One of my favourites poems is Dover Beach.
I read it first at school when I was fifteen.
It seemed a fine thing to have written –
evocative, erudite, sonorous,
personal. Matthew Arnold, the advocate
of ‘sweetness and light’, honeymooned abroad
the year of the Great Exhibition.
Returning to England they stayed the night
at the Lord Warden Hotel – before taking
the train to London – no doubt to recover
from the paddle steamer that ferried them
across the English Channel, a craft,
though independent of the wind, tossed
by the waves, whose swaddled passengers travelled
au dehors. The poem begins ‘The sea
is calm tonight.’ From his window he can see
across to the French coast where a light gleamed
briefly. He calls his wife to his side,
and they listen to ‘the grating roar’ of the tide,
the unceasing waves shifting the pebbles.
For Arnold Great Britain was not the land
of ingenuities the Crystal Palace
hymned but of Blake’s dark factories. ‘…the world
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain…’
What would he have thought of us who measure
this country’s wealth in Costa coffee spoons,
eschew the Europe whose cultural heritage
is ours, make dishonour a virtue,
and still send tens of thousands of children
hungry to shared beds in inadequate rooms!
‘And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.’