Dad and I were on the deck on a sunny afternoon. We were talking of poetry, although it was difficult to concentrate. The cacophony of chainsaws, stone cutting, pressure washing, leaf blowers and weed whackers tends to do that to conversation.
Thoreau never heard any of that noise at Walden. Just the sound of railroads and that sound truly vexed him. He knew what it meant. Everyone should read Thoreau on railroads. He foretold our future with future technology.
Cutting through the two-stroke engine din, I asked Dad what his favorite poem was. He didn’t hesitate and said “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold. I knew the poem, but not like Dad did. I’ll never know a poem like he does. He told me first encountered it in high school and then recited it, probably the first such recital of its kind with a chainsaw grinding in the distance.
The sea is calm tonight.
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.
Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
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.
We talked about what Arnold was after or not after in this poem. It turns from the ocean to the loss of human faith and our eternal ignorance. I said to Dad that in a million visits to the ocean, I have never felt the ocean angry or sad or depressed or the way Arnold depicts in the poem. It’s the ocean. It rolls in and then writers try to make something metaphorical. I have been guilty of that. The ocean will roll in long after writers have disappeared from the planet. That might be a good thing.
I asked Dad if he wanted “Dover Beach” read at his funeral. He said that might be a good idea. It won’t be me. I have no talent for that sort of thing.
I asked him if he something else in mind for his service. He said that was all up to me.