Last week I reviewed Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, in which the protagonist Montag reads a poem by Matthew Arnold called “Dover Beach.” Arnold was a 19th century British poet and considered one of the greatest Victorian poets who ever lived, among Tennyson and Browning. I first read “Dover Beach” in high school, and again in my senior seminar at UCSC:
“Dover Beach” (1867)
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 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.
This is an exquisite poem that flows much like the sea which Arnold vividly describes. The speaker tells his love, possibly his bride given that Arnold himself honeymooned there, that they should love one another loyally because faith has abandoned modern society. With classical references to Sophocles and Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War “where ignorant armies clash by night,” Arnold reminds the reader that war is never-ending–it comes and goes just like the tide.
If you’ve read Fahrenheit 451, you can see why Montag reads this poem in frustration to his wife and her naive friends. He also laments how society has degraded and lost all sense of faith, both religious and interpersonal. Of course, by reading the illicit poem, his wife will betray Montag by reporting him to the authorities and thus prove her lack of loyalty.
In my next blog post, I want to share a modern response to “Dover Beach.” It’s Anthony Hecht’s poem “Dover Bitch,” and if you haven’t already heard it, you’re in for a treat! So stay tuned!