Dover Beach

Caspar David Friedrich, Der Mönch am Meer (1807).
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 Ægean, 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, circa 1850
I first read “Dover Beach” last semester in one of my classes on 19th century German cultural history. (It’s a long story as to how I ended up reading an English poem in a German class.) Since then, the haunting and yet arrestingly beautiful language and imagery of Arnold’s poem has stuck with me. The third stanza, in particular, is especially relevant for today’s world, which has, in many regards, seen the gradual retreat of traditional faith and piety.
Arnold was a spectacular poet. I am stirred by this poem. I am also stirred by the works of Terryl and Fiona Givens, who, with language that rivals Arnold’s own, have deftly rendered two hopeful epilogues to this piece.

1 thought on “Dover Beach”

  1. Arnold reportedly wrote the poem on his honeymoon.

    I've always wondered what his wife thought of this…..

    ("Sorry dear, I need to go reflect on the futility of faith in the modern world….")

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