Poem introduction

In his lifetime, in the mid- to late nineteenth century, Matthew Arnold won more respect and admiration as a literary critic and an educationalist – he was a dedicated long-term schools inspector – than as a poet. But a number of his poems continude to hold the attention of those twentieth-century readers who appreciated the clear and passionate evocations of place in his more lyrical writing, as in 'The Scholar-Gipsy', and his command of a grand style in narratives like 'Sohrab and Rustum'. In another mood, 'Dover Beach' catches vividly the sense of doubt and apprehension underlying the required optimism of the Victorian age, which rejoiced in the expansion of Empire and celebrated industrial progress whatever the cost. Arnold here speaks calmly of a human misery and confusion against which he can only oppose the power of a personal love he feels for his partner in a poem said to be inspired by his honeymoon in 1867. Here is...

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
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.

Books & cds by Matthew Arnold