Love is the most common theme of poetry of any age or period. The background of this poem is not unique, and it is easy to identify with even today. And in Arnold’s poetic language his conclusion is so touchingly clear and simple: no matter what the world puts you up against – all you need is love.
The situation is this: Matthew has done so-so on his exam, and feels that he is a bit of a let-down to his parents, especially to his father, who, on top of everything, is the headmaster of the school where he has studied. He turns to religion as an alternative for recognition, inspired by a travelling charismatic preacher. But he ends up feeling even more guilty and inadequate both towards God and his father. Then he falls head over heels in love, and after some effort (which at the time meant getting a decent job and being accepted by her father) he can marry the girl of his dreams. But he is still haunted by thoughts of shortcoming, and when his father dies, it only increases his feeling of loss and despair. On their honeymoon the young couple end up at a hotel in Dover in a room overlooking the sea. Matthew goes to the window and he takes it all in - the view of the calm sea, the stars, the lighthouse flashing in the distance, and then it suddenly comes to him that peace of mind is not found in religion or in living up to other people’s expectations. It is found in the real and true love for the girl he has found.
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 of 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 Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing by its 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 the pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
- Is the poem easier to understand when you know the story behind it?
- Do you think poets are especially sensitive and emotional people?
- How does the line structure influence our understanding of the poem? (For example – “Of human misery; we” and “The Sea of Faith”)
- What is “The Sea of Faith” – and why is it capitalized?
- Find references to light and darkness in the poem. What do they mean?
- Sophocles was a playwright from ancient Greece. In his play, Antigone, human suffering is referred to as the sound of waves on the sand. Explain this comparison.
- What does the last stanza say about the poet’s view of the times he lives in?
- The attitude to religion has changed over the 150 years since the poem was written? How can this change be explained?
- Do you agree with the poet’s conclusion about love? Is it that simple?
- Matthew Arnold (1822-88) was living in turbulent times when it comes to religion and science. Can you give examples of clashes and new theories?
- How do you think this turbulence may have influenced Matthew, and how does it shine through in this poem?
- Look at the picture of Dover Beach; do you think the place and scenery have any symbolic significance in this poem?
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