Ah, Love

Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), by George Frederick Watts

Something strange happens when I go to parties with my wife. Hearing that I’m an English teacher, business people ask about obscure rules of grammar and converse with me on topics that must be unusual for them, are actually unusual for me too, and are certainly odd for the setting. Once one of my wife’s co-workers asked, “If the plane you were on was going down, and there was only one parachute left for you and an author, what writer would you save instead of yourself?” Another time someone asked, “What are your favorite lines of poetry, lines so beautiful you couldn’t help memorizing them?” I read these questions as ones the questioner wants to answer, the confessions of former English majors who haven’t quite left their earlier lives behind.

I’m still trying to answer the first question above, but, in answering the second, I discovered someone who shared the same lines and experienced a peculiar communion, a rapport I rarely feel and can’t forget.

My lines—our lines—come late in Matthew Arnold‘s “Dover Beach“:

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

When students read these lines in class, sometimes other students laugh. It’s easy to go over the top reciting them, and, while my students get the contents of the poem, few feel the sentiments.

If you don’t know “Dover Beach,” it’s about a couple looking out a window together, and sometimes I imagine they’ve traveled to Dover for a honeymoon or, better yet, a secret romantic tryst. The speaker describes the cliffs and how the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, retreating” is the sound of faith leaving the world. It’s a love poem, one of the most beautiful I know.

The laughing students must think me crazy to describe it that way. The poem says the world isn’t the “land of dreams” it seems to be—or anything good at all—and has nothing good in it, no joy, love, light, certitude, peace, not even any “help for pain.” No hope. They might wonder how telling her the world sucks would make her feel happy to love him.

What the other partygoer and I know, however, is that the poem has drama, not melodrama. The weight belongs on “Ah,” and the word “love” that renames the listener. They mark the start of the poem’s chief revelation. Perhaps Arnold did mean to say more about the crappy, deteriorating world that pushed authors from the aspirations of Romanticism into the dark, clashing chaos of Modernism, but I don’t hear it that way. And I’m sure my party companion didn’t either. No matter how undefined the world may be, knowing you love and are loved compensates for the uncertainty of everything else. I feel that in the poem and feel it in myself.

Arnold’s equation is lopsided, and I can see how someone—especially someone young—might not see how it balances at all, but when I read these lines, I think of how my own loved ones anchor me in the world. I have to be true to them, even if nothing else is true. I could bear any sort of loss, it sometimes seems, as long as it is not their loss. And I want to do whatever I can to keep them from a blank world that guarantees nothing. Knowing I may not be able to save them only makes me want to do so more.

Having shared these favorite lines, the other partygoer and I couldn’t slip back into small talk, and I felt a strange blush of embarrassment before we drifted off to mingle elsewhere. As is often the case with these random meetings, I haven’t seen her since. But I caught her eye before my wife and I exited that night and silently expressed my hope she’s found someone who—for however long she can possibly wish—makes her world sure.



Filed under Aging, Doubt, Education, Essays, Hope, life, Love, Matthew Arnold, Meditations, Modern Life, Poetry, Recollection, Teaching, Thoughts, Tributes, Work, Worry

19 responses to “Ah, Love

  1. Reading just those lines and no context…it seems to me that they can also be read as saying that joy, love, light, peace are not found in the external world. A mind which loves, is compassionate and empathetic might yield the ‘ah love’ moment and is perhaps available to all. Ah love let us be true…

    • dmarshall58

      Your reading fits in context as well (there’s a link to the full text embedded in the post) and suggests the larger problem of the withdrawing sea of faith, that joy, love, light, peace rely on internal belief. There’s nothing better than seeing something you think you know from another angle. Thanks! –D

  2. I really enjoy getting your posts and read them immediately.

    • dmarshall58

      What a nice thing to say! I always hope to say something that resonates with readers, and it’s always gratifying to hear my feelings aren’t just mine. Thanks! –D

  3. Peter Newton

    Lines so beautiful you can’t help but memorize them, now that’s a lesson in and of itself. A classic like “Dover Beach” can keep you company your whole life. I hope you “make” your students memorize poems–inasmuch as teenagers can be made to do anything. They will thank you “Somewhere ages and ages hence.”

    • dmarshall58

      Memorizing poems is, unfortunately, out of fashion right now, as that sort of task falls under the general edict against “busy work.” However, a number of colleagues and I still require it, and I love when a word will set my students off on a romp through a section of Romeo and Juliet or into “The Road Not Taken.” I still have “Oh Captain, My Captain” from the seventh grade, and, over my career, I’ve discovered many lines have affixed themselves like viruses. It isn’t just the lines that stick, it’s also the cadence and the careful formulation and expression of feeling that memory assures. Memorizing is one of the ways we show we love poetry, and, whether you’re for or against it, it’s something that just seems to happen. Great to hear from you. I owe you an email of praise for your beautiful book and intend to write it soon. –D

  4. Jeanel Hoagland

    Thanks David.

  5. David – This poem has had a long grasp of my soul, ever since first reading it so many years ago in English class. Bless Mr. Barton, our Lit teacher, for being a part of my life, and for his love of this poem, which added resonance to my burgeoning thoughtfulness and appreciation for truths delivered beautifully and artfully. We didn’t have to memorize Dover Beach, but it has inherent weight to sink itself into a consciousness. Superb art, in any form, has this capacity, and isn’t that a wonder?
    Beautiful post, thank you. G

    • dmarshall58

      I’d love to be someone’s Mr. Barton. Sometimes, when I get embarrassed by loving literature, when I look at a class and see someone smirking at my enthusiasm over an image or phrase or sharing private bemusement with a neighbor, I just hope some other student shares my appreciation of words and phrases. Otherwise, I might as well be a docent explaining people how candlesticks are made or demonstrating how people used to make butter instead of buying it. I like to think the weight of these lines–and others–are inherent. Some days that faith comes easier than others, but as long as I can keep it, I’ll keep teaching. Thanks for visiting! –D

  6. I love how the poem animates an otherwise mundane moment, connecting it with the past and with others who’ve shared such moments, which your post has done, too. Excellent.

    • dmarshall58

      Thank you. If I could write one poem as beautiful as “Dover Beach,” I think I’d say my writing life was pretty full, but sharing an appreciation of the poem is something too, another sort of communion. Thanks for commenting. –D

  7. Thomas

    This is precisely why I follow your blog. Thanks for introducing me to this work in such a captivating manner.

    • dmarshall58

      Thank you. It’s always wonderful to discover literature that speaks to you, and I’m happy if I can offer one poem to story that makes a difference to anyone else. —D

  8. What a lovely post. 🙂

  9. I taught tenth and eleventh graders for twenty years and poetry was my absolute passion within the slightly lesser passions of all the rest of literature. I was lucky to have had students who, because of my enthusiasm, gave poetry the benefit of the doubt. While I don’t miss marking, I do miss the students and class.

    • dmarshall58

      The marking. Yes. If they would let me do exactly what I love at work, I might prepare and teach, prepare and teach. The reexamination of beautiful and intriguing things and the airing of observations and thoughts are the most invigorating aspects of teaching for me. I like to think my students see how sincerely I’m excited by what we encounter and what they say about it. You are absolutely right that enthusiasm of that sort wins the day.

      But the marking…

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