a year of morning thanks
An old note of sympathy (iv)
Who knows why, but somewhere along the line, probably in college, Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" stuck to my innards. It's a poem full of sadness really, Arnold and some beloved companion looking out over the white cliffs of Dover and thinking about the way in which faith itself seems to be receding from the shore of England's soul. When such great authority loses hold, human beings are left in a kind of empty sadness.
There's a remedy, of course, in that old poem, and that, Arnold says, is human love:
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;. . .
Arnold doesn't so much reject the Christian faith as feel its impotence. "Dover Beach" is not a theological poem, even though it has theological implications; instead, it's a poem which, ostensibly, accurately reflects what Arnold himself was thinking some night during the late 19th century.
Somehow, my students have the opinion that a poem like "Dover Beach" presents a moral lesson, for Christian readers especially--and it does. It clearly offers us the portrait of a thoughtful man trying to determine how to live in a world in which the old testimonies have lost currency. From an orthodox Christian point of view, Arnold is wrong in advising that human love is the only recourse ". . .on a darkling plain/Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/Where ignorant armies clash by night." To believe that we can somehow garner all we need from human love is, well, romantic.
But the poem offers more too, more than moral lessons we can slap on a t-shirt or leave behind in the dust. There are plenty of true-and-false quizzes in life, but to read a poem like "Dover Beach" as if it were only theology, stifles the poem's own heart beat.
I'm still sort of reeling from what I said to a class last week, something I've never said before. We were reading three stories from Andre Dubus, and I was getting the sense--by way of their formulation of theme statements--that my students were of the impression that these stories were simply exercises used by English prof to determine grades.
"This is about us," I told them. "If there's one thing I want you to understand about what we're reading it's that: it's all about us." So is "Dover Beach." So is Lady Macbeth. So is Dorian Gray and Huck Finn and John Ames. "It's about us," I said again, "about us as human beings."
I don't know that all my preaching got through. I doubt it. They probably figured I'd just had a bad day.
I don't believe for a minute that my classroom preaching carried the imperitive of the sermons my grandfather claimed to create "time and time again," sermons that advised his congregation that "such is life." After all, school is exercise; it's not real life as much as it is preparation for real life.
And I say all of that because what my grandfather tells this grieving couple after explaining the nature of so many of his sermons feels very much like what I felt this week. Here's what he says: "Though you agreed with it then [meaning, when he was preaching that suffering is in the order of things in this life], you will be more convinced of this truth now better than you ever were before."
Such is life, says the fellow sufferer. This is us. This is our lot. What's he thinking is that now--in the deep hurt of deep grief--his sermons have real meaning. That I understand.
And I'm thinking that his use of you here is generic. For a moment at least, he may have lost focus on the grieving couple and marched directly into the rhetoric of the pulpit, addressing many, many more than than those who were living in that quarantined house. I may be wrong, but I think he's even talking to me here.
Truth may well feel relative until it is lived. Sermons may well feel like exercises until they aren't. "Dover Beach" may be little more than bad theology until, sometime, we too sit somewhere abandoned and alone, as if there is no God.