"ignorant armies clashed by night on a collapsible screen"

Matthew Arnold
Public DomainMatthew Arnold
This is a sly reference to the concluding line of a short lyric poem by English poet Matthew Arnold called “Dover Beach.” Published in 1867, its composition may have occurred as early as 1849. The speaker seems to be speaking to his beloved as they look at the white cliffs and beach at Dover (where Arnold honeymooned in 1851), but he likens the roar of the tide going out to the retreat of religious faith (and the protection of the gods).

The speaker asks his companion to swear with him that they will love each other, but the poem concludes: “And we are here as on a darkling plain / Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, / Where ignorant armies clash by night.” Those final lines are themselves a reference to an ancient Greek literary account: The historian Thucydides wrote of a similar beach during the invasion of Sicily by Athens. The battle occurred at night, and the attacking army became so disoriented that many of its soldiers killed one another. It would seem that Arnold’s speaker doubts the strength of love to sustain him after the loss of faith.

The narrator of Catch-22 sardonically undercuts the bitter sentiment of Arnold’s poem by using its most famous line to refer to armies clashing in war films screened “for the daily amusement of the dying” wounded at the base hospital.