Friday, February 15, 2008

Matthew Arnold: Romantic Modern (Poetry Friday)

In 1851, Matthew Arnold became a school inspector, a job he had until just two years before his death in 1888. This job initially required a great deal of travel over long distances--something that had only recently been made possible by the development of the rail system. So while Arnold thought of his job as "drudgery," it allowed him to see more of England than any writer before him. And when Arnold was not working, he invariably was writing.

Fittingly, Arnold's poetry is often seen as transitory between Wordworthian romanticism and a more pessimistic modernism. And personally he was also reputed to be a hybrid of the two. As a conversationalist he was exciting and witty; as a writer he was serious and melancholic. G. W. E. Russell called him "a man of the world entirely free from worldliness and a man of letters without the faintest trace of pedantry."

One of the products of Arnold's literary itinerancy is "Dover Beach" thought to be one of the first poetic examples of modernism. The poem makes its own journey from a peaceful, romantic landscape to a modern crisis of faith: the traditional certainties recede with the sea. The final holdouts against this withdrawal are lovers--lonely in their own way, with nothing left to believe in but each other.

Despite its sadness, there are few things I love more than this transition: the way Arnold suddenly focuses on and magnifies one part of a romantic landscape--the metamorphosis of a calm sea into the "grating roar" of pebbles and then into the "ignorant" clash of armies. The lovers are a sad attempt to return to the steadfastness of the cliffs, their "tranquil" containment of water. The distinctly modern element here is the change in the meaning of the natural world, and where it is that we seek our solace. Viewed through the lens of "certitude," the world is a kind of foundation--a testament to collective belief; viewed otherwise it is dangerous and unsettled, and we are left only with the fragility of human bonds.

Trivia: in what famous science fiction novel does this poem appear?


By Matthew Arnold

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 Agean, 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.


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1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this reminder of the sound of pebbles on the beach of the southern coast of England.