handrails and lifelines and emergency lanterns

Jan 9, 2020 poetry appreciation

In an article in The Times in 2016 Libby Purves wrote of how ‘[p]eople have been through everything before us and some, by great grace, have recorded it with undying power. English-speakers are particularly lucky,’ she continued, ‘since some of the very best have done this in our fabulously hybrid, magpie language… [Poets] have crafted handrails and lifelines and emergency lanterns. They reassure us that others walked this hard trail and lived to express it’.

Finding the trail particularly hard at the moment, and feeling even more than usually in need of grace, I’ve found myself mentally conning a couple of poems this week, two classics of doubt and faith, fear and trust. Part of me wants to skip ahead to the hope but another part wants to spend the time relishing ‘Dover Beach’ first (you can read it here and you have it read to you here). ‘Cause if an emergency lantern functions to help you see exactly where you are in a crisis, illuminating the particular catastrophe which is is unfolding for you, then this poem is definitely an emergency lantern for me right now. It’s a beautiful account of sadness, and of the ache and fear you feel when faith and trust are eroded.

It’s always lovely hearing poetry read aloud, but there’s something particularly lovely about hearing ‘Dover Beach’ and letting yourself ebb and flow with its sounds and images. It’s about simply receiving the poem, initially, rather than engaging with it mentally. There’s a beautiful melancholy melody to the verse, a soft clarity in how Arnold chimes the ‘eternal note of sadness’: they echo the rhythms of the sea the speaker is staring at and, like the sea, provide their own strange comfort. For although Arnold is talking about about the loss of faith—that nineteenth century Death of God which was for many the corollary of Darwin’s theories—he does so with such calm, plangent beauty, and such accuracy, that somehow this contains a kind of consolation. How clearly, for instance, he sees and hears the wave-moved pebbles; how effectively he links this to faith’s ‘melancholy, long, withdrawing roar’. (Who’d ever have thought a roar could be melancholy? Yet you know just what he means.) We are recalled not just to the loss of a faith but also to the pain of experiencing any loved thing dwindle and die—be it a fellow-creature, an environment or an idea a which has offered comfort, meaning, hope. This is one efficient emergency lantern.

And Arnold’s response to the ‘tremulous cadence slow’ puts me in mind of what Tennyson early in In Memoriam calls the ‘calm despair’ of grief. I wonder how many of us can currently relate to his sense of loss of meaning and direction—to his feeling of being ‘as on a darkling plain/ Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/ Where ignorant armies clash by night’. It’s hard to bear the long view at the moment, for all sorts of reasons; hard to hope; hard to trust. As elsewhere in Arnold (I’m thinking particularly of ‘The Buried Life’, which you can read here) the moment of comfort and near resolution is couched in intensely personal terms—’Ah, love, let us be true/ To one another!’—and is immediately qualified by the admission that the world only ‘seems/ To lie before us like a land of dreams’. Here, as throughout the poem, the masterfully deft use of rhyme unobtrusively emphasises the point without intruding. (Not clanging but chiming!) The sequence of short phrases, separated by commas—’So various, so beautiful, so new,/ Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,/ Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain’—also helps convince. We have a sense of the evidence piling up; of the accumulated weight of doubt and fear.

You may be thinking that an emergency lantern isn’t just meant to show you what the wreckage looks like: it’s supposed to help you find a way out, too. And for me, I suppose, that function is linked to how helpful I find it to know that I’m not alone in, or with, an experience. It’s not about “misery loving company” in an I feel bad so I want everyone else to sort of a way, but rather a sense that this is simply part of being human. There is comfort and refuge in community and in knowing that what you feel is “normal”. From the other side of the pen, too, I can testify to how much it moves me when I discover that someone recognises some aspect of their own experience in a poem of mine; and that they have, therefore, for however long or short a time, been less alone in it.

And, further: the emergency lantern-ness of a great piece such as ‘Dover Beach’ lies also in the fact that, when you can see and understand an experience as clearly as this, there is at least some part of you which is not overwhelmed, consumed or lost in it. The poem offers and allows a meta-position, a bearing witness. It makes the invisible appear. It has the dignified grace of honesty; the relief of ceasing to struggle. It admits that, for the moment anyway, “it is what it is”.

And to give in, to accept, is not the same as to give up. When you lie still exactly where you are, you might be catching your breath in order to get back on your feet again. In a bit. Which bring us back to hope—to those handrails and lifelines to which we’ll return next week. Right now, though, I’m really interested in hearing how ‘Dover Beach’ strikes you…?

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