About 30 years ago, my wife and I were returning from France. We drove on board the car ferry at Dunkirk; were summoned below as it approached the English coastline; and watched, through the open bow doors of the half empty car deck, as dawn broke over the cliffs of Dover. It was hauntingly memorable.
Dover Cliffs are a potent symbol, as we know from last week’s VE Day celebrations. But their significance extends beyond Dame Vera’s blue birds. Alba is the Latin for white: down the years these cliffs have represented hope, purity, resistance, and survival. To generations of Britons, they symbolise our island of Albion.
In Shakespeare’s King Lear, Gloucester, his eyes torn out by his family, makes towards Dover, where he encounters his loyal son Edgar, disguised. Edgar allows the despairing Gloucester to believe he is throwing himself off the cliff; but then, impersonating another person at the “bottom” of the cliff, Edgar persuades Gloucester that he has survived. “Why I do trifle thus with his despair” Edgar explains, “is done to cure it.”
Later in life Shakespeare rendered the text of King Lear more pessimistic. The end is further away than we ever consider it to be. “Is this the promised end?” asks Kent, in hope; but there are several more vicious disappointments to come. “Oh Gods,” Edgar learns, “Who is’t can say I am at the worst.”
Now if you have you been alongside anyone who is very ill, you’re likely to realise what Edgar means. You fear the worst, and that soon; – or you hope for some improvement and imagine that soon too. But suffering is self-prolonging, one episode elongating into another.
When in the holiday Mr Sparkes invited me to write a 'Thought of the Day' I deliberately chose the week before Leave Out. We would surely be returning in two weeks time. The theme, uplifting, would be revisitation. The current crisis reminds us never to count on better things happening soon.
It was a beautiful view through those bow doors; but only a few years later, the open bow doors on a sister ship, the Herald of Free Enterprise, resulted not in a glimpse of beauty, but in an international catastrophe, the death of 193 passengers and crew.
Old Wykehamist Matthew Arnold went to Dover on his honeymoon, and there wrote one of his most famous poems, Dover Beach. The world lies before Arnold and his wife like a land of dreams; but in fact the narrator hears an “old eternal sadness” in the waves, made worse by the melancholy roar of the withdrawing sea of faith.
At Winchester, Arnold had burned his hand badly in a chemistry lesson. Science was not his thing. A bit like modern medics, Arnold concludes that “we are here as on a darkling plain, … where ignorant armies clash by night.” All he and his newly wed can do is summarised in less than a line: “Ah love, let us be true to one another.”
The extraordinary artist JMW Turner returned to Dover many times, as the watercolour above reminds us (Dover, 1825, Tate Collection). Expectations, conditions and realities change. All too often, just when we think things cannot get worse, that’s exactly what they do: the bluebirds desert the cliffs. In these unprecedented times, we need to be prepared for disappointment. To put it in modernity-speak, we need to be resilient.
Times are hard. Times are disappointing. But we need to abide by our principles. Some things have to be looked at twice. We all need to appreciate that though events alter, principles don’t. Sooner or later we will be back, and I look forward to it.
20th October 2020
In the final instalment of our focus on Wordsworth, in this 250th anniversary year of his birth, we reveal a previously undiscovered treasure within the school's collection.
13th October 2020
The texts pupils study in Div, English and other lessons provide springboards for discussion about a range of topics. Ensuring there is content that is both diverse and international in outlook encourages depth of study and understanding.
9th October 2020
As the school considers how it celebrates the diversity of its community, Black History Month provides an opportunity to focus on how pupils are learning about different voices and cultures, and their inseparability from our "own" histories and experiences.
29th September 2020
To mark the 250th anniversary of the poet's birth, Fellows' Librarian Richard Foster explains the importance of one of the school's latest acquisitions.
19th September 2020
Science School has a diverse collection of fascinating objects, from an 18th-century microscope, fossils and taxidermy birds, to apparatus used to teach physics in the early 20th century. Twenty-four of the most interesting and unusual objects from the collection are now online.
7th September 2020
In the first of a series of insights into school life during this unique time, we hear from Ben Wen who recently joined the school as a JP in Furley's, spending the past two weeks with his brother in quarantine. Ben looks back at his first impressions of boarding life.