24 August 2009

Mellifluous Mondays: Welcome to the Victorian Age

"Dover Beach" by Matthew Arnold

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 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-blanch'd 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 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 furl'd.
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.

Matthew Arnold was a sort of cultural critic in the early Victorian era, and he put his finger on many of the tensions boiling beneath the surface of that prosperous, dignified society.

Problem number one was their loss of faith, which-- just as a retreating sea reveals barnacles and dead fish and limp seaweed-- left the ugliness of existence exposed on the beach, without hope for redemption. Stemming from that came a loss of direction, because without faith in God and in the Scriptures, it was hard to tell right from wrong or to discern the purpose of human life. Hence the "ignorant armies" and "confused alarms."

At the same time, a lot of really amazing things were happening in the world, most of which should have cheered the Victorians up, like expanding empire and technological advances and social reforms and more easily accessible education. But without God, that "land of dreams / So various, so beautiful, so new" was a nightmare. Arnold recognized that. Sadly, he and most of the eminent figures of his day refused to believe. Their best attempts at consolation consisted of beautiful art, increased control over nature, and somehow, love.

Yeah, that's an uplifting love poem for you. "Babe, the world's falling apart and I don't know what anything means and our life will probably be hell, but would you pledge yourself to me all the same?"

My online English classes start on Wednesday, and one of them is British Victorian Literature, so I've been thinking about this a lot lately. :) Brit Vic is a wonderful era in literary terms, but it's rather depressing.

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