Wednesday, October 7, 2015

A Theme Song for Phenomenology(?): Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach"

I have referenced Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" several times lately, and I would like to explore why the poem's textures and themes should invade the shores abutting currents in Catholic thought.

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.

The poem enjoys recognition for its textures of sight and sound, historical allusions, and unusual structure. The poem's unity rests upon its visual of imagery of moon, moonlight, land and plain and upon its aural imagery of grating and withdrawing roar (turned into alarm and clash) and how those images interrogate its central theme of liminality.

The first stanza, structured like a Petrarchan sonnet, turning on "Listen!" advances the contrast between tranquil visions of 'glimmering' and 'gleams' in the octave and the music 'of pebbles' as they rhythmically sing their 'tremulous cadence' in their 'eternal note of sadness.' The liminal interface of the 'waves' with 'pebbles,' 'where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,' presents the borders of two worlds, two historical epochs. Present and past, space and time unite in their constitutive liminalities.

The second (sestet) and third stanza (octave) invert the Petrarchan form, and locate the 'turn' (volta), it would seem, in the octave (though the case for the sestet containing the volta can also work). If the 'sea of faith' turns from what 'Sophocles heard...on the Aegean' an inversion seems the likelier structure. The 'eternal' music of liminality, contends the voice in the poem, has bequeathed to us the Oedipus tragedies, representations of the 'ebb and flow of human misery.' There is nothing new under the moon or fullness of 'tide.' Mediterranean, English and French seas touch in the vastness of the contiguous waters that cover the earth, 'down the vast edges drear/And naked shingles of the world.' Their unities both fetter and liberate, and conduce to love and war.

The final stanza, something of a odd (even truncated) villanelle, concludes the poem in 3 tercets with a jarring enjambment. The closing argument calls to love, and despite the possible presence of an auditor within the poem hinted at in the first stanza, discourages 'love' as a nickname for a lover present, hearing the voice of the poem. Instead, the strange villanelle is an apostrophe to love, eros.  Love, as the sonnet-villanelle structures strongly suggest, is the subject of "Dover Beach." The sonnet and the villanelle have always enjoyed the status of 'love poetry' in the Western tradition. Arnold makes good use of them in this poem.

The echoes of love and faith that play out in "Dover Beach" brush up against the erotic reduction. The voice in Arnold's poem laments the withdrawl of the 'Sea of Faith' into the 'ebb and flow' of the waters of the earth. This receding of faith, once 'bright' and 'full...round earth's shore,' marks a 'melancholy' retreat from the Victorian world which has beaten it back with something new. The 'darkling plain' where the poem's voice and love find themselves is the very facticity of their predicament. How can this lost voice be 'true' to love, and what would that look like (how would that appear) if not as the phenomenological moment where love gives itself, whose very giving and givenness finds the lost voice with its call from the anonymous grating of pebbles, shingles, and the high strands of phenomenality?

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