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By Robert Etches (Denmark)

In praise of compassionate colleagues

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.

Dover Beach
Matthew Arnold

Why don’t we read more poetry?! Apart from Shakespeare and that notorious overreacher, Kit Marlowe, I seldom dip into my poetry books from school and my university days, when cynicism and ennui weren’t quite so rife.

But try – try especially re-reading the last three lines of Arnold’s fantastic poem, Dover Beach:

And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

If you aren’t lonely, depressed and desolate when you started reading, then you should be now! I always picture Arnold, almost the cliché of a Victorian vicar if you haven’t read his poems, stood on his darkling plain, clinging fast to his dear wife while the world literally falls apart around them.

What was the cause of all his doom and gloom? Well, in this, the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, try counting back to the date of Arnold’s poem. Britain was awash in doubt. Were we not created in God’s image just 10,000 years’ ago? Did we really descend from apes? Every thinking man and woman had to face the new reality brought to them by modern science. Talk about fear and loathing in the British Empire!

Not that much has changed: I’m sure both Arnold and Darwin would feel very much at home in 2009: the debate hasn’t changed a jot and there are a lot more creationists today than in Darwin’s time. The diatribe is no doubt just as invective, if not worse as Arnold’s ignorant armies clash by night – night being a cloak of fear and panic thrown over us by the media and politicians.

Arnold and his wife feared a loss of faith, but what do we fear today? And what is our darkling plain?

Greed and fear are certainly key ingredients of the world in these days of global financial crisis. The unbelievable greed of investors, bankers and businessmen that had us all believing not so much in the Almighty, but rather the Almighty Buck; and the fear induced by cynical politicians who don’t want the money, but rather the power.

So why all the sour grapes? Well, at the office today I was reminded of Arnold’s poem and felt that Modern Man has perhaps two darkling plains: home and family constitute one, but the other is very much a modern place of work.

There, surrounded by intelligent, independent-minded people full of wit and inventiveness, the ignorant armies of greed and fear seem almost like some virtual world accessible only via the Internet; politicians, bankers and journalists speak Orwell’s newspeak so infallibly, it surely can’t be the real world.

Two hundred years prior to Arnold, another poet, Andrew Marvell was trying out his latest score trick to get his mistress to quit the teasing.

An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze.
Two hundred to adore each breast:
But thirty thousand to the rest.
An age at least for every part,
And the last age should show your heart:
For, Lady, you deserve this state;
Not would I love at lower rate.

But at my back I always hear
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near:
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.

For me, Marvell’s deserts of vast eternity are right up there with Arnold’s darkling plain competing for best metaphor of the millennium. But, rather than inciting to adultery and the likes, I would rather steal Marvell’s winged chariot. That’s more than real. The world may be mad, but that won’t stop the clock from ticking. Enjoy every hour with your family and every working hour spent with wonderful colleagues, because if fear and greed don’t destroy your darkling plain, then a murky cloud of CO2 and global flooding will!




Circle of Trust