»  Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach"


Dover Beach

by Matthew Arnold, 1822-1888


•  Background

This is one of the most famous poems in English — famous enough to have its own Wikipedia entry, sparing me the need to say much about it here. It is in pretty much anyone's Top Ten of lyric poems in English.

Not only is "Dover Beach" famous it itself, it has generated one of the best parodies in English-language verse: Anthony Hecht's "The Dover Bitch."

The poem's Wikipedia page omits to mention an incident in WW2 when Winston Churchill used the last line in a radio speech. He was promptly assailed by people who were in, or supported, the military, but who did not recognize the quotation. "Who are you calling 'ignorant'? …" etc. You can't be too careful with poetry.

Arnold liked "moon-blanched"; he used it in "The Scholar Gipsy," too (line 9, and printed as "moon-blanch'd" in The Oxford Book of English Verse).


•  Play the reading


•  Text of the poem

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-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 Ægæan, 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.