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.
Matthew Arnold, New Poems (1867).
It is the final stanza in particular which catches the fancy of the young. Who, at the age of 18 or 19, could resist its romanticism and its "Ah, World!" melancholy? But, as I read the poem 40-odd years later, I cannot say that I find anything in it that rings hollow. I still find it to be moving and essentially true. Does this mean that I am in a state of perpetual adolescence? (Something not uncommon among those of us who are members of a certain generation. Thus, in the interest of full disclosure, I am not ashamed to admit that I have owned a number of baseball caps. However, I have never worn any of them backwards. But I remain quite fond of "Dover Beach.")
On the other hand, "the breath of the night-wind" now attracts me more than, say, "where ignorant armies clash by night." The historical drama has lessened. We have all, alas, seen more than enough of that. But, "the breath of the night-wind?" That seems just right.
John Everett (1876-1949), "Worbarrow Bay, Dorset"
Arnold likely wrote "Dover Beach" in late June of 1851, after his marriage on June 10 of that month. Approximately half a century earlier, in August of 1802, William Wordsworth visited Calais, just across "the straits" mentioned in the third line of Arnold's poem. While there, Wordsworth wrote the following untitled sonnet.
It is a beauteous evening, calm and free;
The holy time is quiet as a Nun
Breathless with adoration; the broad sun
Is sinking down in its tranquillity;
The gentleness of heaven is on the Sea:
Listen! the mighty Being is awake
And doth with his eternal motion make
A sound like thunder -- everlastingly.
Dear Child! dear Girl! that walkest with me here,
If thou appear untouched by solemn thought,
Thy nature is not therefore less divine:
Thou liest in Abraham's bosom all the year;
And worshipp'st at the Temple's inner shrine,
God being with thee when we know it not.
William Wordsworth, Poems, in Two Volumes (1807).
Wordsworth (accompanied by his sister Dorothy) had gone to Calais to meet his daughter Caroline, who he had never seen. She had been born in December of 1792 to Annette Vallon. The Wordsworths spent the month in Calais with Caroline and Annette. The four of them often walked along the shore.
More than one scholar has suggested that "Dover Beach" may be an echo of (or a response to) Wordsworth's sonnet. The verbal parallels lend credence to these speculations. As does the contrast between the spiritual certainty of Wordsworth and Arnold's meditation on the fate of "the Sea of Faith."
William Dyce, "Pegwell Bay, Kent -- A Recollection of October 5th, 1858"
My visit to these two poems was prompted by my coming across this poem by Thomas Hardy last week. Hence, after Dover Beach and Calais, we shall make an excursion to Swanage.
Once at Swanage
The spray sprang up across the cusps of the moon,
And all its light loomed green
As a witch-flame's weirdsome sheen
At the minute of an incantation scene;
And it greened our gaze -- that night at demilune.
Roaring high and roaring low was the sea
Behind the headland shores:
It symboled the slamming of doors,
Or a regiment hurrying over hollow floors. . . .
And there we two stood, hands clasped; I and she!
Thomas Hardy, Human Shows, Far Phantasies, Songs, and Trifles (1925).
The poem is a recollection of the time when Hardy and his first wife Emma lived briefly in Swanage in the early years of their marriage. The moon has a somewhat disquieting aspect in the poem, which is not unusual in Hardy's poetry. Thus, for instance, in "At Moonrise and Onwards" he describes it as having "turned a yellow-green,/Like a large glow-worm in the sky." Not exactly a romantic image.
William Rothenstein, "Nature's Ramparts" (1908)
Finally, a footnote to "Dover Beach" in the form of a poem by W. B. Yeats.
The Nineteenth Century and After
Though the great song return no more
There's keen delight in what we have:
The rattle of pebbles on the shore
Under the receding wave.
W. B. Yeats, Words for Music Perhaps and Other Poems (1932).
I have always presumed that Yeats had "Dover Beach" in mind when he wrote this, but I have never researched the point. Today I checked A New Commentary on The Poems of W. B. Yeats (Macmillan 1984) by A. Norman Jeffares, but he does not mention "Dover Beach" in his annotations to the poem. Instead, he quotes a March 2, 1929, letter from Yeats to Dorothy Shakespear (the wife of Ezra Pound) in which Yeats mentions that he has been reading William Morris' "The Defence of Guenevere." Yeats writes: "I have come to fear the world's last great poetical period is over." He then includes the four lines of "The Nineteenth Century and After" in the text of the letter. Still, it is hard not to see a parallel between Yeats' "the rattle of pebbles on the shore/Under the receding wave" and Arnold's "the grating roar/Of pebbles which the waves draw back."
Peter Graham, "Along the Cliffs" (1868)