Like many other Victorian poets, Matthew Arnold dived into the existence of God and religion. His poem, Dover Beach, is said to be an accurate representation of the people and society’s tone and mood of that time. His poem starts with the representation of his faith, but as his beliefs start to waver, doubt starts to take over his mind and his belief in God is broken.
Context and background. Religion in the Victorian age.
‘Around the same time Arnold was in his prime and started working on this poem (1851-1857), London had just undergone a rapid population growth, going from 2 million to 6.5 million inhabitants.’1 The move towards industrializations put many into depression, making them feel useless and unwanted. This period, which was at the beginning of the Victorian era, took a toll on human happiness and their views on religion.
The Modernization period
With the modernization period, Arnold felt like society was abandoning the traditions of life and its original mould for human relationships. Because he himself lacked that stable connection to faith, he decided, instead of focusing on religion and God, to take on the loss of faith for the 19th-century society as a whole.
Main themes and first stanza analysis
The main themes we can notice throughout the poem are the loss of faith and tradition, and the industrialization, its progress, and its effects. The first stanza reminds us of the Romantic period. It starts with the presentation of the setting; we find out that it is night and the speaker can see the sea, which he describes as serene. These sentences are short and they hit straight to the point, leaving no room for doubt that it is supposed to be a peaceful and quiet atmosphere. His descriptions are similar to that of Romanticism, specifically talking, nature, the natural, and its creator.
The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Changes in Religion
The next few verses give us the full setting, which we deduce from the various clues, that the speaker must be watching the Dover beach from a window close to the shore. We also notice for the first time that our speaker is not alone but is talking to someone. We don’t know who this person is. It could be the reader, or even someone else.
His tone is sweet and inviting as he calls this said person to feel the fresh air of the night. Until now, the poem has been giving off a tranquil and relaxed feeling, but Arnold suddenly changes it with just one word, “Only”. ‘Only’ here feels more like a ‘but’. But what? This sole word announces a change, the peace has been broken. The mood drastically changes in the next half of the stanza.
Motifs and the use of our senses in Religion
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
He first tells us to take in the view before us, where we can see a world that has been whitened by the moon (“Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land”). Then, he becomes more and more agitated as he tells us “Listen!”. He is making us use all of our senses: smell, sight, and now hearing. The sound we can hear, “the grating roar of the pebbles”, which is loud and unpleasant, is yet another sign that there is change happening.
The song of the world. Religion and faith.
The speaker focuses a lot on the waves as if he wants us to feel their strength. The waves are actually the cause of the repetitive noise we hear. As they take in the pebbles and then bring them back again and again, they create a sort of rhythm which he describes as “an eternal note of sadness”. He considers this sound, created by the world, an eternal one. The sadness he speaks of isn’t a temporary one, but one which imprinted itself into the world.
Belief in the second stanza
In the second stanza, the ocean continues to represent negative connotations. He tells us how even Sophocles, an ancient Greek writer, whose work constantly delved into human misery, can hear the world’s song of ‘eternal sadness’. There is again a lot of emphasis on ‘hearing’. This might be Arnold’s way of telling us to use all our senses, to contemplate our surroundings, and to believe in ourselves and what is around us without any distortions from the outside.
The pronoun ‘we’ and its meaning
The use of the first-person plural pronoun ‘we’ takes us by surprise. The inclusion of ‘we’ can refer to two situations: one in which, the speaker refers to himself and the person he was talking to in the first stanza, or, in another case, to the society he lives in as a whole. What is certain is that this ‘we”s link to God has been damaged.
The third stanza and the changes it brings
The third stanza represents yet another shift in their universe, a universe which, until now, has been revolving around a deity. In this stanza, we get a clear glimpse of what truly bothers the speaker. We are provided with a comparison between two different times. ‘What truly drove the Victorians away from religion was the advances in subjects such as biology, geology and textual analysis of the Bible, which has had shaken the certainty of Christian faith in a literal understanding of the Bible.’
A loss of belief in Religion and God
The loss of faith is something he doesn’t take lightly. His comparison between the sea which was once full, when religion flourished, to that of a now naked world is meant to emphasise that. This naked world, which he speaks of, is one that lacks the warmth and security faith brought with it. In the first verse, he mentions ‘The Sea of Faith’. Both words, ‘sea’ and ‘faith’, written with capital letters are the poet’s way of highlighting the importance faith once played in society.
Religion’s meaning and why people prayed
Religion used to act as a comfort blanket for people. They would think that a deity was watching them, and by pleasing the said deity through prayers and offerings, they would receive its blessing and live a safe and happy life.
The last stanza
In the fourth and last stanza, the person who the speaker was talking to is revealed to be his lover. “He speaks now directly to her, and perhaps, to all those true believers in God that are still out there. He asks that they remain true to one another in this ‘land of dreams ‘.” 3 The mood feels nostalgic as he starts remembering the past and comparing it to the present and the future.
Religion in the past
Compared to the past, when nature was not only a beautiful view but proof of God and his creation, the present is void of light. Nature was the art and God was the artist. Knowing this, it brought people hope, but now nature is simply just beautiful. It does not bring anything but a quick breath of fresh air, “really neither joy, nor love, nor light, / Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;”. religion
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
The use of the pronoun ‘we’
The speaker uses ‘we’ again, which brings confusion because we do not know if he is referring to him and his lover or to humanity as a whole. They are standing on a metaphorical ‘darkling plain’. Their path is uncertain, filled with ‘struggles’ and ‘ignorance’. He mentions armies fighting at night, but we do not know whose armies and what they are fighting for. Their anonymity gives an air of uncertainty which frightens the speaker. For him, they represent ‘an era of uncertainty’, one in which humanity is blindly fighting against itself. Faith
The poem concludes with a pessimistic outlook on religion’s part in society. The author is sharing his own feelings with respect to the loss of faith and tradition. Arnold grew up in a Christian household but as he matured, he felt his connection to faith loosen. Through his poem, he expresses his regret not only for his loss but for what the entire humankind has lost.