Poet's Pick April 3
Matthew Arnold: "Dover Beach"
Selected by Frannie Lindsay
National Poetry Month 2015

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Frannie Lindsay's Poetry Month Pick, April 3, 2015

"Dover Beach"
by Matthew Arnold (1822 - 1888)

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 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 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.

 

* Frannie Lindsay Comments:

I had been away from poetry for about seven years when I was first introduced to Matthew Arnold's poem, "Dover Beach". I was at a summer evening concert in an open shed at Marlboro College (they have a wonderful performance series). It was about 1997 or 98, and six years in to my return to classical piano performance, I had stopped thinking of myself as a poet. That was okay.

The last piece on the program was the poem set to music by Samuel Barber for soprano voice and orchestra. The poem appeared, of course, in the program notes. I read it over and over during the performance, and brought the notes home with me so I could read the poem many more times before going to sleep that night. Coming to know this poem that summer served to remind me that although I identified as a musician, I was a poet too. And that I would, in time, be back.

Written at the end of the 19th century, Arnold's meandering free verse comes as a surprise. The poem begins with a calm simplicity—almost too calm, almost too simple. We are all way too familiar with poetic renderings of the sea, tide, and clear moon. We used them ourselves when we were beginning to write poetry. We gradually learned not to fall back on them. We are now, most often, lulled by them.

But the spiritual descent rendered in "Dover Beach" is precipitous, from the "eternal note of sadness" at the end of the first stanza to the breathless naming, at its closing, of essential comforts lost. The counterpoint between tenderness and austerity is marvelously balanced, allowing the poem a heartbroken but never-indulgent lushness. I have always loved the accessibility of this poem. Had I not been able to enter and move within it as a non-practicing poet, it would not be one of my small literary treasures.


About Frannie Lindsay:
Frannie Lindsay’s fourth volume, Our Vanishing (Red Hen, 2014), won the 2012 Benjamin Saltman Award. Her work has appeared in the Best American Poetry of 2014 and was recently selected as The Missouri Review’s Poem of the Week. Her poems have also appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The Yale Review, Shenandoah, The Beloit Poetry Journal, Plume, Prairie Schooner, The Antioch Review, and many others. She has held fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Massachusetts Cultural Council.


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