Matthew Arnold A Poet's Guide to Britain


Matthew Arnold

Owen Sheers explores poetry set in the British landscape. He tells the story behind Matthew Arnold's bleak but tremendous poem Dover Beach.


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This is a series about great poems, inspired by particular places or aspects of the British landscape.

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One of the things that all of the poems in this series share,

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is a sense of the powerful impact the landscape can have

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on the psychological state of an individual.

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In 1851, a young man visited Dover.

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While he was here, the sound of the sea, as it washed over these stones, inspired him to write what,

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for my money is probably one of the greatest poems of the English language.

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It's a beautiful poem that is also truly shocking,

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and that still somehow manages to feel remarkably modern.

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In the poem, the poet manages to capture

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not just the essence of himself, but also the spirit of his age.

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The poem is called simply, Dover Beach.

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The poet was Matthew Arnold.

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There are places that speak, telling the stories of us and them.

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A village asleep loaded with dream.

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An ocean flicking its pages over the sand.

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Eventually we reply.

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A conversation of place and page over time. Inscribing the map.

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So that each in turn

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might hold the line.

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If there's one type of landscape that we've got loads of in Britain then it's coastline.

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And it's such an evocative landscape, a place of transitions and endings and changes.

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And it's because of this, I think, together with

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the massive scale of the sea itself

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that we tend to think and feel very differently at the coast.

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It often strikes a strong note in us of having to face up to the big stuff in life.

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It's these associations that Matthew Arnold is drawing upon in his poem Dover Beach.

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Over 37 lines, this poem captures a soul-shaking moment of reflection.

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Inspired by the sight and sound of the sea.

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It's a wonderfully written poem, but its reputation also comes from its historical importance.

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As the poem moves to its climax, the poet unleashes an uncompromising

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vision of an uncertain world where we are alone.

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This bald confession of a loss of faith is so unprecedented,

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so unlikely in a Victorian poem

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that Dover Beach has come to be seen by many as a turning point.

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As a poem of transition into the modern age.

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For me, what's also fascinating is that Arnold began to write this

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unflinching and revolutionary poem one night while on his honeymoon.

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The sea is calm to-night.

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The tide is full, the moon lies fair

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Upon the straits; on the French coast the light

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Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,

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Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.

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Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!

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Only, from the long line of spray

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Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,

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Listen! you hear the grating roar

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Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,

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At their return, up the high strand,

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Begin, and cease, and then again begin,

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With tremulous cadence slow, and bring

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The eternal note of sadness in.

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If you were to take Matthew Arnold just from his pictures it would be perfectly understandable to think

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that here is just another very fusty, rather stiff Victorian gentleman.

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But underneath those stern portraits there lies a fascinating man for me,

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an incredibly modern man who was self-questioning in

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his life, as he was in his writing.

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And a man really whose questions and personal doubts

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came to represent the questions and personal doubts of his age.

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Matthew Arnold was born in 1822

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and became an eminent figure in the Victorian cultural establishment.

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An academic, an educationalist and a social commentator.

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In his age he was considered one of the major poets,

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the equal of Browning and Tennyson.

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I think it's fair to say that maybe today that reputation has

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slipped somewhat, but there are still plenty of poems worth reading from amongst his prolific output.

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The young Arnold, during the time he wrote many of those poems, seems to have been searching for an identity.

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An identity that is other than the one

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he was so firmly handed at birth.

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Matthew Arnold was the son of Dr Thomas Arnold of Rugby, perhaps the

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most famous headmaster of all time,

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and a highly influential public figure of the Victorian age.

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Dr Arnold is probably best known through the thinly veiled account

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of his regime in Tom Brown's schooldays.

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He was credited with injecting a new sense of moral purpose and

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Christian values into Rugby school,

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and through his leadership inspired widespread educational reform.

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Rugby's head today, Patrick Derham, has a keen interest in his legendary predecessor.

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ORGAN PLAYS AND CHOIR SINGS

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For me, as a 19th century historian it's fascinating, the different layers of Dr Arnold.

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There's no doubt at all that he transformed the school, though perhaps it has been exaggerated,

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the school wasn't quite as grim as many people portrayed it when he came in 1828.

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It what was exactly do you think Thomas Arnold inspired the boys, specifically? I mean,

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it seems to me that the sermons that he gave were the main foundation of that inspiration, were they?

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Yeah, very much so, and I think for us, in what is an increasingly secular age sort of underestimate

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the power and the importance of religion,

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which was the touch stone, keystone, of life at that time.

