Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Darkling Plain

[An Explication of Matthew Arnold’s "Dover Beach"]

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 Ægean, 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.

During his honeymoon in 1851, Matthew Arnold visited Dover, England. As he strolled along the beach with his wife, he probably paused to listen to the roar of the English Channel, its waves driven wildly against the shore, or to stare up at the vast white chalk cliffs dominating the coastline. This visit would later serve as inspiration for his poem “Dover Beach.” The poem describes a man’s personal loss of faith, exemplifying the contrast between a time when religion was embraced without question and the modern Victorian age that introduced doubt and atheism.

Arnold believed that his poems would eventually “have their day” because they represented “the main movement of mind” of the Victorian world. Although certainly one of the reasons why he gained prominence, Arnold was also a masterful poet, able to create striking pictures with words. “Dover Beach” begins with such a picture of the calm sea, “the tide is full, the moon lies fair / upon the straits” and “the cliffs of England stand, / Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay” (“Dover Beach”, 2-5). It is not only a picture of Dover, however, but of the whole of England. The British Empire had its height in the Victorian age. England, glorious and powerful, dominated much of the world. Yet in this peaceful scene, suddenly, a “grating roar” is heard “of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling, / at their return, up the high strand” (10-11). The tranquility of the night has been disturbed by this wild noise: the pebbles symbolize new opinions (for instance, Darwin’s theories on evolution) that are flooding the philosophical spectrum and undermining the Christian worldview. Arnold does not question their veracity, but he admits that they bring “the eternal note of sadness in” (14).

This sound is not new to England, however. Arnold describes Sophocles also hearing it long ago on the Ægean, referring to a passage from Antigone. It is the sound of “human misery” (18), the constant war of differing thoughts and opinions that occurs in any age, country, or culture. Arnold believes nature can be used to discover truths about the world and the sea gives him, like Sophocles, a “thought” (19) that tries to solve this war in his mind. Yet it can hardly offer him a solution. Instead, it reminds Arnold of religion and he compares the real sea to “The Sea of Faith” (21).

This Sea, unlike the sea of nature, can offer man satisfaction for the turmoil in his soul. Indeed, once “at the full, and round earth’s shore” it “lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d” (22-23). It is unclear here whether Arnold is referring to a time period (such as the medieval age) or simply to a previous time in his life when Christianity was accepted with absolute conviction and no uncertainty. Whichever the case, when it was accepted, his life did not experience such dark sadness and fear. As he watches his religious beliefs shattered by the new beliefs of the day (beliefs that question the existence of God and the origins of man), he can only hear The Sea of Faith’s “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, / Retreating, to the breath / Of the night-wind” (25-27). Without Christianity, the world is left naked and forbidding.

Arnold argues, however, that The Sea of Faith was actually a delusion. In reality, the world has “really neither joy, nor love, nor light, / nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain” (32-33). Because Christianity offered these things to Arnold, it must have been false. Arnold has become a nihilist. According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, nihilism is a viewpoint that “traditional values and beliefs are unfounded and that existence is senseless and useless,” denying “any objective ground of truth and especially of moral truths.” He has no way to decide between the warring philosophies because there is no ultimate standard to judge them against. Searching wildly for a solution to this dilemma, Arnold insists on crying out to his “love” (though in the next breath he denounces any love in the world), declaring, “let us be true / to one another!” (29-30). But how can they be true when there is no truth in the world? How can they love one another when love is only a delusion?

No answer is found for these questions. He ends the poem on a note of sorrow, unable to resolve the turmoil in his soul. Instead, he describes himself as on a “darkling plain / Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, / Where ignorant armies clash by night” (35-37). For the nihilist, the world is in a constant state of war. Fear and despair are its only realities. Arnold seeks desperately to find a shred of happiness that is not a fantasy, but this fights against his own philosophy. Vainly, he attempts to create a substitution for the relationship between God and man, appealing to his fellow man for help. “Let us be true!” he begs, but they have nothing to guide them, no foundation on which to protect such a relationship – the world is hostile, religion is dead, and nature can give them no answers.

