Sunday, May 20, 2007

Dover Beach

‘Dover Beach’ is one of the most famous poems in English, not for the landscape, ‘where the sea meets the moon-blanched land’, nor even the soundscape, ‘the grating roar / of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling, / At their return, up the high strand...’, but for the metaphor prompted by the poet’s impression of the tide receding:

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.

Matthew Arnold’s poem was the starting point for an interesting edition of In Our Time on ‘Victorian Pessimism’. (I have spent the last week doing little but listen to old programmes in this series following an eye injury on Tuesday – today I feel just about able to look at the screen again.) The In Our Time survey of pessimism in nineteenth century culture also included Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘In A Wood’ where landscape clearly lacks the redemptive qualities it had for the Romantics. ‘Dreaming that sylvan peace / Offered the harrowed ease— / Nature a soft release / From men’s unrest’, Hardy finds in the wood only ‘great growths and small... to men akin— / Combatants all!’

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