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.
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.