‘Dover Beach’ and ‘When You are Old’ as Expressions of Love

Poetic themes range from love and beauty to war, death and certainly, Nature but it is the masterstroke of personal experience embellished with rhetorical devices that make few poetic creations stand out in the crowd. Two such poems reflecting on the meaning of Love in the context of the poets’ personal life are Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” and William Butler Yeats’ “When You are Old”. One poet reveres his union with his beloved in the midst of chaos and uncertainties of the world while the other reflects on his unrequited love and imagines the remorse his beloved would feel in her old age at the rejection of her one and only true love.In the Victorian period, the Christian world with its theological dictates was shaken to the core by the radical scientific postulates. It is at this juncture the poet Matthew Arnold communicates his faith in the power of Love and personal conflict of belief versus doubt in his poem ‘Dover Beach’. It is a reflection of the physical surroundings of the poet imbued with the deeper analysis of the loss of the concrete familiar structure of faith and a plea to his beloved to remain true to love, which he believed was the ultimate recourse for all humanity in future.Delving into the personal history of the poet, Arnold married Fanny LucyWightman at Dover, despite her father’s disapproval. Arnold wrote `Dover Beach` portraying his own experience as a lover torn between love and war.The poem opens with a beguiling simplicity in the lucid depiction of the quiet sea-side night, radiant with the silvery moon-shine. It is a perfect honeymoon setting for the newly weds. There is a deliberate sense of slowing of time, as the poet gazes at the sparkling image of Dover Beach laid bare in the night, mirrored in the luminosity of the ‘fair’ moon as Arnold writes:The sea is calm to-night.The tide is full, the moon lies fairUpon the Straits;(‘Dover Beach’ lines1-3)The opening lines ease the reader into a state of tranquil absorption of the natural beauty of the setting, yet it is Arnold’s way of beckoning his beloved into the charmed circle of peace that he witnesses. In his words: “Come to the window, sweet is the night air! (6), he invites his beloved wife to partake the magnificence of the scene, but on a deeper level, he helps the reader position himself at Arnold’s side to participate in the night’s beauty. There is an unmistakable sense of calm in his words, portending the storm of the chaos and anarchy prevalent in the present world which torments the poet even in the serene atmosphere of the moon-washed beach. The picturesque imagery of the opening lines mirror the physical relief of the cliffs, the continuous murmur of the waters and the isolation of the place in the moon-lit night contributing to Arnold’s deep philosophical reflections on the situation of the world, far away from the noise and fret of human crowd.The first aberrant note in the harmony of the seascape, a subtle sensory shift in image, is the “grating roar” (9) as the waves retreat from their progress, flinging the pebbles on the shore. This continual action, this harsh sound jars the ambience, unsettling it, bringing a transformation in the mood of the poem. The “grating roar” is a paradox as well as hyperbolic in rhetorical structure. The Sea is a continued metaphor throughout the poem. The repetitive cycle of the waves washing the shoreline, “Begin, and cease, and then again begin” (12) has a mournful sound to it, which to the poet’s sensitive perception appears to be the herald of the eternal note of melancholy. The silence is thus permeated by the rhythm of the sea, noted by the clever use of a combination of run-on and end-stopped lines in the first stanza. The poem shifts from the literal portrayal of Nature to a deep reflection on the eternal truth of life.Arnold’s fascination with the classic greats is expressed in his reference to Sophocles and his play Antigone with the image of the ancient scholar on the shores of the Aegean. His Hellenistic preoccupation coupled with the sensuous word-picture heightens the timeless dilemma of our lives – the reality of eternal sadness beneath the surface of the bliss and beauty in the world. This idea is reiterated later in the poet’s outcry:for the world, which seemsTo 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;(lines 30-34)Arnold skillfully employs the rhetoric device of anaphora (‘So various, so beautiful, so new’; ‘nor love, nor light, / Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain’) for greater emphasis.Throughout the poem, the images used are subtle indications of the human world bereft of its spiritual support. The lights flickering on the shoreline of France, the erosive nature of the white chalkstone cliffs, the moon-blanched night, the conflict of the waves with the pebbles denote the attrition and assault of the human religious conviction in vitriolic contact with the daunting discoveries of science in the Victorian society. The poet launches his tirade against the corrosion of human faith, the