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  • “Where ignorant armies clash by night” and the Sikh Rebellion:A Contemporary Source for Matthew Arnold's Night-Battle Imagery
  • Walter H. Kokernot (bio)

The source for the night-battle imagery that concludes Matthew Arnold's "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" (ll. 35-38)—is almost unanimously thought to be a passage from Thucydides' account of the night battle of Epipolae:

By this time the Athenians were getting into a state of so great confusion and perplexity that it has not been easy to learn from either side just how the several events occurred. In the daytime things are clearer, of course, yet even so those who are present do not know everything that happens, but each man barely knows what happens near himself; but in a battle by night . . . how could anyone know anything clearly? For though there was a bright moon, they could only see one another, as it is natural to do in moonlight—seeing before them the vision of a person but mistrusting their recognition of their own friends. . . . For the front lines [of the Athenians] were already all in confusion . . . and the two sides were difficult to distinguish. . . . [The] Athenians were trying to find their own comrades, and regarded as hostile whatever came from the opposite direction, even though it might be a party of friends belonging to the troops already in flight, and as they were constantly calling out the demand for the watchword, the only means they had of distinguishing friend from foe, they . . . caused much confusion in their own ranks. . . . And so finally, when once they had been thrown into confusion, coming into collision with their own comrades in many different parts of the army, friends with friends and citizens with fellow-citizens, they not only became panic-stricken but came to blows with one another and were with difficulty separated.1

What lends special weight to this surmise is the fact that Arnold's father, Dr. Thomas Arnold, translated Thucydides and, as Tinker and Lowry note in [End Page 99] their commentary on Arnold's poetry, "Thucydides was of course one of Dr. Thomas Arnold's favourite authors, and was studied in the fifth and sixth forms at Rugby. There is evidence that the passage about the 'night-battle' was familiar coin among Rugbeians."2

The passage—which Tinker and Lowry say was probably the "most important sentence for Arnold" (p. 175)—reads as follows in Dr. Arnold's translation: "They saw one another as men naturally would by moonlight; that is, to see before them the form of the object, but to mistrust their knowing who was friend and who was foe."3

However, while noting that it is "almost beyond dispute" that this account of the battle of Epipolae is the "ultimate source," Paul Turner argues that there may be "grounds, perhaps, for believing that the source was not drawn upon by Matthew Arnold directly," but that he came to it via The Bothie of Tober-na-Vuolich, a poem by his friend and fellow Rugbeian, Arthur Hugh Clough. The Bothie was written in September 1848 and published in November 1848 (at which time, Turner notes, Arnold read it), while the last lines of "Dover Beach," were written "at the end of 1848, or the beginning of 1849."4 The relevant portion of Clough's poem reads:

Where does Circumstance end, and Providence, where begins it? What are we to resist, and what are we to be friends with? If there is battle, 'tis battle by night: I stand in the darkness Here in the mêlée of men, Ionian and Dorian on both sides, Signal and password known; which is friend and which is foeman?

(IX, 49-53)5

The similarity between these lines and the passage from Thucydides is quite obvious and Turner says: "The question now arises, whether Arnold struck independently upon the same idea, or owed it, in any sense to his reading of Clough's poem" (p. 174).

Though any attempt to pin down a source for an author's inspiration is, of...


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