Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2193:
DOVER BEACH

by John H. Lienhard

Today, a Valentine's Day greeting. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

This Valentine's Day I cannot shake the image of that grim strip of water, the English Channel, where 29-year-old Matthew Arnold spent his honeymoon.

Matthew Arnold In 1850, Arnold was a secretary to one Lord Landsdowne. He'd just published his first book of poems; but his 300 annual pay was too little to support a family properly. Too bad! He was in love with Frances Wightman, daughter of a judge who wouldn't let his daughter marry anyone of so modest means.

That August, the judge took his family on holiday. They crossed the Channel from Dover to Calais and went on to Flanders. Arnold, hoping to see "Franny", camped in Calais and there wrote a poem, Calais Sands. The last stanza clearly reveals his state of mind,

To-morrow hurry through the fields
Of Flanders to the storied Rhine!
To-night those soft-fringed eyes shall close
Beneath one roof, my Queen! with mine.
A year later, Arnold was made a school inspector at a 700-per-year salary. They could now marry, and the newly-wedded couple returned to the coast of Dover for a week. Arnold published his great poem, Dover Beach, sixteen years later, but the poem begins on that honeymoon. Arnold looks out from Dover at the foreboding waters of the Channel and says,
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!

From there, Arnold segues into the turbidity of the water -- the roiling undercurrents of upheaval. He says of the water, But now I only hear/Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, ... He laments the failure of Victorian religion. The poem spirals down to that famous line -- where ignorant armies clash by night. Awfully grim for a honeymoon, and yet I said Dover Beach would be my Valentine's Day greeting, and so it is. Hear the last stanza,

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.

That seems a terribly mixed message. But look again: we hear echoes of Voltaire telling us to tend our own garden. We hear Arnold reminding us that our love for one another is transcendent. Bad things have always gone on. Yet you and I constantly create order and beauty on the smaller scale, and that's what matters -- that's what'll save us. It's also why I have to wish us all a happy Valentine's Day.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


For more on Matthew Arnold, see: http://www.nndb.com/people/061/000084806/ And for more on his marriage to Francis Lucy Wightman, see: http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/arnold/touche2.html    Matthew Arnold photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Ocean photo by J. Lienhard.

Our awareness Arnold's Dover Beach today is strongly buttressed by Samuel Barber's remarkable setting of it. The snippet at the end of the audio is from Thomas Hampson's performance with the Emerson String Quartet: Complete Songs of Samuel Barber Track 21 CD #1 Deutsche Grammophon 435867-2 1994.

I decided to do this episode after I heard a fine performance of the Barber setting done for the St. Cecilia Chamber Music Society in Feb. 2007 by baritone Hector Vasquez and string quartet players, Denise Tarrant and Oleg Soulyga on violin, Rene Salazar on viola, and Barrett Sills on 'cello. Click on one of the links below to hear their fine performance:

Dover Beach in high-quality wave format
Dover Beach in mp3 format
(By permission of the performers)

Should you wish to follow the text as you listen, Click Here.


'The tide is full'

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2006 by John H. Lienhard.