Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Dover Beach - a National Poetry Month post

Today's poem has been on my mind off and on for several weeks now. It came to the fore again last Friday, when the corona of sonnets in which I had a hand, Cutting a Swath, hit the interweb. Tanita over at Finding Wonderland wrote my favorite sonnet of the lot (and that is saying something). Included in her sonnet (#5, incidentally) is the phrase "a darkling plain," which hearkens to today's selection:

Dover Beach
by Matthew Arnold

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.

Most of the poem is written using iambic feet (ta-DUM), but the precise number of feet in the lines vary. His rhyme scheme is screwy, too, but interesting. For stanza 1, it's ABACDBDCEFCGFH (I think). It's fourteen lines, so it could've been a sonnet, but it's not. Not really. Starting over with stanza 2, it opens with the same rhyme scheme for the first four lines: ABAC, then diverges: BCDEFGEHGI. It closes with a 9-line stanza with a much more conventional, or at least regulated, rhyme scheme (ABBACDDCC).

It is likely that the ebbing and flowing line lengths are intended to reflect the lapping waves on Dover Beach. The first stanza is elegiac in tone, evoking the cadence of the sea and using dolorous words to invoke a melancholy ambiance, heightened by the references to sorrow, and to the repetitious movement of the pebbles to and fro in the water's currents. In the second stanza, he moves from the description of the physical sea to a more psychic sort of sea - "the sea of faith". He sees a decline in spiritual faith, leaving the world a lonelier place. The final stanza, from which Tanita drew her "darkling plain", is reassuring in its regular rhyme scheme, even if the metre continues its ebb and flow. For him, the answer is in keeping faith with one another, despite the vagaries of the world.

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