Today, a Valentine's Day greeting. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the
machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
This Valentine's Day I cannot shake the image of that
grim strip of water, the English Channel, where 29-year-old Matthew Arnold
spent his honeymoon.
In 1850, Arnold was a secretary to one Lord Landsdowne. He'd just published
his first book of poems; but his £300 annual pay was too little to support a
family properly. Too bad! He was in love with Frances Wightman, daughter of
a judge who wouldn't let his daughter marry anyone of so modest means.
That August, the judge took his family on holiday. They crossed the Channel
from Dover to Calais and went on to Flanders. Arnold, hoping to see "Franny",
camped in Calais and there wrote a poem, Calais Sands. The last stanza clearly
reveals his state of mind,
To-morrow hurry through the fields
A year later, Arnold was made a school inspector at a £700-per-year salary. They
could now marry, and the newly-wedded couple returned to the coast of Dover for a week.
Arnold published his great poem, Dover Beach, sixteen years later, but the
poem begins on that honeymoon. Arnold looks out from Dover at the foreboding waters
of the Channel and says,
Of Flanders to the storied Rhine!
To-night those soft-fringed eyes shall close
Beneath one roof, my Queen! with mine.
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!
From there, Arnold segues into the turbidity of the water -- the roiling undercurrents
of upheaval. He says of the water, But now I only hear/Its melancholy, long,
withdrawing roar, ... He laments the failure of Victorian religion. The poem
spirals down to that famous line -- where ignorant armies clash by night.
Awfully grim for a honeymoon, and yet I said Dover Beach would be my Valentine's
Day greeting, and so it is. Hear the last stanza,
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.
That seems a terribly mixed message. But look again: we hear echoes of Voltaire
telling us to tend our own garden. We hear Arnold reminding us that our love for
one another is transcendent. Bad things have always gone on. Yet you and I
constantly create order and beauty on the smaller scale, and that's what matters --
that's what'll save us. It's also why I have to wish us all a happy Valentine's Day.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
For more on Matthew Arnold, see:
And for more on his marriage to Francis Lucy Wightman, see:
Our awareness Arnold's Dover Beach today is strongly buttressed by Samuel Barber's remarkable
setting of it. The snippet at the end of the audio is from Thomas Hampson's performance
with the Emerson String Quartet: Complete Songs of Samuel Barber Track 21 CD #1 Deutsche
Grammophon 435867-2 1994.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2006 by John H.