Dec. 24, 2004

Dover Beach

by Matthew Arnold

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Poem: "Dover Beach" by Matthew Arnold. Reprinted with permission.

Dover Beach

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 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 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:

Today is Christmas Eve. In America, children across the country prepare for an overnight visit from Santa Claus, who will deliver gifts to those who have been nice. In Sweden, most children will be visited by Santa Claus today, instead of Christmas Day.

Today also marks the end of Advent, which lasts from St. Andrew's Day until Christmas Eve. The Roman Catholic Church traditionally considers Advent a time of penitence and fasting, to prepare for the holy day of Christmas. But the Roman observance also considers the end of Advent a time of great anticipation for the coming holiday, a feeling which persists in Western culture to this day.

It was on this day in 1818 that Franz Gruber, an Austrian organist, composed the music for the poem "Silent Night." It was Gruber's only published composition.

It was on this day in 1914 that the last known Christmas truce occurred, during World War I. German troops fighting in Belgium began decorating their trenches and singing Christmas carols. Their enemy, the British, soon joined in the caroling. The war was put on hold, and these soldiers greeted each other in "No Man's Land," exchanging gifts of whiskey and cigars. Recently killed soldiers were returned behind their own lines and given proper burials, and soldiers from both sides attended ceremonies. In many areas, the truce held until Christmas night, while in other places the truce did not end until New Year's Day. One story has it that the opposing sides played a soccer match together. The game ended when the ball deflated on a strand of barbed wire.

British commanders Sir John French and Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien disapproved of the truce, and they ordered artillery bombardments on Christmas Eve in the remaining years of the war. Troops were also rotated with regularity to keep them from growing too familiar with the enemy troops in the close quarters of trench warfare. The Christmas truce was a war tradition of the 19th century, and its disappearance marked the end of wartime protocols of that time.

It's the birthday of the poet who gave us "Dover Beach," Matthew Arnold, born in Middlesex, England (1822). Arnold was the son of the schoolmaster of Rugby School, and Arnold himself attended Rugby as a youth. Arnold later attended Balliol College, Oxford, as a young man, and five years after his graduation he published his first volume of poems, The Strayed Reveler (1849). Three years later, Arnold published Empedocles on Etna (1852). Then he decided that his first two collections were no good, and he removed them from circulation. He later published many other volumes, including New Poems (1867), which included his famous elegy "Thyrsis."

Arnold wrote most of his poetry before the age of forty. His verse emphasized directness and symmetry, but his later work as a literary critic attacked the manners and taste of 19th century England, particularly the middle class he dubbed "Philistines." Late in his life, Arnold toured the United States giving lectures, which were collected into the book Discourses in America (1885). Arnold told his biographer that he wanted to be remembered most for this book.

It was on this day in 1801 that the steam engine transported its first passengers, in London, England. Richard Trevithick invented the high-pressure steam engine in 1800, and built the carriage used in London on Christmas Eve the following year. By 1804, he had constructed a steam locomotive for use in Wales, the first of its kind.

It was on this day in 1814 that the Treaty of Ghent was signed at Ghent, Belgium, an agreement intended to end the War of 1812. News of the treaty was slow to reach North America, and fighting between American and British forces continued for several weeks after the treaty to end the war had been signed. During this time, the Battle of New Orleans took place, which turned out to be one of the most famous battles of the war. President James Madison finally ratified the treaty in February 1815. The treaty did not address the disagreement that had helped cause the war, the impressment of American sailors. In the treaty, the British agreed to give up demands to establish a British-controlled Native American state northwest of the Ohio River. It was considered a victory for the United States.

It's the birthday of the mystery writer Mary Higgins Clark, born in New York City (1929). Her father died when she was ten years old, and Clark went to secretarial school after graduating from high school so she could help her mother pay the bills. She worked in an advertising agency for three years until she decided to become a stewardess in 1949. Clark said, "I was in a revolution in Syria and on the last flight into Czechoslovakia before the Iron Curtain went down. I flew for a year then got married."

Clark began writing short stories after she was married. She took writing classes at New York University. In 1956, she sold her first short story to Extension Magazine for one hundred dollars. She had endured six years of rejection, and forty rejection slips. She said, "I framed that first letter of acceptance."

After her husband died, Clark began writing radio scripts, and eventually decided to write books. Clark wrote in the mornings, between five and seven, until she would wake her children for school. Her first book was a biographical novel about George Washington, and it was not a success. She decided to write a suspense novel after that, and she wrote Where Are the Children? and this marked a turning point in her career. The book became a bestseller.

Clark decided to attend college in 1974, and she graduated from Fordham University in 1979. Nine years later she returned to her alma mater as the commencement speaker. She is the author of several books, and she holds thirteen honorary doctorates.

It's the birthday of the journalist I.F. Stone, born Isidor Feinstein in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1907). Stone moved to New York City when he began his career as a journalist, and eventually became the editor of The Nation. He also worked on many newspapers. He began his own journal in 1953 and it ran for several years. Stone became known as one of the most influential liberal journalists of the period following World War II, and was an opponent of the Cold War.

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