The Known Unknown - Arnold's Dover Beach
Owen Sheers - 23 May 2009
This week's film takes a look at probably one of the best known poems in English literature. It's a wonderful example of a poem in which the landscape and the poetic intention meet perfectly - the liminal sound and seascape of a beach used as the setting for a poem about someone coming to the brink of a terrifying thought and a realisation. The place and the poem are both called 'Dover Beach'. It's a poem I thought I knew well, by a poet I also thought I knew well. But in making this film I was reminded how often even the best known poets and poems hold surprises for us when we dig a little deeper.
I'd always thought of 'Dover Beach' as an incredible poem for the way in which it simultaneously captures both an immediate moment - Arnold and his new wife standing at a window on the night of their honeymoon - and a wider sweep of philosophical history and religious thought. The poem does this partly by the way it moves. From the sight and sound of the sea before the speaker, the 'eye' of the poem then moves back across time before zooming out to an image of the whole world, before washing back in again to Arnold addressing his wife. It's a movement which actually makes me think of a wave, washing in, then out, then in. What I'd never appreciated though was the other kind of movement that made this poem what it is; namely the slow movement of Arnold's own education as a poet. 'Dover Beach' captures a moment but it is also the leading edge of a long search by Arnold for answers to ongoing questions about who he really was, what he should do in the world and how. As a young man Arnold seeemed to live with a conscious sense of loss; of coming into maturity as a poet just behind the Romantic age, but also still unconvincd with the worn doctrines losing power in his own. One of the most important episodes in this long movement towards 'Dover Beach', and which seems to have helped Arnold find a poetic vocabulary for this sense of loss was one I'd never known before. This was when the young Arnold went to Switzerland on a trip to the Alps following in the footsteps of Wordsworth and the fictional Romantic figure of Senacour's Oberman. This Romantic pilgrimage became a romantic one with a small r when Arnold met a young woman in the hotel in which he was staying. I won't say too much else as the rest of the story is told in the film, but it was intriguing to witness, in the work Arnold wrote in the wake of his Switzerland experiences, how one sense of personal loss fed into his voicing of another, very different kind of loss, many years later in 'Dover Beach.' This discovery of one of a new 'root' to 'Dover Beach' has sent me back to much of Arnold's other work which, to be honest, I may have somewhat discounted. Backlit by his most famous (and one of his last published) poems, this other, earlier work has taken on a new resonance for me and, within the orbit of Arnold's life and writing, a new power too. I'd be intereted to know if anyone else has had a similar experience - whether a new light shed on a poet's writing, or a new perspective, has led to them reassessing poems by that poet which perhaps had previously failed to connect with them completely?