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And what took place in chapel was hugely important,

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and of course Arnold was unusual as headmaster and chaplain.

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At the age of 14, Matthew Arnold was enrolled at Rugby.

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Academically he was something of a disappointment to his father.

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But he was already showing promise as a writer.

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At the age of 17 he won the school poetry prize.

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Matthew was the eldest son, the second child of the Arnold family, and I think throughout his life,

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he was struggling to come to terms with his father and his expectations of him.

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And I think he probably always felt while his father was alive

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that he hadn't quite succeeded in pleasing him.

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When Matthew eventually won a scholarship to Balliol college

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in Oxford in 1841, his father wrote, "I had not the least expectation

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of his being successful, and the news actually filled me with astonishment."

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For Matthew, Oxford was his first opportunity to escape from under his high-minded father's watchful eye,

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and he quickly developed a reputation,

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not so much for his academic work, or even the poems he wrote there,

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but more for his flashy dress sense and appetite for fun.

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Nevertheless, Arnold's two years were critical in leading him to the

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intellectual and spiritual cliff from which he wrote Dover Beach.

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In the early 1840s, Oxford was caught up in a seismic

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religious debate, provoked by a priest called John Henry Newman.

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Newman was arguing for a return to a kind of religious orthodoxy, but he had many vociferous critics

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who thought he was trying to destroy the broad tradition of the Church of England.

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Those critics were led by none other than Matthew's father, Dr Arnold.

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Newman was the rector of the university church of St Mary's,

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and his weekly sermons drew large crowds of enraptured students.

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Despite his father's condemnation of all that Newman stood for,

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Matthew Arnold couldn't resist going along to see for himself.

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When Matthew Arnold came here to St Mary's to listen to Newman's sermons,

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he was never particularly drawn towards Newman's arguments,

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but he was obviously very impressed by the aesthetic quality of the experience.

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When he wrote about listening to the sermons, he gives us a very strong

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sense of the nature of Newman's magnetism.

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"Who could resist the charm of that spiritual apparition,"

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"gliding in the dim afternoon light through the aisles of St Mary's?

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"And rising into the pulpit and then, in the most entrancing of voices,

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"breaking the silence with words and thoughts which were a religious music.

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"Subtle, sweet, mournful."

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The current Archbishop of Canterbury is not only a historian

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and a theologian, but also a published poet.

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So who better to talk to about Arnold, Newman, and the crisis of faith in Oxford in the 1840s?

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I must admit that I have been very struck by how

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attractive Newman appeared to be to so many students at that time.

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Even Matthew Arnold himself whose father was one of the main figures of opposition, he writes

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about going to hear him speak, and he does seem to be completely enthralled by him.

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What do you think was the nature of that attraction in Newman?

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Newman had, obviously, a really charismatic presence.

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And reading his sermons on the page now it's quite hard

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to understand, they seem very much of their age.

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Dense, difficult, sophisticated.

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But clearly there's an emotional undercurrent there,

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and Newman tapped into something profound

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in the emotions of a generation.

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He tapped into a kind of nostalgia for the great Christian past.

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He tapped into the sense that you could make something of your confused

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emotional life by directing its rather turbulent streams into faith.

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He held up ideals of asceticism and self-denial,

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and I would guess that for a lot of

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confused, conscientious perhaps sexually rather troubled young people

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in the '40s in Oxford, this was just paradise opened.

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And yet, for some of those students it seemed to send them down

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somewhat a darker path perhaps I suppose, a complete crisis of faith.

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I think it's more that among the literary classes, the intellectual groups,

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Newman is part of a move which encourages you

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to make your faith the subject of a lot of introspection.

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And that introspection doesn't always deliver full faith fought on trial

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or certitude, at the end of the day it can deliver quite the opposite.

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The more you look at your inner turnings and shadows and ambiguities,

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maybe the more you do go down that path of doubting.

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There was certainly a growing sense of religious doubt among the 1840s' generation.

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And when, ten years later, Matthew Arnold came to write Dover Beach,

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it's clear that this generational religious crisis had left a profound impression on his own beliefs.

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The Sea of Faith Was once, too, at the full,

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And round earth's shore

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Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl'd.

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But now I only hear

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Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar.

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When Arnold is writing about the melancholy,

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long withdrawing roar, do you think he is actually pinpointing a society-wide ebbing of faith?

