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.
That is the last stanza of Matthew Arnorld’s celebrated poem which he began writing in 1851 and published in 1867. He was an inspector of schools who became an eminent literary figure of the Victorian Era like Charles Dickens, Emily Bronte, Arthur Conan Doyle, to name only a few.
Dover Beach was a favorite of my English Lit class under Sister Celine Marie who immediately demystified the poem when she noticed our inordinate interest in the last stanza. Matthew Arnold did not write a St. Valentine’s Day poem for you to cut up and send to your friends “across the creek”. She meant the guys from the Ateneo, the boys’ school next door. But, the poet was talking to a woman obviously dear to him! In those days, we could not argue with our mentors.
Matthew Arnold and his lady love were by the cliffs of Dover, gazing across the channel at the distant French coast. He could hear the sound “…of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling, at their return, up the high strand…” It was a,”…melancholy, long, withdrawing roar..” Arnold compared how faith was fading from modern society to the tide moving away from the shore.
He lived during Queen Victoria’s long reign, peaceful on the surface but racked with radical developments like theories about evolution; materialism was gaining ground as science and religion locked horns. Even in Arnold’s polite circle, friendships were dashed due to heated arguments about class differences, gender issues and England’s role as an empire.
In the school library, I tried a bit of triangulation to unravel what Matthew Arnold meant by:
“The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full and round earth’s shore
Hang like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear its melancholy, withdrawing roar.”
I found out that there were portentous inventions, considered progressive and modern, but which Arnold may have viewed as threats to traditional values. John Gatling patented a machine gun in 1862; John Whitehead invented a torpedo in 1866; John Westinghouse invented air brakes; Robert Musket made the formula for tungsten steel. Alfred Nobel patented dynamite in 1867 and went on to make armored war vehicles. How ironic that he later created the now coveted Nobel Peace Award.
Not everything was gloomy. Christopher Scholes invented the modern typewriter. As a man of letters, Arnold must have been fascinated, but it was the death knell of block printers and scribes. He must have welcomed Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, a blessing for communications. There was an economic and industrial explosion in England which created great wealth and abject poverty as well; vagrants, jobless squatters, street dwellers who were defacing London were sent to Britain’s American colonies in shiploads.
Sophocles had his own “Darklling plain”, Arnold said the Greek philosopher “…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 it by this distant Northern Sea…”
When we took up Matthew Arnold in that English Lit class, the “darkling plain” was creeping in around us. We had barely gotten over the Second World War when the Cold War began between the United States of America and the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, now Russian Federation). The two superpowers were engaged in a deadly nuclear arms race and the conquest of Outer Space. There were proxy regional wars, anti-people in nature and intent, in Southeast Asia, Africa and South America and the Caribbean.
The “darkling plain…” has completely smothered our homeland, if not the world. Weapons of mass destruction have surpassed Gatling’s guns and Nobel’s tanks. Unspeakable crimes against humanity are unabated; with impunity, States are fighting over borders, shoals, sea lanes, the High Seas, Outer Space and The Area. Far from awakening a sense of community and love, modern communications and information technology have incalculably corrupted human behavior; lies and fake news travel at warp speed, we no longer recognize nor care about what is true.
If Matthew Arnold were alive today and standing by the shores of the West Philippine Sea, the Sulu Sea or the Bashi channel he would probably be writing not a poem, but an epic about how we are “…swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, where ignorant armies clash by night.” Love, we have no choice but to be true to one another.