An Afternoon on Dover Beach
Recollections of a day on the shore of the English Channel
Resolve to be thyself; and know, that he who finds himself, loses his misery.
― Matthew Arnold, The Poetical Works of Matthew Arnold
One of the joys we have as parents is the fulfillment of promises made to our children. It is not always the case that we can do everything for them that we say we will, for life sometimes interferes with our best intentions. Those moments when a promise is kept, and keeping it has led to a deeper connection with our children, are some of the highlights of parenthood.
I was fortunate enough to experience such a moment in the summer of 2019, when we took a family trip to England, a journey we had promised the boys a few years prior. Enzo and Dino were already accustomed to traveling, from regular trips to Argentina and Uruguay, as well as visits to Morocco, France, and Belgium. Indeed, there was a world map in Enzo's room on which we added a pin whenever he visited a new country. But England was the one place he and his brother most wanted to visit.
Our trip did not disappoint. We had lovely summer weather, and it seemed that each day brought a new and fascinating place to explore. The highlight of the trip for Enzo was the pilgrimage we made to Old Trafford, the home of his beloved Manchester United. For me, however, the fondest memory is our day at Dover, where the waters of the English Channel meet those of the North Sea. I had long desired to see the famous white cliffs, and they were more beautiful than I had ever imagined. At one moment in the trip, I sat down with the boys on an edge overlooking the Channel, took out my iPhone, and read them Dover Beach, by Matthew Arnold. Before doing so, I told them that though there are better poems by better poets, for some reason this was my favorite poem in the world, and I hoped that reading it together at Dover might make it memorable to them as well.
The poem begins with a man looking out across the waters on a moon-lit night, and he calls his beloved to the window to taste the “sweet night air.” As he stands by the window, he listens to the sound of the waves splashing on the shore, and he hears within this “tremulous cadence” an “eternal note of sadness.” Sophocles, a great tragic playwright of Greece, Arnold contemplates, once heard the same sound centuries ago on the Ægean, and in its waves sensed the same “turbid ebb and flow” of human misery. In his own time, writes Arnold, there was once a “Sea of Faith” that surrounded the world, and, like Sophocles, Arnold hears its waves withdrawing in the night.
The sound of the waves in the darkness has moved Arnold from his joy at seeing the sea to a contemplation on his loss of faith in the world. But the poem does not end on this sad note, for Arnold calls to his beloved and asks that they be “true” to each other. The world he tells her, lies before them, in both its beauty and pain, and the only thing that matters — the only thing that can save them — is that they are united to each other, even as “ignorant armies clash by night.”
Enzo asked me what I thought the poem meant, and I explained that Arnold was a believer in the Classical idea that one should observe the world as it is, with what he called a “critical spirit” and judge it “by the rule of reason.” He also believed passionately in progress and that those who change the ideas of the world for the better will often be met with ridicule or disdain. “The free thinking of one age,” Arnold once wrote, “is the common sense of the next.” For Arnold, I told Enzo, our duty is to try our best to increase what we know, improve how we think, and remain true to what is right, even if others mock us for doing so. Lastly, I noted that the poem ends with a reminder that whenever we are brought down by the sorrow or senselessness of the world, it is the truth and love we give to others that keeps us moving forward.
As usual, Enzo did not say much after my explanation, and I wondered if he had understood what I had tried to communicate. His style was to listen, take everything in, and process his thoughts over time. Being his father was like being a gardener: plant seeds, water them over time, and rejoice when flowers suddenly bloom. In the same way, I came to realize that Enzo had been listening all along. A year later, when the #BLM protests started, Enzo was the first in our family to march in D.C. and to place a sign in the front yard of the house declaring that “Black Lives Matter.” I saw in his actions a clear understanding that the injustices that drove the marchers should not be allowed to stand and an avowal of his wish to be a part of that collective force for change. Watching him situate the BLM sign, I thought back to Dover Beach, and I was proud to see a young man who saw an unjust world and, rather than retreat, wanted to push it forward into a more equitable future for all.
All parents can hope for such moments, I suppose, when our children absorb the best, and not the worst, parts of what we do and say. As I look back on Enzo’s short life, I see a boy who somehow managed to forgive and forget my many flaws, and to take in only what little good I had to give him. That day on Dover Beach, as the afternoon sun began to set, we also heard the cadence of the tireless waves, as Homer put it, onto the shores below the sheer white cliffs. In fact, after reading the poem, we stared out at the sea for some time. I don’t know what Enzo thought during that interlude, but I like to believe that he was thinking about Arnold’s meditation on the human condition and his plea for hope and faith along a sea of sorrows.
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 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.
—Matthew Arnold (1851)
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