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The crisis of faith was not so much people becoming aware of facts

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they hadn't known before,

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kind of the crude version of the impact of Darwin...

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Oh, all of a sudden people realise it was evolution not creation or whatever.

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It's not that at all, it's much more

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a felt thing, it's...

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and this is of course so powerfully captured in the poem,

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feeling something's literally slipping away

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and the melancholy, long withdrawing roar is a kind of hugely potent image for that feeling that inexorably

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a whole world is just going out of reach,

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and even if you want to hang onto it, you can't.

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Now, there are many other ways of reading the 19th century,

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and the history of faith in the 19th century, but that was a very powerful part of it.

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Undoubtedly the great religious debate stood up by Newman

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played a big part in unsettling Arnold's faith.

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But the certainties in his life received an even greater knock,

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when in 1842 at the end of Matthew's

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first year at university, his father died.

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Matthew said the soul of his knowledge had gone, and that's very revealing in its own sense.

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That's something that all of us as sons and fathers can empathise with, the clash between generations.

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In the wake of his father's death,

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Arnold seems to have been cut adrift.

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And when he completed his degree

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he was left not just asking what he would do,

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but also who he really was.

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He wrote in a letter to a friend,

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"What it is to be listless when you should be on fire!

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"To be raining, when you had been better thundering."

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His poetry was important to him, but he was struggling to find

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both a voice and a real purpose for his writing.

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In 1848, Arnold came on holiday to the Alps,

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following in the footsteps of the many Romantic poets

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who'd been awed and inspired by this dramatic landscape.

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But it wasn't the alpine scenery

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that made the biggest impression on Arnold.

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It might sound a bit strange, but I'm not sure that Matthew Arnold

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would have written Dover Beach, his great poem

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set in a quintessentially English landscape,

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had he not first encountered a young woman, here in the Swiss Alps.

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Her name was Marguerite,

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and they met in a hotel in the Swiss resort town of Thun

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we know very little about their relationship, apart from what we can

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glean from nine impassioned poems,

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which Arnold wrote about their affair.

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What is clear is that meeting Marguerite had been a significant experience for the 27-year-old.

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So much so that he arranged to meet her back in Thun one year later.

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Matthew Arnold wrote a sequence of poems about that return visit to the Hotel Bellevue here in Thun.

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They tell the rather sad story of a reunion which obviously failed to live up to its expectations.

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At first, the two young lovers are obviously overjoyed to see each other again.

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"Locked in each others arms we stood," Arnold writes, "in tears, with hearts too full to speak."

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But, if the poems are to be believed, that passion was soon

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fading, and Arnold begins to sense his lover withdrawing from him.

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"Ah, soon I could discern a trouble in thy altered air.

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"Thy hand lay languidly in mine,

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"thy cheek was grave, thy speech grew rare."

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The ardour of Matthew and Marguerite's reunion

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quickly evaporated for good.

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But the profound sense of loss which followed seems to have inspired him

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to write more freely,

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more directly from the heart, than at any time before.

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Yes!

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In the sea of life enisled,

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With echoing straits between us thrown,

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Dotting the shoreless watery wild,

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We mortal millions live alone.

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Who ordered that their longing's fire

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Should be as soon as kindled, cooled?

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Who renders vain their deep desire?

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A God, a God their severance ruled.

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And bade betwixt their shores to be

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The unplumb'd salt, estranging sea.

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In the loss of his lover,

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Arnold seems to find the vocabulary for what would become Dover Beach.

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That incredibly powerful sea imagery.

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The bleak, cry from the heart, "We mortal millions live alone."

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And then that surprising pointing of a finger at God,

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"A God, a God their severance ruled!"

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These poems, written in response to the failure of his relationship with

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Marguerite, sowed many of the seeds for what would become Dover Beach.

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And that's why I think the time that Arnold spent her beside the lake

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in Switzerland, and his great poem,

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beside the sea on the coast of England, are so crucially connected.

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When Arnold wrote a poem about the ferry crossing

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that brought him home from Switzerland,

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he summarised the frustration he felt.

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Weary of myself and sick of asking what I am and what I ought to be.

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At this vessel's prow I stand which bears me forwards,

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forwards o',er the starlit sea.

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He closes this poem with the conclusion,

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"Know that he who finds himself, loses his misery."

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But who exactly was he? This was still the question facing Arnold.

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And what did forwards mean at this stage of his life anyway?

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It's such a common recognisable story for someone in their mid-20s...