comfort and security of the ‘girdle’ of belief and trust in the higher authority of God slowly fading from human lives. The “Sea of faith” had been the protective girdle wrapping the earth in its comfort, reassuring souls of the fruits of faith and goodness which had had been forcibly torn apart. The metaphor of the ‘girdle’ and its absence expresses the state of man, left in isolation, abjection and utter misery with no hope of restoration and rehabilitation.In this hopeless vision of the human world, the poet earnestly voices the need for a pillar of support, an anchorage for the sea-swept human souls in the sea of mistrust and fear. Arnold reinstates his belief and faith with the strong support of Love in human relationship. He calls upon his beloved to remain true and pledge loyalty to each other, with the conviction that the one true bond would mitigate the pain and darkness of the present human condition. Thus for Arnold, Love has a high pedestal of importance and reverence at par with one’s worship of God.Through deft use of rhetoric and picturesque words, the poem comes to life, with its message of the anchorage of Love in the world bereft of faith, struggling in confusion, a scene of chaos and anarchy. Arnold employs alliterative lines such as ‘to-night’ and ‘tide’; ‘full’ and ‘fair’ (Lines 1-2). Metaphors are skillfully weaved into the poem to enrich its inner meaning: the ‘Sea of Faith’ implies the comparison of the human spiritual belief with the waters enveloping the earth’s surface. Again, the famous simile of the Battle of Epipolae imbues the poem with a depth of perception as well as a classical look-back for better understanding of the miserable war-torn state of humankind.Unlike Arnold who celebrated the union of his love at Dover Beach, Yeats is a poet suffering rejection at the hands of his Irish beloved, Maud Gonne, and it is this unrequited love which compels him to craft the poem “When You Are Old”. Interestingly, while Arnold universalizes the concept of Love as a pillar of support for humanity, Yeats personifies Love in the poem, depicting the lady in question as an old woman nodding near the warmth of a fire, attempting to read a book, recalling in the corridors of her memories the numerous ‘false’ suitors and the one true love which she cast off.The opening line “When you are old and grey and full of sleep” suggests the image of impending death. Sleep is the eternal rest at the end of old age. There is a unique hypnotic quality in the images provoked with the use of polysyndeton (‘old and grey and full…’). The beloved, now old, would turn the pages of her book and reminisce the bygone days of youth and beauty. Her grace and charm had attracted many a lover to her side, but Yeats underlines the difference between his love and the admiration of the others with repetitive emphasis on the word ‘love’:How many loved your moments of glad grace,And loved your beauty with love false or true,But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,And loved the sorrows of your changing face; (p. 829)Like Arnold, Yeats employs alliteration as seen in ‘glad grace’ which contributes to the rhythm of the poem. Again, the oxymoronic ‘false or true’ implies the artificiality of the love petition of the other suitors.The most significant line is of Love, “Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled.” (p.829) is a typical personification of Love, which he wished to offer the lady only to be sadly rebuffed. “But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you” (p.829). The metaphorical figure of ‘pilgrim soul’ reveals her freedom-loving nature: her soul is likened to a pilgrim set out to wander in search of the absolute truth. Thus the poet’s love went beyond the surface beauty into the depths of her soul, proving the purity and profundity of his true emotions for her.The imagery in this poem sets the scene and the mood. The cozy comfort of the fireside, the soft shadows of her eyes indicates age and a deeper perception, the sorrows etched in the lines of her face denoting the ups and downs of life, the sad murmur of the Love ‘fled’. The transformation from the description of the fireside scene to the vast spaces of the mountainous heights where the love has gone is noteworthy. From the concrete image of the lady kneeling at the glowing bars to the elusive image of unrequited Love fleeing into the extensive spaces of Nature (here, the mountains are referred to) Yeats’ poem is full of this to and fro movement from concrete to abstract, as also seen in the lady reading the book then transported into her dreams and reminiscences. Again, ‘hid his face amid the crowd of stars’ is an abstract image, indicating the irreparable loss of the love she now missed.Both poets use adroit craftsmanship in structuring their deeply personal philosophical reflections on the significance of love in their lives. Thus the two expressive pieces of love poetry-  Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’ and Yeats’ ‘When You are Old’ are singular creations among the volumes of literary works of these giants of English Literature.