Monday, December 29, 2014

"Dover Beach" Into The New Year

The Sony hack and later shutdown of the North Korean internet made me think of the last lines of “Dover Beach,” by Matthew Arnold. That made me think about the rest of the poem. It’s a good way to one year and start the next. Or at least in my quirky way of reading poems. Go read it through to get your impression. I’ll wait.

There’s a standard interpretation of the poem that says that Arnold was mourning the end of Victorian certainties in religion and morals. I can’t disagree with that, but I’ve always gotten an optimistic sense from it too. I’ve often found (to some teachers’ chagrin and damage to my grades) different meanings in poems than the standard.

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.

Many years ago, I was in Aberystwyth. It was the first place I had seen a shingle beach and heard the sound Arnold describes. We stayed in a Victorian hotel not far from the water. I recall a moon now, but I don’t know if it was there or from the poem. It wasn’t a tranquil stay like one Arnold’s, but the arguments were closer to their end than their beginning.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægean, 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.

In Arnold’s time, science was beginning to change a world that had seemed simpler, with comforting explanations. Charles Darwin’s evolution would have been a big part of it for Arnold, but Planck was laying the basis for Einstein’s work, and other developments paved the way for the good and bad of the twentieth century.

For me, a withdrawing childhood faith was much more freeing than melancholy. I could evoke a nostalgia for simpler, more secure times, but the naked shingle was better. The wet black and gray pebbles gleamed even with clouds overhead. The sound didn’t seem that mournful to me.
A relationship was at an end. It was perhaps in Aberystwyth, certainly on that trip, that I began to be able to accept that. Since then, I’ve learned many ways to see ends and beginnings. For a while, Antonio Gramsci’s quote epitomized uncertainties that would become clear.

The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born.

So crisp: precisely. But “the new cannot be born”? Did not really make sense to me. Many beginnings, real and false, have shown me that Gramsci’s judgement is true in every moment. The old dies every day, and it often seems the new cannot be born.

…There is, it seems to us,
At best, only a limited value
In the knowledge derived from experience.
The knowledge inposes a pattern, and falsifies,
For the pattern is new in every moment
And every moment is a new and shocking
Valuation of all we have been. We are only undeceived
Of that which, deceiving, could no longer harm.
In the middle, not only in the middle of the way
but all the way, in a dark wood, in a bramble,
On the edge of a grimpen, where is no secure foothold,
And menaced by monsters, fancy lights,
Risking enchantment.

Like Arthurian knights, I’ve headed off into a wood with no paths, no secure foothold. Not as comforting as Faith’s bright girdle wrapped around me, but the way I was and am.

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,

Many worlds, many dreams, many kinds of beauty. We might as well enjoy them. I think here of natural beauty and my attempts to capture it, so much in just my yard, in photos; on the other hand, beautiful new tempting things to be bought, sometimes living up to promise, sometimes not.

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
Arnold found this more disappointing than I do. It’s why we must be true to one another, the many friends we now can have across the globe.
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Sounds like Twitter. Or the (putatively) North Korean hack of Sony Pictures and the (perhaps) attack on North Korea’s internet. Or the Donbas or Aleppo. The photo at the top is close to the way I imagined those ignorant armies, long before police dressed this way.

Why should this leave me feeling positive? I don’t have a definitive answer, will advance a couple of thoughts.

We’ve lived through the scientific cratering of the Victorian world that Arnold was reacting to. I find the methods of science more comforting than the certainties of faith. The poem has been with me through ends and beginnings.

The key is

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

The reality is our love, friendship, caring for one another. The world seems. We are here as on a darkling plain. Love is real. Arnold was struggling with spectres of armies in his own mind. There are real wars in this world. I’m lucky enough not to be in the middle of one of them. But I think that humans can be true to one another, that we can find our way through those darkling plains.

The photo is via Huffington Post. It is of police at the Maidan demonstrations of a year ago.

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