Thursday, November 29, 2012

A Critique of Matthew Arnold's Poem: "Dover Beach"

A sad but outstanding poet named Matthew Arnold, writing in the Romantic era (the 1800’s), wrote a poem called "Dover Beach."  His overwhelming sadness and waning faith—that he might never know joy—is not a sentiment I share with him (in any resignation-way); but so close to his deep and dark sentiments have I been at times in the past that I can relate to his words.  I have faith, however, that God will save me (to the uttermost); that I have--and will continue--to overcome the bottomless pit of sorrow with a ceilingless sky of joy.  Notwithstanding this hope and optimism of mine, let us plumb the depths of the deep meaning of Arnold’s words; let us too enter his baptism of sorrow so as to fulfill all righteousness.  His poem and my analysis of it follow:

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
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
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, C
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.

My Literary Analysis of Matthew Arnold’s poem: Dover Beach.

The sense of resignation to a melancholy mood that Arnold conveys in Dover Beach, juxtaposed beside the once promising “Sea of Faith,” is the message of disillusionment.  When the “light gleams and is gone” off the distant “French coast,” from the speaker’s perspective, a certain hope is lost.  He cannot see that the churning “pebbles” that “bring the eternal note of sadness in” will ever cease; the “turbid ebb and flow of human misery” that even “Sophocles” heard many years previous “on the Aegean” is still resonating in the speaker’s ears upon the shore of a “distant northern sea,” and suggests that sorrow was, and is, a perpetual and irredeemable human experience.  Having abandoned any hope of finding true happiness in the world alone, he turns to his companion; only with her beside him –and their corporate perspective (through a shared window) –can he deem that “sweet is the night air!”   His imploring words: “let us be true to one another!” is a desperate attempt to find some thread of comfort within their love, because his faith has failed to find comfort elsewhere.

The poem opens with a simple and serene observation about the calm sea off the “cliffs of England” that casts a “glimmering and vast” shadow or picture against the rather quiet evening’s waters.  Even after the light is extinguished at the “French coast,” his motherland of England still loomed large and hopeful in contrast.  He brings his companion to the window in hope of assuaging his heart against the onslaught of what he must have intuitively begun to realize –his faith was faltering.  I suppose that the quiet bliss they were expecting to enjoy to the full was interrupted by the “tremulous cadence” of the somewhat violent wave action that makes sand out of pebbles.  This disturbance, on such a quiet evening with his companion by his side, shocked him into considering the erosion of faith he was feeling internally.  He uses water here to represent emotional states; it was relatively calm at the outset –and off the shore –but the violent margin where sea and land clash disturbs his tranquility and makes him unhappy.  The “turbid ebb and flow” which was about the Aegean Sea in Sophocles time ought to have become –with the advance of time, place and refinement –less murky within the cool and clear “northern sea.”  The testing of faith ought not to be the removal of faith, but the speaker here first focuses upon the inevitability of sorrow; he reminds himself of how Sophocles before him had intimated the same inevitability that humankind cannot avoid suffering –thus sorrow.  Light and certainty begin to wane as the realization that sorrow never ends; he begins to be haunted by the ominous and “eternal notes” of the pebbles that sing dirges with a “grating roar.”

Now he begins to consider the once “full” and all encompassing “Sea of Faith.”  The Victorian age backdrop upon which Arnold penned this poem was a time of great uncertainty that aroused skepticism about many preconceived ideas.  The Enlightenment exposed both good and bad things within the human mind and experience, and was the immediate precursor to this timeframe.  The “bright girdle furled” evokes a strong emotional image that seems to suggest a midriff made tight and sturdy by the seal of faith; a solid emotional seat clothed with restraint.  Before the “naked shingles” were exposed and began to turn opaque under the “moon-blanched” beams, they were bright and translucent through the medium of the water.  The emotions that had once oiled the pain of constant refinement had retreated like waves from the shoreline, and the consequent exposure made suffering and sorrow unbearable.  The “breath of the night wind” only exacerbating the “withdrawing roar” of the once covering waters seems to be about how a withering skepticism of the unrestrained intellect dries the bones and removes all the fat form the meat of joy.  “Down the vast edges drear” is likened to this same attrition.  The once “sweet…night air” that had yet the promise of sweet days ahead has deceived the speaker; he slowly awakens to the realization that the once great and formidable “cliffs of England” that stood sentry was in peril of  toppling into the deceptive but “tranquil bay” by the slow but insidious effects of  the gentle but persistent nighttime winds.  Fragile joy was systematically being stripped by the quiet yet unrelenting scrutiny of unbridled scientific and intellectual inquiry. 

The speaker’s overweening fears, magnified by what his keen observation suggested, widened the scope of his search to “the world, which seems…like a land of dreams.”  The promise, “so various, so beautiful, so new” of what the world seemed to suggest had now become an illusion.  The speaker had awakened to the realization that nothing upon the “darkling plain” of earth can bring joy, comfort, enlightenment, security, or love; the poem had started by characterizing the plain as “moon-blanched,” and even the magnificent white cliffs of Dover, glimmering upon the “Sea of Faith,” had made promises that were now evaporating.  In light of this external hopelessness, he seeks an internal hopefulness with his companion.  He asks that his companion not be beguiled by the false promises of this world; he insists that they cling to one another faithfully.  His conclusion that hope and comfort can only be found in the arms of his companion is then contrasted by the futility of clashing armies in the night.  His idea seems to be that the “confused alarms” are attributable to the “ignorant armies” misinterpreting the proper ground upon which a conflict is waged.  A “land of dreams” should not become a world of nightmares, but many cannot see the direction one must go to find a peaceful and encouraging hope.  Only within the limited sphere of a relationship is there an unlimited sphere of hope for joy, peace and love.  According to the speaker, a restoration of the faith that had been eclipsed by an improper orientation of heart is realized only within the arms of a lover.