We all know “The Cloud” by Shelley, and “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold are classics.
Both poems seek a redemptive consistency amidst change and fear, and it would be safe to say this is the chief role of religion, and once, the chief role of poetry.
Shelley’s poem is remarkable for its sound—no contemporary poet can match Shelley’s music without crashing and burning in sounding like Dr. Seuss. Faith in this kind of poetry is necessary to persist in the beauty which can result—but more than beauty: the atomism of Shelley’s poem, its glittering movement, replicates the tumbling, mutating cloud-theme itself.
I bring fresh showers for the thirsting flowers,
From the seas and the streams;
I bear light shade for the leaves when laid
In their noonday dreams.
From my wings are shaken the dews that waken
The sweet buds every one,
When rocked to rest on their mother’s breast,
As she dances about the sun.
I wield the flail of the lashing hail,
And whiten the green plains under,
And then again I dissolve it in rain,
And laugh as I pass in thunder.
I sift the snow on the mountains below,
And their great pines groan aghast;
And all the night ’tis my pillow white,
While I sleep in the arms of the blast.
Sublime on the towers of my skiey bowers,
Lightning my pilot sits;
In a cavern under is fettered the thunder,
It struggles and howls at fits;
Over earth and ocean, with gentle motion,
This pilot is guiding me,
Lured by the love of the genii that move
In the depths of the purple sea;
Over the rills, and the crags, and the hills,
Over the lakes and the plains,
Wherever he dream, under mountain or stream,
The Spirit he loves remains;
And I all the while bask in Heaven’s blue smile,
Whilst he is dissolving in rains.
The sanguine Sunrise, with his meteor eyes,
And his burning plumes outspread,
Leaps on the back of my sailing rack,
When the morning star shines dead;
As on the jag of a mountain crag,
Which an earthquake rocks and swings,
An eagle alit one moment may sit
In the light of its golden wings.
And when Sunset may breathe, from the lit sea beneath,
Its ardours of rest and of love,
And the crimson pall of eve may fall
From the depth of Heaven above,
With wings folded I rest, on mine aëry nest,
As still as a brooding dove.
That orbèd maiden with white fire laden,
Whom mortals call the Moon,
Glides glimmering o’er my fleece-like floor,
By the midnight breezes strewn;
And wherever the beat of her unseen feet,
Which only the angels hear,
May have broken the woof of my tent’s thin roof,
The stars peep behind her and peer;
And I laugh to see them whirl and flee,
Like a swarm of golden bees,
When I widen the rent in my wind-built tent,
Till calm the rivers, lakes, and seas,
Like strips of the sky fallen through me on high,
Are each paved with the moon and these.
I bind the Sun’s throne with a burning zone,
And the Moon’s with a girdle of pearl;
The volcanoes are dim, and the stars reel and swim,
When the whirlwinds my banner unfurl.
From cape to cape, with a bridge-like shape,
Over a torrent sea,
Sunbeam-proof, I hang like a roof,
The mountains its columns be.
The triumphal arch through which I march
With hurricane, fire, and snow,
When the Powers of the air are chained to my chair,
Is the million-coloured bow;
The sphere-fire above its soft colours wove,
While the moist Earth was laughing below.
I am the daughter of Earth and Water,
And the nursling of the Sky;
I pass through the pores of the ocean and shores;
I change, but I cannot die.
For after the rain when with never a stain
The pavilion of Heaven is bare,
And the winds and sunbeams with their convex gleams
Build up the blue dome of air,
I silently laugh at my own cenotaph,
And out of the caverns of rain,
Like a child from the womb, like a ghost from the tomb,
I arise and unbuild it again.
How different is the Arnold poem, as it drags in sentiment and commentary, Arnold, the school teacher making assumptions about figures from the past, Arnold, the pacifist making statements against war, Arnold, the over-educated Victorian as rotting Romanticism, but with the torch still burning!
Shelley’s poem contains no human sentiment—it is not, actually, “Romantic,” but the voice of pure existence; if the God of tremulous existence could speak, Shelley would be the mouthpiece. Romanticism is the highest concentration of human passion in art—artless human passion is legion, but the artful part belongs to the great Romantics like Shelley, and “The Cloud” is merely the result of the highest human passion inscribed artfully naturally evolving into the god-like with its purest manifestation in the sound-sense of highly skilled poetry.
Arnold’s poem begins divinely, and competes with Shelley’s genius, even surpasses it, in the opening music of that remarkable first stanza, but then it falls to human bathos, the human sentiment of pedantry and self-pity, but since Arnold is alive to the Romantic tradition we hardly notice the worm invading the corn.
Historically, in the movement from Romanticsm to Modernism, the physics of “The Cloud” ends with Arnold’s lament that behind Shelley’s materiality is emptiness, but this is because Arnold the critic did not take Shelley to heart and chose instead to elevate Wordsworth as the Great Romantic.
“Ah love, let us be true to one another” is a bracing sentiment in the face of Arnold’s universal despair, but this temptation needs to be resisted—we mean giving into Arnold’s despair, because if love is brought in as a last-minute rescue, as a sentiment that is the only good thing, it ends up detaching love from the universe itself—it finally gives into smallness and fear, not to mention pedantry. Shelley’s materiality is more than that, since the poet is the god, the creative impulse is what matters, not Arnold’s subjective and highly seductive wailing.
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 Agaean, 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.
The great seduction is: “ignorant armies,” because the reader, of course, pats himself on the back with Arnold…at least I’m not ignorant and war-like, as I survey with Arnold this woeful world.
Matthew Arnold was, in fact, one of the figures T.S. Eliot, and other modernists, hitched a ride on, in order to ultimately give into self-pity and denigrate the glorious likes of Shelley. It is against the rules of Scarriet March Madness to quote another poem by a contestant during a match, but Shelley’s “Stanzas Written in Dejection, near Naples,” which resembles “Dover Beach,” has none of the latter’s over-educated justification of acute misery.
O, violent, brawling game!
Fights are breaking out in the stands!
The game is delayed five times to clear the court!
The refs seem to want to give the game to Arnold….
Shelley 101, Arnold 100!!!!
Marla Muse has fainted!!!!!