Dark Prophecies: The Gathering Clouds

©2003 Ross E. Lockhart

It is a calm, full moon night in early June of 1851. A young man in a disheartened mood stands at his hotel window and looks out at the shimmering lights of the French coast across the English Channel. As he listens to the unsteady cadence of the waves, he lets his mind wander. The sound reminds him of a handful of lines from Sophocles’ tragic play Antigone, “Happy are they who know not the taste of evil. From a house that heaven hath shaken the curse departs not but falls upon all of the blood, like the restless surge of the sea when the dark storm drives the black sand hurled from the deeps and the Thracian gales boom down on the echoing shore” (583-592). He wonders for a moment what the ancient Greek dramatist would make of him, pondering human misery on his wedding night, then looks over at his sleeping bride. He considers, just for a second, awakening her, his dear, sweet “Flu,” and sharing the landscape with her. He sighs, knows the price he’s paid to have her. Inspector of Schools is a respectable job, a steady job. Not like poetry. He thinks of Flu’s father’s words, crushing him, telling him that he would never be a success as a writer, telling him to forget his foolish pursuit of verse and to make something of himself in the real world. He sighs again, turns to the window and looks out, listening to the waves.

The seeds of Matthew Arnold’s most famous poem, “Dover Beach,” were planted on that night, although it didn’t see print until he published his New Poems in 1867. “Dover Beach” can be read as a dramatic monologue that experiments with form, and is crafted as if it were a series of broken thoughts or a collection of incomplete sonnets with no readily apparent rhyme scheme. “It is significant or merely curious that it should be Arnold, advocate of an austere classicism and polished cultivator of the most traditional genres, who should thus be credited with the first major ‘free-verse’ poem in the language,” observes Stefan Collini in his biography Arnold (41). Within the poem, a young man calls his lover to the window, intending to share with her a pair of landscapes, one external, lit by haunting melancholic moonlight, and the other dark, fearful, and internal. Arnold relies on raw emotional honesty to draw the reader to what he feels is the moral crisis in an age of spiritual discomfort, the loss of faith, meaning, and innocence in the wake of both the rise of science and the decline of Empire. Arnold’s metaphor of the “Sea of Faith” expresses this sentiment particularly well, presenting the reader with a symbol of a lost time where religion stood strong without the doubts brought about by progress, science, and Darwinism.

“Dover Beach” is broken into four uneven stanzas. The first contains fourteen lines, with the first half-dozen consisting of a rather straightforward description of the moonlit seashore. Here, Arnold sets a placid tone, using words like “calm,” “fair,” and “sweet,” the building blocks from which he crafts the mood of the remainder of the poem. He repeatedly uses the word “is” to show the reader what can be seen, “The sea is calm to-night. / The tide is full” (1-2). Soon, however, he reaches a climax with, “on the French coast the light / Gleams and is gone” (3-4), stealing the light away from the reader, leaving in its place only darkness. As Julia Touche suggests, “In a metaphorical sense of the word, not only the light is gone, but also certainty. The darkness makes it hard to define both one’s own and somebody else’s position, and one can never be certain that the light will ever return” (¶5). As the stanza continues, Arnold’s narrator calls his companion to the window, inviting the reader to share the tranquil scene, but this pleasant landscape begins to change as he describes the point “Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land” (8), invoking the pale whiteness of bone. This uncomfortable image is followed by another, as the “grating roar” of pebbles flung by the sea serves to bring “The eternal note of sadness in” (14).

The second stanza of “Dover Beach” is the shortest at six lines. Arnold makes his first intertextual reference here, invoking the tragedies of Sophocles, and pondering whether the playwright may also have been reminded of “human misery” while listening to the “turbid ebb and flow” of the sea. Arnold discovers “also in the sound a thought” (19), but leaves it to the reader to wonder just what that thought might be.

The eight lines of the third stanza begin to explore Arnold’s unspoken thought, informing the reader that “The Sea of Faith / Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore / Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled” (21-23). Arnold’s metaphoric “Sea” is one of the strongest images in the poem, reminding the reader of a simpler, more comfortable time where humanity found definition through being jacketed by a tradition of faith in God. In the next few lines, however, Arnold tears away this security blanket:

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. (24-28)

These “naked shingles” chill the reader, exposing him to the bitter future feared by Arnold, a future in which rationality and science have banished God to the fringes, made Him obsolete. Arnold’s vision of the retreating “Sea of Faith” feels hauntingly prophetic when one considers that in 1859, just a few short years after the poem’s birth, Charles Darwin published The Origin of the Species, forever marking a tidal shift in the struggle between religion and science.