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We've all been there. Here he was, returned from Switzerland to London,

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unfocused, and knowing it was time to grow up.

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But how exactly was he going to make that happen?

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The answer lay in the arms of another, and a very different woman.

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Francis Lucy Whiteman was the daughter of Judge Whiteman,

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a prominent Tory, a high church admirer of Newman,

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and the antithesis of everything Dr Arnold had stood for.

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The Whitemans lived in the grandeur of Belgravia,

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and when Judge Whiteman discovered Matthew Arnold's attentions towards

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his daughter, and his complete lack of money and prospects,

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he firmly showed him the door.

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To catch a glimpse of the girl to whom he was clearly besotted,

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Matthew was reduced to standing on the street, watching for her to appear at her bedroom window.

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In the end, he was forced into an uncomfortable decision.

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To win Francis Lucy as his own, Arnold realised he'd have to put

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his shoulder to the wheel, and as he wrote, "yield and be like the other men I see."

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In other words, find a job.

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In 1850 he took the plunge, and was taken on as a government school

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inspector, a demanding job which he held for the rest of his life.

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In April of the following year, at the age of 30, Matthew Arnold the fop, the ditherer,

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the struggling romantic poet, became a respectable married man.

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It was while he was on his honeymoon with Francis Lucy,

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staying in a hotel in the port town of Dover,

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that Arnold appears to have

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experienced a moment of profound and troubled reflection.

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The sea is calm to-night.

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The tide is full, the moon lies fair

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Upon the straits; on the French coast the light

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Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,

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Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.

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Come to the window,

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sweet is the night-air!

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Only, from the long line of spray

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Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,

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Listen! you hear the grating roar

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Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,

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At their return, up the high strand,

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Begin, and cease, and then again begin,

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With tremulous cadence slow, and bring

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The eternal note of sadness in.

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Sophocles long ago

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Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought

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Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow

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Of human misery; we

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Find also in the sound a thought,

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Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

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The Sea of Faith

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Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore

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Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl'd.

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But now I only hear

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Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

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Retreating, to the breath

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Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear

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And naked shingles of the world.

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Ah, love, let us be true

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To one another! for the world, which seems

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To lie before us like a land of dreams,

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So various, so beautiful, so new,

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Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

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Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

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And we are here as on a darkling plain

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Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

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Where ignorant armies clash by night.

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One of the most impressive things about this poem, the thing about it

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which I really admire is that way that it moves, the way that Matthew Arnold manipulates the reader.

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It's a poem about change, and it's also full of changes...

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from the visual scene to the sound of the waves, from the historical to the present.

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From the general idea, into at the close, this very intimate

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and poignant scene where Matthew Arnold says to his wife, "Ah love, let us be true to one another!"

0:23:050:23:10

It's a movement of ebb and flow, almost like the action of waves, and what it sets up for us is that

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moment of surprise after those lines when having set out this world that lies before them, Arnold says,

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"That it hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain."

0:23:250:23:33

And it's such a shocking idea. I mean, Matthew Arnold is probably

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the first person to put into British literature this idea that there isn't anything out there for us.

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And it works so well because of the way the poem has moved,

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because by the time we get there,

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we feel as though we have that grandeur of historical distance,

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we have a very strong setting, but we also feel that we've been pulled into a personal moment of crisis.

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Matthew Arnold didn't publish Dover Beach until 16 years after his honeymoon.

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And its impact was at first only gradual.

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However, over time the poem developed an enormous resonance.

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It became a stalwart of poetry anthologies,

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and has gone on to provide a recurring source of information

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for other artists and writers.

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Not just because of its radical theme, but also for the way it taps

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into our deeply rooted associations with this kind of coastal landscape.

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This is the first time that I've found myself on the cliffs

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themselves, and when you're standing here you really appreciate

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how this is a landscape that is packed with associations of change,

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and not just in these eroding cliffs, but also

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over here, in the port,

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where all you can see is the movement of ferries and lorries.

0:24:500:24:54

And it's partly because of his associations I think,

0:24:540:24:57

that the poem Dover Beach still speaks to us now, so strongly.

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This has always been a place of comings and goings and it still is,

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not just for us who stand here on the cliffs,

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but also for those out there at sea

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who find themselves approaching them.

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Contemporary poet Daljit Nagra echoes elements of Dover Beach in his own Dover poem.

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Stowed in the sea to invade the al fresco lash of a diesel breeze

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Ratcheting speed into the tide.

