seems to have lost its meaning.

I will not discuss the poetic techniques used by Arnold at present, because I offer his poem as a lead-in to a simpler work by Alfred Edward Housman for this Easter weekend.  That article will come soon.

David

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One Response to THE RECEDING TIDE: ARNOLD’S DOVER BEACH

  1. Michael Glass says:

    It seems that whether “Dover Beach” was written before or after the publication of “The Origin of the Species” there is at least one line in the poem that closely follows the ideas and occasionally the wording of the famous conclusion of Darwin’s book.

    Darwin:
    There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning
    endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been and are being evolved.”
    Matthew Arnold
    …the world, which seems
    To lie before us like a land of dreams, ]
    So various, so beautiful, so new,”

    To put the links together:
    endless forms – so various
    most beautiful and most wonderful – so beautiful
    have been and are being evolved – so new

    Even when the preceding passages are added and compared, Arnold seems to be answering Darwin:

    “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been and are being evolved.”

    “the world, which seems
    To lie before us like a land of dreams,
    So various, so beautiful, so new, ”

    And rather than agreeing with Darwin’s upbeat picture of constant evolutionary change, Arnold sees a hopeless future without faith and full of struggle and fight.

    “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. “

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