Some works of art – be it a piece of music, a poem, a novel or a theatrical performance – are capable of changing the way in which one thinks and perceives the world. They penetrate every fibre of one’s being upon exposure and leave their mark. These works remain both timeless and, thus, relevant to the societies of both the past and present.
And for her, such a work was Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”.
She was first exposed to the poem on a not-so-special school-day during one of the many tedious English periods that she had to endure. As Mrs Peacock declared that ‘The sea is calm tonight’ and proceeded to enthusiastically read the rest of the poem to the class, the girl could not help feel drawn to it for its contradictorily cynical and optimistic prose. After a brief discussion on the poem’s meaning, the now-lively class delved into the almost-cruel task of dissecting it – line by line – and (in case you’re wondering) it proved very cleverly constructed. Furthermore, as Luck or Destiny would have it, she had been reading Ian McEwan’s “Saturday” at the time and during the lesson, the knowledgeable Mrs Peacock had casually mentioned that “Dover Beach” played a crucial role in the aforementioned novel’s conclusion. Thus, as a result of the girl’s love for McEwan, she decided right there and then to like Arnold’s poem that much more.
Upon reading the ending of “Saturday”, she felt somewhat disconcerted: the words of “Dover Beach” had struck and moved the novel’s emotionally unstable villain, Baxter, and had, therefore, potentially saved the lives of the protagonist’s family
and her confusion lay in the fact that she could not quite understand what had touched Baxter so profoundly to prevent him from potentially destroying them as a unit. So, in a fit of despair, she decided to read the poem once more in the hope of finding an answer.
And, somehow, she did.
The world to her (as well as to other young people) seemed to be in an irrevocably chaotic mess – much like the world that Baxter and the protagonist, Henry, found themselves in. Today’s news headlines are plagued with stories of terrorist groups, government corruption and poverty. Everyday seems to be filled with the “human misery” that Arnold talks of and – like many others – our girl lay awake, in a doleful state, reflecting on the “eternal note of sadness” that is present in both Arnold’s time as well as in ours.
However, “Dover Beach” does offer us a silver lining in spite of all the poem’s described mayhem: it offers the gift of control in a seemingly uncontrollable world.
This control is within the realm of our own personal realities. Baxter presumably understood this and, hence, felt that he could control the ‘glitch’ within his own human experience. Therefore, he turned to McEwan’s Henry in the hope of finding the control that he lacked.
This idea of controlling one’s “little world” is also, at first, alluded to in the beginning of McEwan’s novel when a principle character observes “that the bigger you think”, the crappier the world seems.
Upon that second reading of Arnold’s poem, our very own protagonist – the girl – learned that she needed to choose happiness. So, she chose to concentrate on all the things in her life that brought her peace and joy. She chose to embrace the infinite wisdom that lay in the words of Matthew Arnold and, as a result, saw the beauty in her life that she had previously missed.
Maybe we should all learn from her…