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Brunt with gobfuls of surf Flemmed by cushy,

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come and go tourists.

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Proud on the cruisers Lording the ministered waves.

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Seagull and shoal life

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Vexing their blarneys

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Upon a huddled camouflage

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Past the vast crumble of scummed cliffs

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Scramming our mulch

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As thunder unbladders yobbish rain and wind on our escape

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Hutched in a Bedford van.

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Seasons or years we reap inland

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Unclocked by the national eye Or stabs in the back

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Teemed for breathing sweeps of grass

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Through the whistling asthma of parks.

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Burdened, ennobled, polling sparks across pylon and pylon.

0:26:220:26:31

Daljit Nagra, like Arnold, works in education, teaching literature at a north London comprehensive.

0:26:330:26:40

I talked to him about his take on Dover Beach.

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The sound of your poetry feels incredibly contemporary in that

0:26:430:26:46

you're not only writing in standard English,

0:26:460:26:49

but also Punjabi English I think I'm right in saying.

0:26:490:26:53

I mean, do you think that that is a very...

0:26:530:26:56

a crucial part of poetry, that it needs to keep step with the sound

0:26:560:27:01

of the language that is happening out there, on the streets as well?

0:27:010:27:04

Absolutely, I mean, the thing of keep it new.

0:27:040:27:06

Matthew Arnold does keep it new at that point, he's quite rebellious, isn't he?

0:27:060:27:10

He moves on from, you know, Tennyson and Browning and does something new for a change, new language.

0:27:100:27:16

Hence it resonates to us now for its simple, clear, clean diction.

0:27:160:27:20

And also in a sense, for me I guess, when I was writing my poem I was looking at Matthew Arnold's again,

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and I was, you know, it's quite, quite free, isn't it?

0:27:250:27:28

-Yeah.

-I assumed in my head it was pentameters...

0:27:280:27:31

regular pentameters, but when you go back to it, it's free verse.

0:27:310:27:34

-Yeah, it's free verse.

-Shocking.

0:27:340:27:36

-So I tried to rein it in a bit.

-What are you doing, Matthew Arnold?

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Yeah. He's a teacher, educationalist, what's he playing at?

0:27:390:27:42

Even with the rhyme scheme I was expecting the whole,

0:27:420:27:45

"Oh, I'm sure that that is irregular in some way', but it really isn't."

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And I don't know about you, but I just wish that he'd done some more

0:27:480:27:52

of that, that he'd let himself go a bit more, because it really works.

0:27:520:27:58

In the end, Dover Beach is a stunningly dark poem.

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But there is a crucial glimmer of light...

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in that when Matthew Arnold is faced with the loss of his faith,

0:28:070:28:12

what he reaches for isn't an idea, but a person...

0:28:120:28:15

his wife.

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And that's what really fascinates me about this poem,

0:28:160:28:19

that incredibly modern shift from looking for hope in a religion,

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to looking for help in our individual relationships.

0:28:230:28:26

And perhaps that's why the poem still speaks to us so

0:28:260:28:29

powerfully now, in that, in the end,

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Matthew Arnold's answer to all of his concerns and his fears

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is that fragile hope that we all recognise...

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that promise of a love between two people.

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Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:28:580:29:01

E-mail [email protected]

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Poet and author Owen Sheers presents a series in which he explores six great works of poetry set in the British landscape. Each poem explores a sense of place and identity across Britain and opens the doors to captivating stories about the places and the lives of the poets themselves.

In 1851, a young school inspector and his wife spent a night of their honeymoon in a hotel in Dover overlooking the beach. Standing at the bedroom window and staring out at the moonlit sea, this newly-married man wrote a poem that sent a chill through his own and future generations - a poem that ends with the shocking conclusion that there is no hope, no comfort and no purpose in life.

Sheers goes in search of this poet, Matthew Arnold, and discovers what drove him to write his bleak but tremendous poem Dover Beach. He goes to Rugby School to delve into Arnold's relationship with his father, the great Victorian headmaster Dr Arnold, and visits Oxford to explore the extraordinary impact that the religious thinker John Henry Newman made on so many young people of the age. He also travels to the Swiss lake resort of Thun, where Arnold lost his heart to a mysterious woman called Marguerite.

It's the story of a rebellious young man trying to make sense of the world and includes contributions from Archbishop of Canterbury and poet Rowan Williams and rising poetry star, Daljit Nagra.


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