Comments on Form and Structure

"Calais Sands" [text] consists of nine stanzas of four lines each. The metrical footing is iambic tetrameter, the rhyme scheme is abcb. The poem consists mostly of end-stopped lines.

A simile in the second stanza (". . . as if the middle Age / Were gorgeous upon earth again" (lines 7-8)) highlights the present-day beauty of the city, as well as its glorious medieval past. This simile alludes to two central themes of the poem — first, the fact that Calais is beautiful because of its past; the second, that Calais is made even more beautiful by the impending arrival of the speaker's loved one.

Repetitions in the third stanza ("Thy lovely presence. . ./Thy shawl, thy look, thy smile, thy hand." (l. 11-12)) and similarly in the seventh stanza ("grasp thy hand/ To woo thy smile, to seek thine eye." (l.25-26) express the impatience of the young lover. He imagines details of a possible meeting and thus makes his love very vivid for a reader. There is a frequent use of adjectives to enrich the poem's language, for example "never silent Strait" (l.3) to capture the aural experience of the seaside scenery, or, "soft-fringed eyes" (l. 35) to describe the beloved woman.

Throughout the poem the ideas seem to be in a constant flux. All stanzas seem to be connected to each other, each taking up an idea expressed in the one before. "Calais glittering in the sun;" (l.4) in the first stanza, is likened to "Ardres Golden Field" (l. 5) in stanza 2, both describing a bright sunny day. This is continued in stanza 3 with "Oh, that to share this famous scene" (l.9), which obviously refers to the scenery depicted in stanzas 1 and 2.

Themes

The first two stanzas introduce the geographical setting of the poem. The speaker (or lyrical self) is standing on the beach ("line of sand-hills run" (l.2)) outside "Calais" (l. 4), looking towards "Ardres" (l.5). The topography of the place is also depicted: a beach (l. 2), a strait (l.3) and an open plain ("wide aerial plain" (l.6))

When the speaker imagines "a thousand knights" (l.1) who must have stood at this place before, he evokes the Middle Ages. He seems to allude to a historic meeting at Ardres in 1520, of Francis I of France and Henry VIII of England. They formed an alliance against the dominance of the Emperor Charles V. The use of a simile draws attention to the connection between the past and the present. The scenery appears as beautiful as it must have seemed to these medieval knights. The words "glittering" (l.4), "golden" (l.5), "wide" (l.6), "glows" (l.7) and "gorgeous" (l.8) touch upon the visual beauty of the scene.

In the third stanza, the lyrical self first speaks out ("I" (l.10)) and wishes for the "lovely presence" (l.11) of his loved one. He imagines to share the beauty of the scene and fantasizes about what might happen then:

How exquisite thy voice would come,
My darling, on this lonely air!
How sweetly would the fresh sea-breeze
Shake lose some band of soft brown hair! [ll. 13-16]

It is a profound wish, the reader can tell, as the lyrical self can even think of details, stressed by repetitions. "Thy lovely presence. . . thy hand" (l. 11-12).

In stanzas 5 and 6, the speaker's glance turns away from Calais and Ardres and towards England, from where his love is coming by ferry. The speaker wishes he could be a sea-bird in order to be able to catch a glimpse in advance ("Oh, that yon sea-bird's wing were mine,/ To win one instant's glimpse of thee!" (l. 23-24)).

In the seventh and eighth stanzas, it becomes clear that a reunion is not possible, although the lyrical self yearns for it. this is again marked by repetitions (". . .thy hand. . . thine eye;" (l. 26-27)). He can only watch her along with the "idlers on the pier" (l.30) from afar. If he tried to get any closer, he would lose her altogether. Thus, only if he remains unseen, can he remain close to her. ("Ah, might I always rest unseen,/So I might have thee always near!" (l. 31-32)).Nicholas Murray relates this event in Arnold's life in the following manner: "Unable to come forward and greet her, because of Sir William Wightman's edict, Arnold has to be content with a far off glimpse and the consolation that he will be sleeping in the same hotel" (Murray, 109).

The final stanza gives the information that she will resume her journey on the following day through Flanders towards Germany. ("To-morrow hurry through the fields/ Of Flanders and the storied Rhine!" (l.33-34)) But, on this very day, the lyrical self is simply happy to spent the night at the same hotel ("To-night those soft-fringed eyes shall close/ Beneath one roof my Queen! with mine." (l.35-36)). Although they cannot come together, he takes comfort in the fact that his "queen" is close to him.

References

Hamilton, Ian. A Gift Imprisoned: The Poetic Life of Matthew Arnold. London: Bloomsbury, 1999.

Hühn, Peter. Geschichte der Englischen Lyrik 2. Tübingen/Basel, 1995.

Murray, Nicholas. A Life of Matthew Arnold. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1996.

Riede, David G. Matthew Arnold and The Betrayal of Language. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1988

Thomas, Roy. How to read a Poem? London: University of London Press Ltd, 1961.


Victorian Overview Matthew Arnold

Last modified June 2000