In 1851, a young school inspector and his wife spent a night of their honeymoon in a hotel in Dover overlooking the beach. Standing at the bedroom window and staring out at the moonlit sea, this newly-married man wrote a poem that sent a chill through his own and future generations – a poem that ends with the shocking conclusion that there is no hope, no comfort and no purpose in life.
That was poet and author Owen Sheers introducing Matthew Arnold’s poem ‘Dover Beach’ in his BBC 4 series, A Poet’s Guide to Britain.
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 Agaean, 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, 1851, published 1867
Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) was an agnostic. He worked as a Schools Inspector for 35 years becoming Chief Inspector of Schools in England in 1884. He was elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford University in 1857.
- Dover Beach: Wikipedia