I made reference to this poem in a blog post a few months ago, and now, with all the shit going on in the world, I find myself turning to it again. For those of you too busy doing important things, skip ahead to the last section of the poem. You’ll miss a lot, but if you think what a poem does is try to “make a point,” you can find it there – but in doing so you will, I’ll say it again, miss so much. For the best experience, read the poem aloud.
by Matthew Arnold
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.
Did you read the poem aloud? Neither did I.
I’ll pass up the opportunity to comment on the music of the poem, and how it moves from the sound of withdrawing waves (“Its melancholy, long withdrawing roar”) to those last eight lines. As a retired English teacher, I’m off duty. And I refuse to elaborate on today’s version of “confused alarms of struggle and flight / Where ignorant armies clash by night.”
The poem also makes me wonder, among other things, what it means to “be true / To one another.” True? It sure means a lot more than sexual fidelity! But this is matter for a future blog post.