Arnold’s “Dover Beach” and Wordsworth’s “Evening on Calais Beach” Compared

On accidentally looking through William Wordsworth’s poems, this comparison simply jumped out at me. The poems:

Evening on Calais Beach

         It is a beauteous evening, calm and free,
         The holy time is quiet as a Nun
         Breathless with adoration; the broad sun
         Is sinking down in its tranquillity;
         The gentleness of heaven broods o'er the Sea:
         Listen! the mighty Being is awake,
         And doth with his eternal motion make
         A sound like thunder--everlastingly.
         Dear Child! dear Girl! that walkest with me here,
         If thou appear untouched by solemn thought,
         Thy nature is not therefore less divine:
         Thou liest in Abraham's bosom all the year;
         And worship'st at the Temple's inner shrine,
         God being with thee when we know it not.

                   Dover Beach
         The sea is calm tonight.
         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 in 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 Ægæan, 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.

         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 pain;
         And we are here as on a darkling plain
         Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
         Where ignorant armies clash by night. 

The Wordsworth poem takes place on the French coast, looking across the Channel to England. Matthew Arnold’s poem is of course located on the English coast, looking across to France. Arnold is about 50 years younger than Wordsworth, and wrote his poem about 50 years later. “Dover Beach” appears to be a deliberate counterpoint to “Evening on Calais Beach.”

The Wordsworth poem is a sonnet of fourteen lines, with regular cadence and rhyming. Compare to this the first part of “Dover Beach”. This is also fourteen lines, with four, five or six feet, and a partial rhyming scheme. Compare the first five lines of each poem:

         It is a beauteous evening, calm and free,
         The holy time is quiet as a Nun
         Breathless with adoration; the broad sun
         Is sinking down in its tranquillity;
         The gentleness of heaven broods o'er the Sea:

and

         The sea is calm tonight.
         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 in the tranquil bay.

The sentiment is almost the same, as if Arnold tried to start the poem in the same mood as Wordsworth’s. The main difference is the Christian reference in Wordsworth and the secular quality of Arnold. In the next lines Arnold begins to draw his contrast: First Wordsworth:

         Listen! the mighty Being is awake,
         And doth with his eternal motion make
         A sound like thunder--everlastingly.

then Arnold:

         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,

There is no mighty Being here, just noise and dullness. And as the poem continues Arnold continues to draw a sharp agnostic/secular view against the sureness of Wordsworth’s faith. First Wordsworth:

         Dear Child! dear Girl! that walkest with me here,
                 .................................
         Thou liest in Abraham's bosom all the year;
         And worship'st at the Temple's inner shrine,
         God being with thee when we know it not.

In contrast Arnold finishes his first stanza thus:

         Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
         With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
         The eternal note of sadness in. 

And he goes on in a devastating spirit of sadness that in his age, people are losing that bright, sure faith shown at the end of Wordsworth’s poem:

         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.

The best we have now is:

         Ah, love, let us be true
         To one another!

It is surprising to us to realize that Arnold wrote this poem in 1851 while on his honeymoon trip. His sentiments are quite resonant with twentieth-century thinking – the loss of faith, the sadness at what has been lost, a hint of existentialism. Perhaps to save himself Matthew Arnold married, gave up his lyric poetry, and wrote essays on British society from a progressive viewpoint. Let us not blame him for relinquishing his great poetic gift; being a prophet is a hard life, and most of us cannot sustain it over long periods of time.

2009