Poetry Shelf Friday talk spot: Kate Camp on Matthew Arnold’s ‘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.

 

from ‘Dover Beach’

 

 

‘Dover Beach’ by Matthew Arnold

I only discovered this poem in the early 2000s, not sure how I missed it as it so central in the canon. Mum is a poetry fanatic, and has loads of poems committed to memory. She had been the victim of a violent crime around that time, and as she reeled from the impact on her life, she found this was the poem that was going round in her head. You can see why – it’s strangely comforting even in its offering of a final bleak vision. We decided we would both learn it off by heart, and we did, over the course of a few weeks. We sat in the car and recited it to each other outside the pub, before going in to watch an All Blacks game.

Fast forward to about five years ago, we visited Dover Beach along with my husband. We were all supposed to have remembered the poem to recite together on the beach. Staggering a bit on the pebbles (which the waves draw back and fling at their return up the high strand…) we mostly achieved it, although I have to say I was the only one of us who had it word perfect.

As we walked back up the dark beach, Paul was in front, then me, then Mum. I turned around to see her, knowing I would want to remember this moment. Over her head, out in the tranquil bay, fell a shooting star.

 

Kate Camp

 

Kate Camp is a Wellington-born essayist and poet, with six collections of poetry published by Victoria University Press. She has also written essays and memoir. Unfamiliar Legends of the Stars won the NZSA Jessie Mackay Best First Book of Poetry Award (1999), and The Mirror of Simple Annihilated Souls won the New Zealand Post Book Award for Poetry (2011). Snow White’s Coffin was shortlisted for the award in 2013, and The internet of things was longlisted in 2018. She has received the Creative New Zealand Berlin Writer’s Residency (2011) and the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship (2017). Her essay ‘I wet my pants’ was a finalist in the Landfall essay competition in 2018.

 

 

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 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.

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

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