Matthew Arnold’s poem, “Dover Beach” (http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/dover-beach/) has been going round in my head for several days. I have always thought it quite a patchy poem, with one or two rather weak lines (“Ah love! let us be true to one another”), but also with some absolutely blinding images and a stunning ending. Then I caught on iplayer a BBC4 programme about it which went out on Sunday night (18th) – worth looking at if you are into your Victorians – on which the presenter explained the ebb and flow of the language from cosmic to personal as being part of the poem’s genius. I buy that. Also, it transpires that Arnold was on his honeymoon when he wrote it, so I will let him off the personal references on that count too (and I do hope he cheered up for part of the week!).
It is a bleak poem – strange how finding your bleakness well expressed by another can be such a comfort. But I think that’s how it is. And the part that came back to me first was the ending: the “darkling plain — where ignorant armies clash by night”. People are often said to fight a “brave battle” cancer. I can see why – but to me there’s not much brave about it really – just got to do it one way or the other, and the “battle” seems to me to be cloaked in uncertainty, if not entire ignorance.
Another favourite Victorian of mine is Darwin, who suffered the death of his nine year old daughter Annie (” a dear and good child”) at about the time he was thinking of publishing his “On the Origin of Species”. One of Darwin’s insights was not that nature is cruel, but that it is simply indifferent to the fate of the individual organism. And again, this makes sense to me. I don’t believe I’m either being punished or being cared for by a higher power. It’s just what happens.
I have a lot of affinity with these Victorians, for whom the world was no longer safely encircled by the “Sea of Faith”, because that is a journey I have made and am making. I am also fascinated by Cardinal Newman – also mentioned in the BBC4 programme – who went the other way, seeking a harbour in tradition and authority. Why did he do that?
In fact, today I am not feeling at all bleak – maybe that’s why I can write it down. Had a great visit from two university friends, as well as a continuing stream of messages, and the continued steady care of B; and it’s that, isn’t it – the love and support offered by others – which remains to us. If some privately frame it to themselves as the channelling of the love of God, that’s fine by me. It’s the doing it that counts.