Skip to 0 minutes and 8 seconds “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.
Skip to 1 minute and 8 seconds 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.
Skip to 1 minute and 38 seconds 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.” Jonathan, Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” Really one of the most wonderful poems, I think, in the English language. It ends our first week. Why did you choose this particular poem? Yeah, well, partly because it’s, I think for me as for you, it’s a favourite poem.
Skip to 2 minutes and 25 seconds It’s a poem that I’ve lived with and have held onto at stressful times ever since I first read it at school and one of those wonderful English teachers introduced me to it. But I think it’s a good ending point because it’s a slightly longer, more complicated, and more meditative poem with many dimensions to it compared with the other ones we’ve looked at. The other short poems we’ve looked at, which I’d encourage learners to learn by heart and hold with them as they go through life, they’re like little oases like the Poems on the Underground. This poem is a kind of oasis. It has some of these characteristics of the achievement of calm through imagery, through regular rhythm, through rhyme.
Skip to 3 minutes and 19 seconds There are rhymes in the poem. It takes a little more work to find out where they are because it’s not written in just stanzas of four lines like the other poems. It’s in what we call verse paragraphs. But the rhymes are much less obtrusive. But there is still also this regular rhythm, which is very much picking up on the rhythm of the sea. But it’s also a poem of ideas. It’s got a reference to the ancient Greek philosopher Sophocles. And it’s got this idea of the “Sea of Faith.”
Skip to 3 minutes and 52 seconds Matthew Arnold, writing in Victorian times, writing at a time when a lot of the old religious certainties were being called into question, when Darwin’s theory of evolution was causing a great deal of trouble for religious belief as were the geological discoveries of the time, the discovery that the Earth was not invented in seven days the way the Bible said, but that there was this huge sense of geological time. These were very troubling ideas for pious Victorian men and women. And what Arnold says in this poem is the old certainties of faith are ebbing away, so what we’ve got to hold onto is love. So he’s by the sea at Dover, looking out on a moonlit night.
Skip to 4 minutes and 44 seconds It’s a clear night so he can just see the twinkle, the glimmer of lights across on the French coast. And he’s speaking to his lover, his beloved in the room, and saying, “hold on to love in dark times.” I was going ask you about the personal circumstances. I seem to remember– was it his wedding night? Am I right in thinking this when I was taught it at school? He was on the eve of his wedding with his wife? “Let us be true.” “Ah, love.” It feels– It’s a very personal. And although the metaphor of the sea and the Sea of Faith, it’s very striking, and it’s talking about big things.
Skip to 5 minutes and 24 seconds However, there’s something that, to me, it just still feels like I’m eavesdropping in. It just feels very personal like I’m almost on that honeymoon with them. I’ve always felt that when I read that poem. Yeah, I mean, there’s a slightly more complicated answer to the question. Because although poems often seem incredibly natural, a lot of poems actually are thought and rethought and revised over time. So actually, we’re not absolutely certain about the composition or history of “Dover Beach.” But it does seem that it was begun at that special time. But then added to, revised, rewritten, and not actually published for many years thereafter.
Skip to 6 minutes and 6 seconds Poems capture moments, but they require craftsmanship to create them, which may last over a period of years. Do you know, it reminded me a little bit of Philip Larkin’s “An Arundel Tomb.” When you were talking about– There was something about the way you were talking about it, when that beautiful poem about the lovers, the tombstone and their holding each other’s hands. “All that will survive of us is love.” Do you think there’s a similar sentiment? I think absolutely there’s a similar sentiment. And I think, again, think about our theme this week of poetry as stress management. To everybody, we hope at some point in their lives have experienced love of one kind or another.
Skip to 6 minutes and 52 seconds And to use a poem to take you away from your difficult times into a memory of love, a memory of precious times, whether it’s a wedding night or whether it’s simply walking on a beach with a friend, or remembering the first time that you looked out to the sea when you were a child. These are very precious anchors for us as we go through life, as we confront what Matthew Arnold calls the “darkling plain” where the confused armies “clash by night.” And does it matter, do you think, if sometimes we can read a poem and feel a bit intimidated by references to ancient times or the Greek philosophers.
Skip to 7 minutes and 42 seconds But it seems to me that I never worry too much about understanding every line. Sometimes I think, not to sound namby-pamby, but sometimes you do have to feel it. And I think the thing about reading a poem over and over again or going off to YouTube to see somebody else reading a poem, or we talked earlier about different ways of reading “The Lake Isles of Innisfree.” There are different ways of reading.
Skip to 8 minutes and 9 seconds Do you think– Is there anything to be gained by not worrying too much about over-intellectualising or not understanding? Absolutely. Absolutely. It really doesn’t matter whether you know what on Earth he’s going on about when he says “Sophocles heard it on the Aegean long ago.” I agree, it does go back to that so that sort of sense of poetry as a kind of verbal music. Words are so powerful. And I think reading it aloud, or as you say, listening to others reading it aloud, it’s a great exercise to go to YouTube and just find different readings of it. There’s a wonderful actor who calls himself Tom of Bedlam who reads lots and lots of poems on YouTube.
Skip to 8 minutes and 51 seconds And his reading of “Dover Beach” is absolutely exquisite. He’s got a fantastic voice. He’s got a great voice. Beautiful– Slightly Northern voice. You would like him. –gravely, Northern voice. I love him. That would be something that I think our learners would really like, listening to Tom of Bedlam reading “Dover Beach” in that wonderful voice. But then why not try reading it yourself. A lot of us now have computers with a built-in microphone. Read it and upload it onto YouTube yourself, and we’ll have all sorts of different voices. And don’t be scared of it.
Skip to 9 minutes and 18 seconds I think, don’t be scared of a poem that might seem intimidating because things like the rhythm, the rhyme, the incantation, they are the things that can slow us down even if we don’t fully understand in our intellectual minds. Exactly. And especially as we read it aloud. I’ve talked quite a bit technically about rhythm this week, but the rhythm, the basic rhythm of English poetry, it is the rhythm of the heartbeat, but it’s also the rhythm of conversational English. And simply by reading it aloud, you’ll find that rhythm, and the poetry will do that work for you. So just as that poem begins, “The sea is calm tonight,” we hope that by the time you’ve read it, you will be calm.
‘Dover Beach’ by Matthew Arnold
The final poem we’ll be looking at this week is ‘Dover Beach’ by Matthew Arnold.
This poem is longer and more complex than some of the poems we discussed earlier in the week. Whereas Yeats’ and Thomas’ poems offer us opportunities to escape from the challenges of daily life into a serene, natural haven, Arnold’s poem is more reflective. Like Duffy’s ‘Prayer’, which we looked at in the previous step, ‘Dover Beach’ is a poem concerned with faith and its loss. This is a poem that confronts troubles and fears rather than turning away from them, but it is also a poem that offers love as an anchor in difficult times. Arnold’s words can encourage us to find our own anchors, to support and steady us during turbulent periods in our lives.
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 Ægean, 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 (1822–1888)
In our discussion above we mention the wonderful reading of Dover Beach by Tom O’Bedlam on YouTube - we think you’ll like his reading.
We also mention Philip Larkin’s poem ‘An Arundel Tomb’, which you can read on the Poetry Foundation website.
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