Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Reflecting on Arnold's "Dover Beach"

Before I came across Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach, I had an undeniable tendency towards pessimism and melancholy. In social situations, I took on the characteristic Eeyore role of persuading people of life’s miseries. I used to shy away from what I saw as insincerely jubilant poetry; Larkin was definitely more my style. I used to adore those melancholic aphorisms that, once read, are impossible to forget: “Life is first boredom, then fear…” (Dockery and Son) and “The sure extinction that we travel to…” (Aubade) Indeed, my own poetry always ended up brimming with fearful lines like “loneliness defines the occupied” or “damned to days of dull / decline, / recession into Hell.” I found that writing how I felt about life helped me to get over my own sadness, a sadness that I now know was caused by my own mind. Perpetually blasted with images of suffering and death on the news, I found it very hard to believe that happiness really existed.

It was around this time last year that I lost my faith in God. It was not caused by anything in particular: I simply woke up one day and my gradually diminishing belief had completely disappeared. For the most important figure in my human life (and indeed what I believed to be my eschatological life) to abruptly cease to exist, was a troubling experience. For a while I would tell people that I was a humanist, believing in the strength and love of civilization. And yet, in the wake of the Peshawar massacre, the Boko Haram terrorist attacks, the hypocritical cries of “JeSuisCharlie” and the continuing tragedy of the Israeli occupation, my faith in humanity swiftly dwindled. The world seemed corrupt and cruel, and I mournfully accepted it thus. Although I knew I should be happy and grateful to be as privileged as I am, living in a comfortable home with a loving family, I was not. I wanted nothing more than to be content, and yet I supposed that there was something about the wiring of my brain that refused to allow this. I used to scream with Plath: “Is there no way out of the mind?” (Apprehensions) Until I read this poem, I believed there wasn’t.

Matthew Arnold seems to share a similar outlook, haunted by the “eternal note of sadness” reflected by the grating pebbles of the sea. He, like Sophocles and thousands of artists before him, is unable to experience the natural world without being reminded of “the turbid ebb and flow / Of human misery”. Arnold values the sweetness of the “night-air” and revels in the beauty of “When the sea meets the moon-blanched land…” However, he cannot enjoy nature’s magnificence without finding cause for lamentation. I, too, while appreciating the beauty of the natural world, saw nothing but melancholy in it. Our planet seemed to me a beautiful place, sadly polluted by humanity. Arnold goes on to explain how, in his post-Enlightenment age, the “Sea of Faith” has dwindled into nothing but a distant, “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” that one hears rather than sees.  Like the first, the third stanza moves from beautiful description to forlorn and sorrowful meditation: the earth’s beauty served as a reminder of humanity’s flaws, and this caused me to grieve. Arnold and I had both lost our religious faith, and so we struggled to see any hope in existence. This poem affected me so dramatically because I thought I was alone in this. I thought that I alone saw beauty as imperfection, that I alone saw faith as what Freud called an “obsessional neurosis”. To have my thoughts so eloquently presented to me by someone living 150 years ago made me catch my breath, whilst also comforting me.

And yet, if the poem had ended with “shingles of the world” I would have swiftly forgotten its existence. It is the final stanza that had such a great effect upon me, not because it chimed with my own thoughts, but precisely because it did not. It is this stanza that I recite to myself morning and night. It is this stanza that literally haunts my dreams and gives me hope. Arnold offers in this stanza a solution to my prior melancholy, and it is a solution that I yearn to accept. One does not have to be in love, or to have been in love, to feel the power and strength of Arnold’s words: “Ah, love, let us be true / To one another!” These words represent “a stand against a world of broken faith” (Pratt), the invention of hope where there is none. The world has “neither joy, nor love, nor light, / Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain…” and yet Arnold is not giving in.

The final metaphor of this poem speaks to me in a way that no line, no stanza, no novel has ever done before. This is because I viewed, and indeed still view my life as exactly that,

                                          “a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.”

Indeed, this is Arnold’s chief reflection on the human condition. Civilisation is cruel and violent, waging wars that need not be waged, inciting conflict over what should be shared. We know that all humans are equal, and yet we fail to live by this maxim: we are those “ignorant armies”. Arnold seems to be saying that, although the world is cruel, we have the chance to make the most of it. For him, making the most of it meant loving and being faithful.
The fact is, “let us be true”, can mean anything you want it to mean. It stands for the victory of love, happiness, or faith, over sadness and melancholy. Arnold is explaining that happiness can still be found. No matter how depressed or hurt we feel inside, there is still hope. It is up to each individual to find that hope, their own hope. There is no point in being sad about what is a fact of life: we are on “a darkling plain”, we cannot help that. This final stanza made me rethink my whole approach to life. Yes, I do struggle to be happy, I do struggle to believe in ideals like love and faith. Arnold did too, but he found hope, and thus I can find hope too. Dover Beach explains both what Keats meant in saying “go not to Lethe” (Ode on Melancholy) and what Milton’s Satan meant in convincingly saying “The mind is its own place and in itself, / Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.” (Book I of Paradise Lost) This poem has inspired me to reject Hell, and to find goodness in what seems or even possibly is a bad and evil world. This poem has made me a happier person, and for that I am perpetually grateful to Arnold. Moreover, it has encouraged me to write my own positive poetry, even though I may not be the most optimistic person. The pessimistic Larkin wrote The Trees and Solar, so I too can write poetry to make people smile, rather than cry. Overall, Arnold showed me the power we have over our outlook. He showed me that there really is happiness waiting for me, I just need to find it.


  1. It's great that a poem has had such a profound positive effect on you Tom! I'm aware of several people having suggested that Arnold's poetry is underappreciated (not least, Arnold himself). He's perhaps better known today in critical circles for his work on Celtic culture - which has meant he's regarded somewhat ambivalently.

    1. Thanks for this, Adam. I know he's often referred to as a one hit wonder!

  2. His work on Celtic literature gave the subject a great deal of prestige and cultural cachet (although arguably it was as much a case of his making his own name from it as the other way round). Considering the way the Welsh & Irish were treated in mainstream 19thC cultural discourse (i.e. like subhumans), his more respectful, admiring attitude often seemed quite enlightened on the surface.

    However, he was very dismissive about the Welsh language (which he never bothered to learn - utterly unthinkable for a "scholar" in the subject!), which he saw as some kind of relic of the past, and his view of the Celt as an irrational, sentimental, "child" was, by modern standards, nothing less than racist. He was very much a product of his time.