Arnold refused to call himself an atheist, hiding in the supposed comforts of agnosticism, refusing to believe in either the existence or the nonexistence of God. Yet, he rejected religion as superficial, blinding to true reality. “Dover Beach” may, in fact, be his only writing that conceded religion was an answer to chaos in the world: it was deceptive, but it did offer relief and a feigned security. However, Arnold insisted on freeing himself from this self-delusion and wallowing in the despair and darkness of the real world. Nevertheless, the Bible is clear that Arnold has actually thrown away reality for the self-delusion. In Romans, Paul wrote that sinful men “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Romans, I.18). Further, “they [become] futile in their speculations, and their foolish hearts [are] darkened. Professing to be wise, they [become] fools” (I.21-22). Arnold believed a world of happiness and peace must be a delusion and embraced what he thought was a reality of misery and horror. Indeed, to the unbeliever it is their reality – a “darkling plain” where fools will fight to reject God and hide from the light and truth.

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Posted by Nicole Bianchi at 8:39 PM |

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Lucifer's Fall

[I wrote this poem several weeks ago after studying poetry in my Brit Lit class. It's in the style of a Shakespearean Sonnet and was inspired by John Milton's Paradise Lost and texts from Isaiah and Revelation.]

Isaiah 14:12

How you have fallen from heaven,
O morning star, son of the dawn!
You have been cast down to the earth,
you who once laid low the nations!

Fallen art thou, son of the bright flamed morn,
With thy dragon’s black tail swept down the stars,
Burning, blazing, blaring into Hell born,
Never to ride skyward after these wars.
Why did thou forsake lofty light-realms to
Perish in a cursed tract of Hades?
And why strive vain against Him always true,
Baring thine heart to this wild disease?
Curséd art thou of all His creatures made,
For once thou strike the heel of His blessed Son –
Arise, Firstborn! And let all be afraid,
Heavens quake until victory is won.
This foul false serpent crush under Thy feet,
Lucifer Hell-chained in final defeat.

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Posted by Nicole Bianchi at 1:12 PM |

Thursday, January 11, 2007

A Review of "A Modest Proposal"

[To start my new adventures with this blog, I would like to post an essay I recently wrote for my British Literature class.]

Go here to read "A Modest Proposal."

Swift's Great Satire

Satire has existed as far back as ancient Rome (indeed, tradition says that Quintilian, a Roman rhetorician, coined the term), but it was not until the 18th century that it became a true literary genre. This period saw the emergence of such literary giants as Alexander Pope, John Dryden, and Voltaire, all brilliant satirists. Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) surpassed them all, however, considered by many the greatest prose satirist in the English language. Satire is a literary work that holds up human vices and follies to ridicule or scorn, often employing irony and sarcasm. Swift's short pamphlet “A Modest Proposal” is an excellent example of his superb use of the genre. The piece addresses the Irish famine, attempting to offer a solution for the thousands of starving Irish children. Utilizing three types of persuasion borrowed from Aristotle’s Rhetoric, Swift makes the piece quite convincing, luring the unsuspecting reader to agree with the author’s basic premises before revealing his shocking conclusions – yet, though a satiric seriousness does pervade the work, a true sincerity and earnestness is at the heart of “A Modest Proposal.”

The Irish Famine of 1740 to 1741 refers to the Irish people, rather than Ireland itself. The island was rich with produce and animals; only the crops (mostly potatoes) of the peasant farmers suffered a poor harvest. The English absentee landlords fed off the abundance of the land and starved the Irish citizens to death. One historian, John Mitchell, remarked, “A million and a half men, women and children were carefully and peacefully slain by the English Government. They died of hunger in the midst of abundance, which their own hands created.” Many people wrote pamphlets to expose the ruthlessness of the English and the desperate state of the Irish or to offer different schemes to ease the poverty of thousands and make them useful to the public. With his own satiric pamphlet, Swift joined these writers, employing the first type of Aristotle’s persuasion, “ethos.” Ethos refers to the credibility of the author. By grouping himself with these other writers, Swift shows that he is embarking on a good cause. In the opening title of his piece, he explains that he wishes to prevent the children of Ireland from being a “burden to their parents” and hopes to make them “beneficial to the public” (“A Modest Proposal,” 1114). Not only, however, does he have England in mind, but he also considers the welfare of the children – with his plan they will not want “food and raiment for the rest of their lives” (1114). He also declares that he wishes to end “voluntary abortions” in which women murder their own children (1115). His reasons for his plan at first appear anything but harmful.

