Dec. 15, 2003

Dover Beach

by Matthew Arnold

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Poem: "Dover Beach," by Matthew Arnold

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 Aegaean, 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.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1815 that Jane Austen's novel Emma was first published. It's about a spoiled but likable girl who lives with her father. She tries to match her best friend and herself with several men, but misjudges the feelings of everyone involved. Austen began working on Emma in January of 1814, and finished it in March of 1815, when she was 39 years old. It was her fourth novel to be published, and the last one before her death. Even though she published anonymously she had established a reputation as one of the best living novelists. One of her fans was the Prince Regent of England, and Austen dedicated Emma to him, at his secretary's request. 2,000 copies of Emma were printed, and there were still over 500 left unsold after four years. Austen earned less than 40 pounds from the book in her lifetime.

Austen kept a list of friends and family members and wrote down what they thought about Emma. She wrote that her mother "thought it more entertaining than M[ansfield] P[ark]—but not so interesting as P[ride] & P[rejudice]."

It's the birthday of Irish writer Edna O'Brien, born in County Clare in the west of Ireland (1932). She was raised on a farm, just outside a village of 200 people that O'Brien would later call "enclosed, fervid and bigoted." The town was devoutly Catholic, and O'Brien's parents discouraged her from reading anything other than religious texts. In her Catholic school, she read the Bible, prayer books, and occasionally a passage from Shakespeare. After high school, she packed up a suitcase, bound it in twine, and moved to Dublin. She lived in a poor area of town and studied to become a pharmacist. She had never bought a book before, but one day she purchased a copy of Introducing James Joyce (1942) by T.S. Eliot, which included passages from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916). O'Brien later said encountering Joyce "was the most astonishing literary experience of my life." She said she realized for the first time that a writer can draw on his or her own life for material; and she knew that's what she wanted to do for a living.

She wrote her first novel, Country Girls (1960), at the age of 26, in only three weeks. It's the first book in a trilogy that follows the lives of two women from their childhood in a convent school in the west of Ireland to their unhappy marriages in London. The books talk openly about poverty and sexuality and religious repression. They were banned in Ireland as soon as they were published. Country Girls was called "a smear on Irish womanhood" and was burned at churches in O'Brien's childhood home. But readers in Britain and America loved her work, and O'Brien has gone on to write many more successful novels about people struggling to find happiness in twentieth-century Ireland.

O'Brien said, "The need to write becomes as intrinsic as the need to breathe .... It is as if the life lived has not been lived until it is set down in this unconscious sequence of words."

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