The Poets' Corner, compiled by John Lithgow, hardcover, 304 pages, list price: $24.99
The Serious Poet
Among the Victorian poets of England, Matthew Arnold was not as famous as Tennyson and Robert Browning. Unlike them, he did not have the luxury of being able to devote himself full-time to writing. Arnold, the son of a clergyman and private-school head- master, worked for a living his entire life. A ten-year appointment at Oxford University as a poetry professor, combined with his job as a government school inspector, meant he had to squeeze in his poetry on his own time. He wrote most of his poems before he was forty years old, when family life and work were less demanding. After that, he concentrated on writing essays about culture, religion, and literature, and his prose was better received than his poetry, at least during his lifetime. Some say it was his literary criticism that elevated criticism to an art form in its own right. Here is Arnold on poetry: "I think it will be found that grand style arises in poetry, when a noble nature, poetically gifted, treats with simplicity or with severity a serious subject."
To Arnold, no matter how beautiful its language or imagery, if a poem lacked an important subject, he found it unworthy of his attention. Serious and austere himself, he chose lofty subjects for his own poems-faith or the absence of faith, how to live in a meaningful way, politics, the individual in relation to society. He believed his work would endure because it reflected the period's big themes. "For the creation of a masterwork of literature two powers must concur," wrote Arnold, "the power of the man and the power of the moment, and the man is not enough without the moment." Arnold's moment in history happened to be one of great change and flux. You could say all his poetry was about coming to terms with the Victorian age of industrialism and the weakening of religion.
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-blanch'd 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.
There's just no way around it, this is a downbeat poem. I hear in it a desperate, yearning gloom, a sense of despair about the Victorian world and a personal crisis of faith. But despite the poet's melancholy, the poem is quite beautiful in its specificity. Arnold reveals his feelings very directly and openly. As the American novelist Henry James said, Arnold's poetry appeals to those who "like their pleasures rare" and who like to hear the poet "taking breath." The "breath" of the sea, its ebb and flow, in and out, reverberates throughout the lines, creating a kind of wavelike music. There is some hope in beauty — "a land of dreams / So various, so beautiful, so new" — and the potential to regain happiness and faith if his beloved can hang in there with him. For Arnold, this was the answer to emotional and spiritual isolation. For me, reading an exquisite, powerful poem such as "Dover Beach" is an antidote to a moody moment.
Read contemporary poet Anthony Hecht's "The Dover Bitch" for a wonderful modern take on the emotional landscape of "Dover Beach."
Compilation copyright © 2007 by The Watershed Company.