Wednesday, March 21, 2012


Since it's World Poetry Day I thought I'd share a couple of my favourite poems at the moment and say a few things about them! I find it sad that I only remembered it was world poetry day because it trended for a couple of hours on twitter... people should know - how can they celebrate and embrace it if they aren't aware? Google didn't snazzify it's logo or anything...

Anyway the first poem I want to mention is from the Victorian era and addresses the search for spiritual consolation in the wake of religious uncertainty. This is of course the era of Charles Darwin, his theory of evolution and the 'survival of the fittest', an analysis of existence which does not necessitate God and indirectly lays bare the possibility that our lives may have no divine purpose, they may, essentially, be meaningless. Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold thus predates Camus' 'Absurdism', the notion of an indifferent universe - where human affairs are not central by any means, which makes a lot of history, our perceived notion of duty and valour and war - seem ridiculous.

Dover Beach - 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-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 A gaean, 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.

There's something beautifully melancholy about this poem and its elegaic lament. There's a gentle build up to the final verse, a desperation for companionship and comfort in the face of a revelation. The coupled lines of listed negations is especially effective, both as a straightforward list and as a cumulative one - 'neither joy, nor love, nor light, / nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;' It's like every previous 'certainty' is being negated in a definitive and unsettling way - a complete inversion of what had come before. Suddenly the struggles and fights of men seem absurd and 'ignorant', and the image of the 'darkling plain' connotes a great expanse, but one that is somewhat desolate and empty. Faith no longer offered the same comfort, the 'girdle' was loosed. The first verse seems comparatively tranquil but on closer inspection the lexical choices seem definitively Darwinian. The 'sea is calm tonight' is actually misleading, there is still the 'grating roar', the waves 'draw back' and 'fling' the pebbles  - nature seems innately hostile, competing for its own survival. This poem is one of my favourites because it encapsulates so beautifully a certain mood, the sense that religious certainty is withdrawing, stepping back, losing its thrown, and rather bleakly prompts the consideration of a new way of looking at existence.

The second poem I want to mention is 'As I Walked Out One Evening' by WH Auden. I won't post the whole thing because it's pretty long but here's the link:
It also concerns existential matters - particularly temporality and the human condition. At first it seems like an ode to love, its supposed capacity to endure to death and beyond - until the pivotal sixth stanza where all the clocks begin to chime, and time is personified in a distinctly eerie way, shattering the lovers' illusions:

'...O let not Time deceive you,
   You cannot conquer Time.

'In the burrows of the Nightmare
   Where Justice naked is,
Time watches from the shadow
   And coughs when you would kiss.

'In headaches and in worry
   Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
   To-morrow or to-day'

Time is thus portrayed as a menacing and conniving presence, a sinister figure in the fairytale which upsets our idealistic expectations. In the face of impending doom and mortality how does human nature adapt? The poem turns again in the 13th stanza:

'O look, look in the mirror,
   O look in your distress:
Life remains a blessing
   Although you cannot bless.

'O stand, stand at the window
   As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
   With your crooked heart.'

Despite all the uncertainty and imperfections of the human condition, things which cannot be escaped, we are still here and we can still live and feel and make choices that we feel we are responsible for and make an impact on the lives of those around us. The poem, itself constrained by time, ends in the late evening, the lovers having gone and the river, perhaps reassuringly, simply running on.

There's so much to gain from just reading and experiencing these poems that right now I just can't put into ordered words - so I apologise if this has been a bit incoherent!

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