Within the nine lines of “Dover Beach’s” final stanza, Arnold offers a solution, addressing his companion directly, just as he did in the first. “Ah, love, let us be true / To one another!” (29-30). He suggests that fidelity can somehow fill the deep fissure vacated by vanishing faith. As in the third stanza, this security is fleeting:

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. (30-35)

Arnold’s answer provides only empty hope amid an uncertain future. Stefan Collini reasons that, “Ostensibly, love is then invoked as the only solace, but almost immediately this comes to seem something of a perfunctory gesture, as it is swallowed up by the gathering momentum of the poem’s powerfully dark picture of our homelessness in a cold, indifferent world” (40).

At the close of the poem, Arnold leaves the reader on a “darkling plain, / Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, / Where ignorant armies clash by night” (35-37). This is Arnold’s second intertextual image drawn from classical mythology, this time from Thucydides’ account of the Battle of Epipolae in The Peloponnesian War. Thucydides describes a melee obscured by darkness, where the combatants could not tell friend from foe, “they could see the outline of figures in front of them, but could not be sure whether these belonged to their own side or not” (506). In hindsight, these lines eerily seem to predict the bloodiness and brutality to come in the Twentieth Century, particularly the horrors of trench warfare which would be seen in the First World War.

Sixty-three years after the birth of Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” as the world stood on the very brink of that bloody war, Victorian novelist turned Modernist poet Thomas Hardy published his “Channel Firing.” Like Arnold’s prophetic vision before him, Hardy understood the looming danger in the gathering storm clouds, but in contrast to Arnold’s sentimentality, Hardy chose to rage against the impending darkness with an absurd poem about a graveyard full of specters awakened by the thunder of gunnery practice in the English Channel.

Whereas Arnold’s poem stands as a monologue, the voice of a single character, Hardy uses a variety of voices, including those of the ghoulish company who believe that such a racket can only be the final trumpet of judgment, and of God Himself, seen here in both a humorous and reassuring light. In God’s words to the dead, Hardy lashes out at the lunacy of warmongering nations:

All nations striving strong to make
Red war yet redder. Mad as hatters
They do no more for Christé’s sake
Than you who are helpless in such matters. (13-16)

Another of Hardy’s strategies in crafting “Channel Firing” is the use of a more formal structure than Arnold’s free verse. Hardy organized his lines into a series of quatrains that follow a more traditional abab rhyme scheme than “Dover Beach.” The result of this is that Hardy’s poem feels more planned and tightly wound as it unfolds than Arnold’s emotionally cathartic stream of consciousness, which wanders along, a distracted series of surface thoughts, feelings, and memories.

Hardy, like Arnold, also makes intertextual references, but instead of looking for inspiration in classical mythology, Hardy takes the daring step of drawing from his own extensive body of work. The spectral narrator’s “neighbour,” Parson Thirdly, who wishes he had “stuck to pipes and beer” instead of wasting his time preaching to a world unwilling to listen, is a minor character in Hardy’s own Far From the Madding Crowd.

In giving voice to the characters of his poem, Hardy uses archaic language, such as the unusual spelling of “Christés sake,” and words like “drearisome” and the biblical-sounding “unawares,” suggesting that mankind’s warlike tendencies come from deep roots. He further strengthens this impression by making references to Camelot and Stonehenge. These images hearken back to England’s pre-history, and invoke primal memories of the same age of faith that Arnold lamented the loss of.

Although Hardy’s poem begins with the humorous situation of cannon fire literally loud enough to wake the dead, as it nears the end, the poem takes a solemn turn when the sound of gunfire reverberates across the English countryside and moves backwards through time, “As far inland as Stourton Tower, / And Camelot, and starlit Stonehenge” (35-36). In this, both “Dover Beach” and “Channel Firing” touch upon common ground. Both poems look at the wearisome pace of modern life with longing for the simplicity of days past, and yearn for answers undone by progress, science, and rational thought. In examining “Channel Firing” and “Dover Beach,” today’s reader can gain an understanding of a hope that Arnold and Hardy shared, that poetry can somehow change the direction of the ebbing tide and bring sanity to a world gone mad.

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