Saturday, March 04, 2006

An Early Anti-War Poem

I'm not a pacifist. I reluctantly supported the first Gulf War (with several reservations) and I supported action in Afghanistan. But the current war in Iraq? It never made any sense to me. I don't know if America's role in Iraq is winding down or not, and I don't know if Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld have more wars planned for America to start that we don't need. But as of now, there's a lot of unfinished business to deal with.

I've been thinking about doing a weekend poetry segment and I've been quietly talking to a handful of poets who might be willing to submit a poem or two. For now, I'd like to post some old anti-war poems for the next few weeks.

The first poem, by the 19th century British poet, Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), doesn't feel like an anti-war poem at first. I suppose it's still taught in English literature classes; it was taught in one class I took many years ago and the instructor managed to sidestep around what the poem was about, maybe because Vietnam was going on at the time. We're told that Arnold wrote the poem in 1851; but it feels like it was written in the early summer of 1914.

Dover Beach

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 of 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.

—Matthew Arnold



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