Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’
For at least a millennium in the West, Christianity was the dominant public perspective on how the world operates. That is no longer true. In our culture, science now explains the world.
Despite widespread private expressions of piety, in our public culture science is what we believe. Intelligent design, fad diets, ESP, or any other ideas that make a go at competing on science’s materialistic home turf all end up measured by science’s standard. This is why pseudo-science exists: you have to dress your ideas in a lab coat and protective eyewear if you want other people to believe your ideas about the physical world. That was not true when Victoria inherited the British throne in 1838, but it was largely true when she died in 1901. This was the result of a tectonic shift in the psychology of an entire society, and Matthew Arnold’s poem ‘Dover Beach’ captures the mental anguish of that shift.
Scientific findings eroded the public position of religion in two ways. Science fulfilled Lucretius’ hopes and found explanations for things that were previously God’s handiwork. But perhaps more importantly, science showed us how vast our world is: there are vast differences in human culture, and there are vast stretches of time and vast spaces that are empty of human existence.
Richard Feynman expressed well how this vastness can change your mental space:
It doesn’t seem to me that this fantastically marvelous universe, this tremendous range of time and space and different kinds of animals, and all the different planets, and all these atoms with all their motions, and so on, all this complicated thing can merely be a stage so that God can watch human beings struggle for good and evil – which is the view that religion has. The stage is too big for the drama.1
This vastness can cause us to doubt not only our religious beliefs, but also the meaning of anything in our lives.
Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) wrote ‘Dover Beach’ before the appearance of On the Origin of Species (1859), but published it afterwards. This poem of Victorian Existentialism was not prompted by Darwin’s bombshell, but the mood of doubt was in the air. The poem begins with a peaceful description of the beach at night, a peace which is broken with the “grating roar” of pebbles scraped and flung by the tide. The roar of the waves on the “naked shingles of the world” that Arnold heard in the surf at Dover Beach echoes the vastness of time that Darwin heard fifteen years before, in South America:
As often as I have seen beds of mud, sand, and shingle, accumulated to the thickness of many thousand feet, I have felt inclined to exclaim that causes, such as the present rivers and the present beaches, could never have ground down and produced such masses. But, on the other hand, when listening to the rattling noise of these torrents, and calling to mind that whole races of animals have passed away from the face of the earth, and that during this whole period, night and day, these stones have gone rattling onwards in their course, I have thought to myself, can any mountains, any continent, withstand such waste?2
The vast scope presented by the chalk cliffs of Dover beach may leave the traditional version of the “Sea of Faith” withdrawing with a “melancholy roar” (paralleled by the erosion of traditional iambic pentameter in the poem), but it opens a space for us to build our own meaning, as Arnold hints, in our relationships with each other in this “land of dreams,/ So various, so beautiful, so new.”
Dover Beach 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! 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. Sophocles long ago Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow Of human misery; we Find also in the sound a thought, Hearing it by this distant northern sea. The Sea of Faith Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled. But now I only hear Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, Retreating, to the breath Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear And naked shingles of the world. Ah, love, let us be true To one another! 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; And we are here as on a darkling plain Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, Where ignorant armies clash by night.
1. Statement (1959), quoted by James Gleick in Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman (1992)
2. The Voyage of the Beagle, entry for March 19, 1935
Image credit: Dover beach from the Wikimedia Commons via the University of Iowa’s Victorian Wiki.