Dover Beach—Matthew Arnold 
( his new bride, 1851)

The sea is calm tonight.
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 Ægean, 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.
(1867-New Poems)

I sat across the table from my oldest granddaughter and her beau early last spring. We’d gathered for dinner at her folks’ house before we headed back up north to the cabin. All but two of our grandchildren are young adults now. Most of us were there at one big table enjoying Cindy’s Chicken Piccata . . . and as our plates emptied politics became part of the conversation, bringing the tension of differing views and differing levels of emotion regarding the state of our country and the world. I don’t have to tell you what those issues were. They are so ingrained in our minds that it seems we’ve been allowed to think of little else this past year. We’re rarely argumentative, usually defusing differences with humor, an intentional tolerance, and a respect borne out of long loving. As matriarch, I’m pretty vocal about “no politics at the table” . . . if it’s my house since I know how tired of the topic some are. But it wasn’t my house and each person at that table held strong feelings about everything that was happening. And yes, a family is a place where you should be able to say what you really think, without censure. And so we began.

The problem when it comes to talking about politics or religion, is that no one on either side really moves any closer to the other. We may see glimpses of the rightness on the other side as someone speaks, and hold it for a minute to see how it fits . . . but then something else is said and that glimpse often vanishes into the vortex. We peacemakers rarely join fully in the fray, hoping to pour a bit of oil on the waters with our quiet listening or not-so-subtle subject-changing. But eventually I spoke directly to my two sons—successful, hardworking men, loving, sacrificial fathers—my heart heavy with this question: “How then shall we live? If everything you believe, on either side, proves true and the very worst happens, how do we live right now, today, with hope and joy? At the bedrock of who you are, what is it that makes life worth living? Worth giving your time and your life for? When we get to the bottom of that might there be something else asked of you, me, us . . . living in these days? What legacy are we leaving?”

My granddaughter had disappeared into the kitchen earlier in the discussion to make chocolate chip cookies for dessert. A grandson joked that maybe we needed a “talking stick” to pass. The warm chocolate chip cookies were passed, cups of coffee brewed, things wound down, and we looked around the table at those we held most dear. I’d been thinking of each of these young adults as I sat listening, wondering how they felt about their future. Wondering if Matthew Arnold was right when he said love is all there is.

The beautiful mystery of poetry. It speaks to us 170 years after it was written, giving voice to the very things troubling our hearts and our world today . . . the inescapable ebb and flow of human misery, the loss of faith leaving us naked and exposed, the disillusionment with a future that seems to have neither joy, nor light, nor certitude, nor peace . . . stranded on a dark battlefield, hearing confused alarms from all sides, not knowing whether to run or fight.

How then shall we live? With courage, as men and women of faith, believing in the goodness of God, believing that we were made for such a time as this. And these even older words of the poet David speak to us: I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Psalm 27:13

“. . . I don’t need faith to know that if I take flour and butter and milk and seasonings and heat them in a double boiler, the mix will thicken and become white sauce. Faith is for that which lies on the other side of reason. Faith is what makes life bearable, with all its tragedies and ambiguities and sudden, startling joys. Surely it wasn’t reasonable for the Lord of the Universe to come and walk this earth with us and love us enough to die for us and then show us everlasting life? We will all grow old, and sooner or later we will die, like the old trees in the orchard. But we have been promised that this is not the end. We have been promised life.”—Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water—Reflections on Faith & Art

2 thoughts on ““Dover Beach”

  1. Oh my. This hits home. With our kids, all grown, we’re walking by faith while tip-toeing on egg shells.
    Sometimes I hear the mountains call, “run away with us!”
    Prayer and praise—it’s how the faithful fight this spiritual warfare.
    Thank you for posting these meaningful words. They comfort my weary soul.


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