Sunday Poetry: Dover Beach, by Matthew Arnold

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-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 A gaean, 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.

– by Matthew Arnold
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If you’re looking for a great love poem to read to your Valentine today, go check out my sweet old etcetera, by ee cummings, or Tin Wedding Whistle, by Ogden Nash (a personal favorite), or Older Love, by Jim Harrison. This one probably won’t get you where you want to be.

Matthew Arnold may have been the most morose lover of all time. Scholars believe that he wrote this poem on his honeymoon – one pictures him wandering in after a walk on the beach, his new wife swept up in the romantic seaside, and he starts moaning about his loss of faith, his sadness and human misery. I bet he slept on the couch that night.

But, to give Mr. Arnold a more sympathetic ear, Dover Beach truly is a wonderful love poem. It’s not all hearts and flowers in the real world, and the poet shares the feeling that the world lies “before us like a land of dreams,/So various, so beautiful, so new”, but he knows that the world is really not as joyful as those in the throes of love may feel. He’s not blinded by his love, though he obviously feels those impulses.

“Ah, love, let us be true/to one another . . .” What a brilliant line break! Let us be true – Matthew Arnold cuts through the illusions and wants to share what he feels in complete honesty. He could have written a “roses are red” verse, but he insists on being true to his lover. He knows it’s a harsh world, and they will face pain and strife in their future, but he wants to go through it with his lover.

That’s pretty sweet, if you think about it.

One Response to “Sunday Poetry: Dover Beach, by Matthew Arnold”

  1. [...] III. Today’s poem is far less subtle – it poses as a bit of a sequel, or a response, to Dover Beach, a masterpiece by Matthew [...]

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