What—exactly—makes a good beach read? I pondered this question with gal pal Arika (pictured right) on a recent weekend jaunt that included a trip to her local beach near Holland, Michigan. At this time of the year, the “beach reads” lists are cropping up all over the place (i.e. Amazon.com’s This Summer’s Best Beach Reads List!!!!). Some of these lists are more sympathetic to those of us living in landlocked states, substituting the word “summer” for “beach,” such as the LA Times 2008 Summer Reading List. Lists aside, Arika and I decided that the best beach book depends a lot on the person doing the reading. “Theology is pretty much the only thing I don’t bring to the beach,” she says, which is understandable since she works editing theological texts for an academic publisher.
I happened to be equipped with a book that I was reading for an upcoming review, but when I really thought about it, I would have rather been reading an anthology of Victorian poetry. Yep. That’s my pick for this summer’s eager readers. Victorian poetry. A lot of the subject matter in Victorian poetry seems perfectly suited for beach landscapes; the Victorians aren’t as hopeful as the Romantics, and they seem to have a more realistic respect for nature. Victorian poetry is at once beautiful and powerful, like the ocean in many ways.
If I were to pick one, just one, Victorian poem that illustrates this idea, I’d choose Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” (1867). Click here to read the entire poem (it’s only 37 lines long), or have a moment with its final two stanzas:
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-winds, 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 confus’d alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
Thanks to Bartleby.com for the online text of Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” as it appears in:
Stedman, Edmund Clarence, ed. A Victorian Anthology, 1837–1895. Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1895; Bartleby.com, 2003. http://www.bartleby.com/246/.