Romantic Art flourished following the French Revolution, when all things seemed possible and life was on a trajectory of unlimited improvement heading towards perfectibility and the ultimate triumph of good. It believed that Nature was good and therefore the ideal of goodness was a natural state achievable by man.
As in most areas of thinking, a dialectic emerges where each dominant ideology (the thesis) is challenged by a reaction (The antithesis) resulting in a conflict resolved by a compromise (the synthesis) which eventually achieves domination to become the new thesis. Then the whole process begins again with a conflict of opposites.
Among many things, it was the Industrial Revolution and later the ferocity and wanton destruction of WWI that rocked the sensibilities of the Romantics forcing them to re-evaluate their fanciful assumptions, creating doubt and disillusionment on a massive scale.
Matthew Arnold was one of the first poet/critics in the mid Victorian era to question whether Romantic poetry dealt with the real complexity of ideas and life; “English poetry of the 1st quarter of the century, with plenty of energy, plenty of creative force, - did not know enough”. He rejected Keats’ “desire to get beyond any irritable reaching after fact and reason and soar like a comet”.
Dover Beach could be seen as a poem that bridges the tension between the Romantic tradition and a new modern approach that integrates images, emotions and ideas intelligently – what he termed “imaginative reason”.
"It is a great deal to give one true feeling in poetry, but I do not at present very much care for poetry unless it can give me true thought as well. It is the alliance of these two that makes great poetry, the only poetry really worth very much."
Arnold believed in risking the sacrifice of the reason to the senses and feelings. Yet any answer arrived at without the sanction of emotion was, he said, arid and incomplete. This conflict runs through much of Arnold's poetry, with his deepest feelings attaching to the unresolved debate, to the anxious questions and the ambiguous or dusty answers. Ideas in his case were to come from his own kind of immersion in experience, through professional work in education and the extension of criticism from literature to society and religion. The view of truth as multifaceted, the attempt at a synthesis in the phrase "the imaginative reason," the definition of religion as "morality, touched with emotion"--all these later formulations suggest acceptance and interpretation of experience as a better way than prior commitment to an Idea of coping with the world's multitudinousness.
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 Agean, 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.
Dover Beach, was published in 1867, but there is evidence it was begun in 1851, shortly after his marriage - some refer to it as his honeymoon poem.
The imagery combines romantic mystery of nature – the immortal sea. The tide going out has become a metaphor for the decline and loss of faith much before Matthew Arnold recorded it in 1851 – already in early Greek writers such as Sophocles. Full tide refers to good times; to faith and prosperity, while an ebbed tide suggests human misery and tough times. The early images are positive, warm - almost romantic and optimistic, while the latter become dark, foreboding, negative and pessimistic. The reference to the light of France gleaming may refer to the enlightened philosophers who gave us the ideals of democracy - but it shines no more perhaps due to the failures of the 1848 Revolutions. In contrast the “cliffs of England stand glimmering and vast” perhaps a more enduring state.
The contrast between the loss of faith in both ancient Greece and modern Europe provides both gravitas and a universalism. Sophocles in Antigone compares the vicissitudes of life to the sea winds stirring up the sands against the headlands. In Oedipus at Colonus Oedipus is like a cape lashed by winds and waves.
True belonging exists in personal loyal human relationships which are the only real foundation of certainty we can rely on.
The “tremulous cadence” foreshadows change and echoes the haunting resonance of our emotive response. The natural flow is influenced by the rime scheme, blank verse and the variations in the lines of the stanzas.
The stark shift in tone and atmosphere is introduced by the conjunction – “But” and a change in language of “melancholy”, withdrawing roar, retreating, drear… .
The “naked shingles of the world” suggest our vulnerable status in a pitiless indifferent universe. The only solace comes through committed human relationships as society is depicted derogatively by the shift from the sea imagery to a “darkling plain…of struggle and flight.. of ignorant armies clashing by night”.
It is the uncompromising - no punches pulled - language of “ignorant” and “night” that lacks subtlety and may be seen as overly didactic. It presages some of Wilfred Owen’s more unambiguous language. The indictment almost slaps society’s face. Chaucerian wit used much the same tactics; softening the audience with positive images, then undercutting it with a conclusive reversal.
Apocalyptic or visionary warnings have contemplated the end of the world as we know it for eons. More than 2500 years ago a folk tale about Chicken Little, predicted that “the sky is falling” and disaster is imminent. In Australia, Hanrahan predicted "We'll all be rooned". T.S. Eliot foretold an ending “not with a bang, but a whimper”. W.B. Yeats in The Second Coming, predicts with an alarmist tone a time of chaos and loss of control where all our central certainties appear to have been destroyed. Order has crumbled. “The best have lost all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”. Orwell, Huxley and a raft of science fiction writers depict dystopian futures. There is a strong mood of foreboding – pessimism - but it is later balanced by a detached though powerful tone of authority, gravitas and optimism; an assurance that all is not lost and that historically we will survive any calamity.
Christians have anticipated the return of Christ for centuries, in fact his disciples believed it would happen in their life time. Successive generations have predicted the precise time of his second appearance or the end of the world repeatedly.
Bang or whimper? Ice or fire? Divine plan or cosmic accident? Alien invaders or genetically enhanced apes? The end of the world is painful to contemplate but also hard to resist thinking about, partly because there are so many wild and scary imaginative possibilities.
The paranoid 1950’s foresaw a radioactive nuclear holocaust in On the Beach, set in Melbourne while the film, Melancholia (2011) predicts an unknown planet on a crash course towards earth. Dystopias (opposite of utopias) enjoyed a spell with the birth of Science Fiction and include Brave New World (1931) by Aldous Huxley, 1984 by George Orwell (1948) and the writings of Phillip K. Dick (1960) adapted into Blade Runner in the 1980’s.
We do face a real danger of moving blindly into the future; a lab rat-like submission of the people to innovation, loss of freedoms to the assertive arrogant authority of unscrupulous rulers, unaccountable power structures or media pundits. Just as Arnold derided the dehumanisation of the Industrial Revolution, we today take cautionary note of the dangers of imperious technology.
Matthew Arnold claimed that “the study of literature gives you the best vantage point from which to understand an entire society”. Literature helps us know. It is a constant tutor in human experience, part of what Matthew Arnold called “humanized knowledge,” the essence of culture. For him, culture’s unique humanizing power was not only to “see things as they are” but, even more importantly, to motivate “the noble inspiration to leave the world better than we found it”. As he said:
…The great men of culture are those who have had a passion for … carrying from one end of society to the other, the best ideas of their time; … to humanize it, to make it efficient outside the clique of the cultivated and learned, yet still remaining the best knowledge and thought of the time, and a true source, therefore, of sweetness and light.
"Nothing can absolve us from the duty of doing all we can to keep alive our courage and activity."
The superiority of poetry over history consists in its possessing a higher truth and a higher seriousness.
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