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.
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.
I have stood on a lonely beach from time to time, usually with a surfboard under my arm, in order to read the water and see the flow of the tide and the power of the rip. I can't help it, but it often makes me dwell on the melancholy. It seems, after reading Arnold, that I'm not the only one.
The "sea of faith" to which Arnold refers, and which he identifies as receding in its cohesive importance with the increasing coarseness of his era, has left him disquieted. He turns to his love, and realizes that the things that one may expect of the world and its institutions are for nought, as it is that which exists between two people that reveals the true nature of love, purpose, and being. With that realization, the poet can remain in, but not of, a world that clashes in a dark and confused realm.