Behind convolvulus and seeding grass
We see not one scuff or rip on the Strait
two thousand years and more of heavy use.
across close-to-hand glitter and far-off
the other side if we believe our eyes
there, just as we if we believe our eyes
in a universe with a homely sky
looming non-universes to scare it.
Waves arrange the shingle, each with a crisp
The tide coming in balances the tide
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2007. Best Scottish Poems is an online publication, consisting of 20 poems chosen by a different editor each year, with comments by the editor and poets. It provides a personal overview of a year of Scottish poetry. The editor in 2007 was Alan Spence.
One of the first poetry readings I ever attended, back in the 1960s, was by Robin Fulton, and he's still producing fine work - elegant, deftly turned, philosophically questioning, subtly resonant. 'Above Dover Beach' looks behind the surface of things; perception flows into speculation, imagination. All is not what it seems and yet it is: the other side if we believe our eyes / is not / there, just as we if we believe our eyes / are here. Perspective shifts, the sea shapes, reshapes the shore. If we believe our eyes.
We had just got off the ferry from Calais and taken a small road up to the top of the cliffs west of Dover. Looking down, I couldn't help thinking of Matthew Arnold's shingle and the crisp waves were audible here away from the racket of the port. Arnold's poem about this beach is one of those famous pieces I feel sorry for: so many heavy plodding pedagogical boots have tramped over and round it. Also, like some other famous poems (Wordsworth's 'Daffodils' and Shelley's 'Ozymandias') it contains something illogical or impractical. If Arnold wanted to imagine the sea of faith drying up, the mere tidal movement of the sea along a shore is hardly appropriate. Did he forget for the moment that the tide comes in as well as goes out? Anyway, I see faith as something that is always there, but it rises and falls, advances and retreats, much like the sea being pulled and pushed by tidal forces.
Another idea behind the poem has to do with obsolete pictures of the universe and our place in it. Scientists find out more and more, quite rightly, but that doesn't mean we should throw away the old models and forget about them. The Ptolemaic universe, for instance, served some of the best minds in Europe in their efforts to explore relations between God and man and between man and man, and these explorations are by no means out of date. It's not a crime to believe, now and then, just what the eyes see without chiding them for ignoring 'known facts'.