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Reflection on Truthfulness

This is the second  in our series of poems and reflections on the ten ethical principals of yoga. Satya, or truthfulness, is the second principal of yoga.

Dover Beach
Matthew Arnold

The sea is calm to-night.
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 sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw 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 Agaean, 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 furled.
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.

I hear deep serenity in the first lines of this poem. Their steady cadence stills me, lulls me with the rhythm of long vowels. The sounds take me to moments in my childhood – the lines slowly lengthening like a rising evening breeze from the countryside I grew up in.  When I was a child, these breezes permeated my cells; they make the world feel right and good.  When the poet calls me to the window, I smell this sweet air.

But when I arrive he shows me the long rough edge on the still geometry of sea and land. Its unevenness attracts my attention.  It grates relentlessly, an unending sound of sadness to offset the endless calm lines of the landscape.

This scene reverberates mythically, taking the poet to timeless truths, spoken by distant men in ancient liturgies.  For me, I return to the innocence of my childhood in the country, and then to the settling in of suffering as an adult.  What had seemed various, beautiful and new, we now see as having neither “certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain…”

It’s a confused struggle between ignorant armies.  But the words of the poem are an antidote – a plea to share our true reaction to the  grating beauty of the world.  We must come to the window and watch, and then be truthful about what we see and feel. Simple phrases, intimate, direct, without rhyme or scenery.

Without intimate truthfulness, we are lost on a darkling plain.


  1. susie wood says:

    Beautifully interpreted. It is a dark poem, but I’d like to think of those waves as the breath – neither good nor bad, just there.

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