A great poem resonates in every age, sometimes in small, intensely personal ways, sometimes echoing a crisis on the public stage. So it is with Dover Beach, by Matthew Arnold, written in 1851. A poem lamenting the loss of certainty in religious faith is now emblematic of a similar loss of faith in Mammon, the failed god of free market capitalism.
Christianity in Arnold’s day had politically powerful supporters who did all they could to quench the new skepticism, just as today governments are still beholden to corporations and financial institutions. And the ignorant armies are once more clashing by night, one side with too much to lose, and the other with not enough knowledge of practical politics or financial leverage to bring about change. I hope we learn quickly.
I don’t mean to be reductive, or to make Dover Beach a didactic tool. There’s no worse crime against poetry. For me it’s primarily a poem full of mysterious, evocative images, capable of endless interpretation. But it also resonates now, in this crisis of economic faith, as much as it did for Victorian Christians.
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-blanch’d 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 furl’d.
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.