My two favorite poems are “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats and “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold. Though they are both by British authors of the Romantic strain, they are almost complete opposites in terms of their message. The former poem, which I call my life insurance, insists that the pains and indignities of life are transitory, and the real nature of reality is truth and beauty. It was one of the first poems I memorized and it appeals deeply to the philosopher, artist, humanist, and optimist in me. Arnold’s poem, with its progression from a serene coastal evening to a chaotic field of war, claims that the essence of the life and the world is pain, confusion, and suffering. “Dover Beach,” therefore, speaks to my cynical side, which thinks that truth and beauty are convenient constructions and that the best we can hope for in life is to find some shred of solace and refuge in one another. Together, these two poems encapsulate the extremities of my worldview.
So naturally, when I visited England in the spring of last year, I wanted to make it a poetry pilgrimage. I would view the Greek pottery that inspired Keats’s verse, and I would see in-person the cliffs and beaches of Dover which inspired Arnolds’ pessimistic lines. The Greek pottery was easily checked off with a stroll through the British Museum’s antiquities collections. Dover took more time and effort–a couple hours’ train ride from Waterloo station, a brisk walk through the town of Dover, an entertaining detour through Dover Castle, an hour of being lost between the castle and the coast, and then some wind-whipped hiking to reach the best viewing points of the cliffs and beaches.
But I knew it would be worth it, as I had high hopes thanks to Arnolds’s scintillating description in the first stanza of the poem:
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!
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.
I had in mind a tiny town perched directly on an endless pebble beach, kissed by ocean waves, the water in turn wrapped in a gray sky. I would hear the “eternal notes of sadness” in the “grating roar of pebbles.” Since it wasn’t nighttime, I wouldn’t see the “fair” moon or feel the “sweet night-air” but I would see the gleaming light on the French coast beyond the straits. And I would witness the cliffs of England “glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.” I would be able to experience being inside one of my favorite works of art.
The reality was quite a bit different. The cliffs were not nearly as glimmeringly white as Arnold suggests. Sometimes they were chalky white, sometimes a grungy brown. There was no grating roar of pebbles; when we descended to the bottom of the cliffs we found the stinky beach too clogged with seaweed and mildew to whimper, much less roar. There was no light gleaming from the French coast; the sky was so overcast we caught only a momentary glimpse of France. My travel companion who accompanied me to Dover was quite amused at how far art and expectation diverged from reality, but I was devastated.
In retrospect though, I realized that this divergence was perhaps the most fitting homage to the spirit of the poem. Isn’t disappointment and disillusionment the over-riding theme of “Dover Beach”? And in the end, apart from the expectations set up by me and my poetry pilgrimage, we had an entirely enjoyable day in Dover. We drank mead and ate seafood, wandered through the castle, hiked through thoroughly impressive and expansive landscapes, managed to see France (a rare sight through the coastal fog), explored a shipwreck and odd WWII-era fortifications on the beach, and then anointed our late-night return to London with a fish and chips dinner. If you don’t go to the town expecting the Dover of 1851–when the poem about it was written–it’s really a pleasant day trip, much more optimistic Keats than pessimistic Arnold.