In its call for two lovers to be true to one another, you could see this great poem as a distant 19th century cousin of Roman “carpe diem” poetry. It is as at least as bleak as anything that Horace wrote on that theme. We think of Victorian England as a society in which Christian belief and observance were enormously more predominant than today, so to us the picture of a world which has lost its faith is unexpected and striking.
The poet speaks the poem to his beloved: this, and the subtle and unobtrusive rhyme scheme, give it a conversational feeling, and he says what he sees and thinks in quite plain English. In the third stanza he looks back with apparent approval to a time when individuals’ place in the world was more simply defined by absolute faith, but in the fourth he seems to accept that that is no longer an available answer to the problems with which the modern world confronts him and his contemporaries. It looks as though at least part of him would like the clock to be turned back, while accepting that it won’t be. The comforting certainties of faith have been eroded, not least, perhaps, by freer and more questioning artistic and philosophical thought, of which, paradoxically, the poem itself is an example. Perhaps he is thinking about social and economic hardship and injustice in an age of seismic change, but the poem itself does not tell us. Similarly, what message he wants to convey about his own and others’ religious belief, and exactly what has prompted the devastating pessimism he finally expresses about the world, he does not tell us on the face of the poem.
That the world lacks joy and love is a problematic thing to say to your beloved, as the poet does in the last stanza. Perhaps these and the other lost comforts that he lists are something that he hopes to find in her, as he invites her to stand with him in facing a world which lacks them.
To listen, press play:
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 ebb meets the moon-blanch’d sand,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves suck 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 Aegaean, 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 furl’d.
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.