“…here as on a darkling plain”

Today is Memorial Day in the United States, a holiday when we honor our war dead and, more generally, our deceased loved ones.  (And when, less poignantly, we kick off the summer travel season with barbecues and beer.)

I’m spending today with Husband and the kids.  We’ll probably take in our town’s parade with its odd mixture of sequin-clad dancers, 4H kids throwing candy, and a float carrying local war widows.

An incongruous tableau.

And then we’ll eat and nap and hope for sunshine.

And today the poem “Dover Beach” is in my head.  It’s not a war poem, per se, or even a poem explicitly about memory.  It is, I think, a lament for the uncertainties of the modern world.

It’s also a poem that is sacred to me; Husband chose it as one of the readings at our wedding.  And it’s on my mind today as I think about the power of love in the face of uncertainty and remember those fallen in war, those suffering from illness, and the people of Joplin, Missouri and the citizens of the tornado ravaged communities of the central U.S.

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-blanch’d 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 Aegean, 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 furl’d.
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,” by Matthew Arnold, 1851 (?)

What, or whom, are you remembering today?

Image: Graves at Arlington on Memorial Day by Remember via Wikimedia Commons.  Image is in the public domain.
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24 responses to ““…here as on a darkling plain”

  1. A poem I adore – and haven’t heard in far too long. Thank you for sharing it today. xox

  2. I’ve love this poem! An apt choice for today.

    Traditionally, we remember and honor our family members who’ve died on Memorial Day. Today, I am thinking of my family and friends who lost so much in Joplin.

  3. Kristen, thank you for sharing this today.

  4. I will freely confess that I am a poetry beginner. Poetry intimidates me. However, I have recently fallen in love with it due to the help of a wonderful teacher.

    This poem invites me to feel quite sad. It feels rather hopeless. There are the themes of returning…but what seems to return is sadness and misery.

    I hear this hint that love is the only stable thing; that all else is circumstances that can be swept away by oceans and the like, but that theme feeling buried and drowned rather than highlighted.

    Please educate me and show me what you see and hear that feels so sacred as to want it at your wedding and to keep you remembering today.

    I begin teaching writing to prisoners next week. I believe poetry is the best beginning. It is so concise and deep-water-running. Any enlightenment you can offer me will be appreciated. So often I find it is the things I don’t see that provide the greatest doors through which I can walk once I finally locate them.

    • I too am a poetry beginner. Certain poems speak to me, but I have never studied poetry formally and suspect that my interpretations might be off. (The only poem I really remember “getting” in high school was Emily Dickinson’s “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass.”) Nevertheless, here’s why this poem is so special to me:

      Most critics think that Matthew Arnold wrote “Dover Beach” when on his honeymoon in Dover (right across the English Channel from Calais), so I’ve always imagined Arnold with his arm around his bride’s waist, looking out at the water, saying something like: “Man, this world is a scary place. But I will love you and hope you will love me. And I hope that will be enough.”

      The sadness is absolutely there – and, no, you’re not the only one who’s remarked on the hopelessness of the poem, especially in the context of a wedding – but I’ve always liked that idea of two people choosing to put their faith in each other, even in spite the foolishness of doing so in a world whose odds are weighted against ease and happiness.

      That’s really a two-cent analysis – but one that seemed fitting to me and my husband when we got married.

      Thanks for asking. xo

  5. Beautiful poem. Thank you for reminding me to remember.

  6. I wasn’t familiar with that poem, but I very much enjoyed it. It sort of reminded me of a few Pablo Neruda poems like If You Forget Me and The Saddest Poem.

    • I’ve only read a few Neruda poems (and those were in Spanish lit. class in college). Needless to say, I think I better make some time to read him in my adulthood (and probably in English).

  7. Actually, Kristen, the more I reflect on this poem and its use at your wedding as well as your choice to bring it out on Memorial Day, the more the sense of it comes to me. (This is why poetry is opening windows in my life. It’s short enough to ponder and recirculate throughout a day.)

    I have lost several loved ones to death. I have some dear friends who have lost husbands to war. Turbulence surrounds. But Love continues to abound.

    Taking this poem as a centerpiece in a wedding or a Memorial Day is a profound sort of promise. All of us leap at the chance to love when butterflies fly. It’s when the storms of life surge that Love counts. You’ve made that promise and asked us to remember.

  8. Clashing yes in ignorance, in humanity’s long dark night of the soul… if we say so; perhaps a dawning multiplicity of eternally present possibility, as well, if we see so, together.

    This very day my mother-in-law passed; at two days past 83, but every haunted by her father’s death, a military man, when she was a scant four years old. Losses haunt for generations, perhaps love can outshine even that?

    • Four years ago, that is, when she died… but it hangs over the day and yet infuses it with extra beauty (there is no concept of loss without that of gain; nor of peace without that of conflict… it’s beyond the clash of opposites I meant to evoke.

  9. We have few traditions on this weekend, or the holiday itself. But I find myself remembering a day when I was younger, and other days – Vietnam – so much loss, so much confusion as a country, so many acts of courage. So many sorrows.

  10. As we ate a whole watermelon and spit the seeds as far as we could, I couldn’t help thinking of my neighbor’s son, who is on his third tour in Afghanistan. And I couldn’t help saying a silent prayer to Whatever is Out There that he please, please, please come home safely.

  11. As an aside, I need to say that I am so impressed with your hubby’s choice. Indeed, poem readings at a wedding. Nice.

    • Thanks, Cathy. We were married in a non-denominational service so we chose poems and snippets from our favorite books for the readings – everything from Matthew Arnold to Jane Austen. I loved it then and still get goosebumps when I think about it.

  12. This is a beautiful poem. I looked it up to see that it really wasn’t about war because it seems to be, but no .. it’s not. I like this choice of reading for a wedding ceremony because there’s much more there than melancholy.

    • I looked it up too when my husband first suggested it as a wedding reading because it felt like a war poem to me. But the more I read it, the more I see the hopefulness there within the despair.

  13. I was not familiar with the poem, but enjoyed it Kristen. Amazing how it can have so much applicability–from death to life in marriage. Excellent.

  14. Beautiful post befitting the hope we all feel in anticipating the day when wars end peacefully; the anticipation of a new life in marriage…Beautiful words…

  15. For it is important that awake people be awake,
    or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
    the signals we give–yes or no, or maybe–
    should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

    William Stafford, from “A Ritual to Read to Each Other”

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