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The Victorian period witnessed the tumultuous shock of Darwin and Lamarck’s scientific postulates which shook the strong foundations of the Christian world and put to doubt its revered theological dictates, plunging humanity into an abyss of disbelief and desperation without the anchorage of spiritual trust and conviction. It is at this juncture the poet Matthew Arnold communicates his religious dilemma and personal conflict of belief versus doubt through a beautiful analogy of the description of the Sea at Dover Beach.
His famous poetic creation ‘Dover Beach’ is a reflection of the physical surroundings of the poet imbued with the deeper analysis of the loss of the concrete familiar structure of faith and a plea to his beloved to remain true to love, which is the consecrated path for the skeptical humanity of the Victorian era. The poem opens with a beguiling simplicity in the lucid depiction of the quiet sea-side night, radiant with the silvery moon-shine.
There is a deliberate sense of slowing of time, as the poet gazes at the sparkling image of Dover Beach laid bare in the night, mirrored in the luminosity of the ‘fair’ moon as Arnold writes: The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair Upon the Straits; (‘Dover Beach’ lines1-3) There is an unmistakable sense of calm in his words, portending the storm of the chaos and anarchy prevalent in the present world which torments the poet even in the serene atmosphere of the moon-washed beach.
Standing on the edge of the English shore, the poet is mesmerized by the flickering lights on the French shoreline afar.
The physical relief of the cliffs, the continuous murmur of the waters and the isolation of the place in the moon-lit night contribute to Arnold’s deep philosophical reflections on the situation of the world, far away from the noise and fret of human crowd. The opening lines ease the reader into a state of tranquil absorption of the natural beauty of the setting, yet it is Arnold’s way of beckoning the reader into the charmed circle of peace that he witnesses.
In his words: “Come to the window, sweet is the night air! (6), he invites his beloved wife to partake the magnificence of the scene, but on a deeper level, he helps the reader position himself at Arnold’s side to participate in the night’s beauty. The first aberrant note in the harmony of the seascape is the “grating roar” (9) as the waves retreat from their progress, flinging the pebbles on the shore. This continual action, this harsh sound jars the ambience, unsettling it, bringing a change in the mood of the poem.
The repetitive cycle of the waves washing the shoreline, “Begin, and cease, and then again begin” (12) has a mournful sound to it, which to the poet’s sensitive perception appears to be the herald of the eternal note of melancholy. The silence is thus permeated by the rhythm of the sea, and the poem shifts from the literal portrayal of Nature to a deep reflection on the eternal truth of life. Arnold’s fascination with the classic greats is expressed in his citing Sophocles and his play Antigone, a creation inspired by the tragic notes that Arnold imagines reverberated in the Greek scholar’s ears as he stood on the shore of the Aegean Sea.
Though imaginative, the image evokes the ceaseless notes of sadness straddling our human existence. His Hellenistic preoccupation coupled with the sensuous word-picture heightens the timeless dilemma of our lives – the reality of eternal sadness beneath the surface of the bliss and beauty in the world. This idea is reiterated later in the poet’s outcry: 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;
(lines 30-34) Throughout the poem, even in the apparently serene visual details of the Dover Beach, there are subtle indications of the human condition in a world bereft of its faith, its spiritual support. The lights flickering on the shoreline of France, the erosive nature of the white chalkstone cliffs, the moon-blanched night, the conflict of the waves with the pebbles denote the attrition and assault of the human religious conviction in vitriolic contact with the daunting discoveries of science in the Victorian society.
It is at this juncture the poet launches his tirade against the corrosion of human faith, the comfort and security of the layer of belief and trust in the higher authority of God slowly fading from human lives, leaving the puny individual naked and helpless in the snare of a lonely doubt-ridden existence. Spiritualism was overridden by materialism; science challenged the dogmas of religion and church and riddled it with doubts and despair. The “sea of faith” had been a protective girdle wrapping the earth in its comfort, reassuring souls of the fruits of faith and goodness.
Now, the girdle had been forcibly torn apart and man was left in isolation, abjection and utter misery with no hope of restoration and rehabilitation. In the absence of faith in the higher power of God and the dearth of spiritual binding, the world has collapsed into wretched immorality, cruelty, loneliness and pain. Every man has become the enemy of his fellow brethren. In this frail structure of the human world, the poet earnestly voices the need for a pillar of support, an anchorage for the sea-swept human souls in the sea of mistrust and fear.
Arnold reinstates his belief and faith with the strong support of Love in human relationship. He calls upon his beloved to remain true and pledge loyalty to each other, with the conviction that the one true bond would mitigate the pain and darkness of the present human condition. Arnold makes the famous connection between the confusion and chaos raging in the human world to the account of Thucydides’ Battle of Epilolae (Grob, 182).
The clash of the Athenians and the Syracusans in the blinding darkness of the night saw mindless bloodshed of combatants, hurling and slashing not just the enemies just their own comrades in raucous ignorance. Arnold’s world is a “darkling plain” (35) where men distrust each other, clash and kill fellow men in abysmal ignorance of the truth. The guiding light of spiritual conviction having gone astray in the shadow of suspicion and hatred, human existence is paralleled to the victims of a senseless battle resulting in ache and annihilation of future generations.
Through deft use of rhetoric and picturesque words, the poem comes to life, with its message of the anchorage of Love in the world bereft of faith, struggling in confusion, a scene of chaos and anarchy. Arnold employs alliterative lines such as ‘to-night’ and ‘tide’; ‘full’ and ‘fair’ (Lines 1-2). Metaphors are skillfully weaved into the poem to enrich its inner meaning: the ‘Sea of Faith’ implies the comparison of the human spiritual belief with the waters enveloping the earth’s surface.
Again, the famous simile of the Battle of Epipolae imbues the poem with a depth of perception as well as a classical look-back for better understanding of the miserable war-torn state of humankind. ‘Dover Beach’ stands out among the Victorian greats not only because of the richness of language and imagery but also as a critical mirror of Arnold’s world and philosophy of life.
Arnold, Matthew. “Dover Beach”. The Top 500 Poems.
Ed. William Harmon. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992. p. 706 -707. Grob, Alan.
A Longing like Despair: Arnold’s poetry of Pessimism.
Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2002. p. 182.
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