To further support the integrity of his schemes, Swift uses the second type of Aristotelian persuasion, “pathos.” Describing the suffering of the Irish in his opening paragraph, he appeals to human emotion, trying to awaken pity and compassion. He calls it a “melancholy object” to walk through Dublin or travel in the countryside and behold the “beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags and importuning every passenger for alms” (1114). When speaking of the mothers who are forced to murder “the poor innocent babes,” he says it is not for shame, but because they cannot provide for their own children; indeed, the very sight of the starving infants would “move tears and pity in the most savage and inhuman breast” (1115). Yet, in the midst of wringing pity from his audience, Swift suddenly reveals his own scheme for allaying the Irish suffering. He announces,

I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout (1114).

Instead of awakening further empathy, his scheme produces disgust. It is this paragraph, however, that makes it readily apparent that Swift’s pamphlet is satiric and he is ridiculing the metaphor, “The English are devouring the Irish.”

Yet, he retains his controlled and grave tone, using the third Aristotelian type of persuasion to support his satire. “Logos” employs logic and outside sources to convince the audience. Swift first appeals to a François Rabelais, a fellow satirist (who he jokingly calls “a grave author” and “eminent French physician”), to prove that his schemes will lessen the Catholic population (1116). Here he parodies the hostility that most English felt against the Papists, especially after the Glorious Revolution that deposed James II and successfully kept Catholics off the throne. Later on in the piece, he also invokes the wisdom of a friend who believes that they might use the children as a substitute for venison meat. Swift casts this plan aside, however, because the meat of older children would probably be tough and lean and some people might think that “such a practice…as a little bordering on cruelty” (1116). The irony of this statement is alarming because Swift’s actual scheme does not simply border on cruelty, but has fallen headfirst into barbarity. Nevertheless, he justifies his friend’s proposal because it was “put into his head by the famous Psalmanazar,” who had written a fictitious book on Formosa and described the selling of plump young girls as food (1117). Swift’s utilization of logos seems to fail with these repulsive examples.

At a deeper level, though, the pamphlet appears to have a very different purpose than offering up Irish children as food for the English. Swift’s Aristotelian persuasion worked perfectly with both ethos and pathos and, at a closer glance, it also works with logos. He convinces the audience of the horrible state of the Irish and the ruthlessness of the English. The English are already devouring the Irish children, already true cannibals. As he draws near the conclusion of his piece, he uses irony to emphasize this, writing that he will not consider other ways to deal with the Irish problem, “of learning to love our country….of quitting our animosities and factions, nor acting any longer like the Jews, who were murdering one another at the very moment their city was taken….of teaching landlords to have at least one degree of mercy towards their tenants” (1118). The pamphlet is a modest proposal for the preservation of a nation on the verge of extermination. He exemplifies his great misery and distress for the Irish people when he tells those who would oppose his schemes to ask the Irish parents,

whether they would not at this day think it a great happiness to have been sold for food, at a year old in the manner I prescribe, and thereby have avoided such a perpetual scene of misfortunes as they have since gone through by the oppression of landlords, the impossibility of paying rent without money or trade, the want of common sustenance, with neither house nor clothes to cover them from the inclemencies of the weather, and the most inevitable prospect of entailing the like or greater miseries upon their breed for ever (1119).

Works Cited:

Swift, Jonathan. “A Modest Proposal.” 1729. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Major Authors. Stephen Greenblatt, General Editor. 8th edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2006

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Posted by Nicole Bianchi at 7:49 PM |

a reappearance

I stumbled over this blog several days ago, picked it up, dusted it off, and was quite displeased to find it so neglected. I hope, therefore, to restore it to the land of the living. My personal musings will still be kept on my xanga blog, but I hope to reserve my more literary reviews and chatter for this journal. I'm not sure if I'll publicize this blog at all, but I always do love it if a reader or two drops by and enjoys.


Posted by Nicole Bianchi at 6:20 PM |

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