Themes: Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold
Loss of Faith in God and Religion –
Arnold follows the Romantic legacy of pensive melancholy located in the Victorian era of the waning of faith in God and religion and the frustration that follows. The strong religious and spiritual faith of earlier times was beginning to vanish with the advent of science and technology that induced doubts and questions in people’s mind. The poem The Dover Beach begins with a picturesque description of Nature, where the sea is calm and quiet, the tide is full and where moonlight enhances every corner of this beautiful landscape. The opening lines contain a tone of harmony and peace which is later contrasted to the cacophonous note of the flickering of faith suggested by the line “… the light gleams and is gone”.
The land imparting a sense of uncertainty with the flickering light stands for the Victorian ethos marked by oscillations and dubiousness. This weakening of faith in God brought about predominantly by Darwinism and Utilitarianism is a primary theme in the poem. Throughout the poem, Arnold uses several phrases and metaphors to indicate the gloom and despair that comes with a loss of faith. Arnold in this poem bemoans the collapse of a sentimental civilization and the lack of spiritual wisdom that causes the dissipation of mental and moral energy.
The rhythmic rise and fall of the waves are indicative of the rise and fall of human fate, misery, and suffering. The ebbing of water reminds the poet of the ebbing of faith in God and religion. The faith that was once embracing and comforting human civilization is now crumbling leaving every person on earth despondent. Like a girdle fastened around the waist of a person, the sea of faith had once girdled the world, offering nothing but love and wisdom. This melancholic tone is furthered in the poem as Arnold talks about the “long withdrawing roar” of spiritual and religious faith. The eroding white cliffs are symbolic of the erosion of human faith and values. Faith is compared to the vast sea which once had a full tide but now is retreating.
The continuous and monotonous movements of the waves are suggestive of the endless misery and despair that people find themselves in. Doubts and disbeliefs have left people isolated and sad. The fearful image of despair, emptiness and moral and cultural decomposition is clearly relevant to the theme of loss of faith in the poem. Disbeliefs provoke people to fight with each other for existence and live a life of deception where there is no place for joy, peace or hope. This void caused by lack of faith has left people exposed to the tyranny of its own kind. The ‘eternal note of sadness’ also heard by Sophocles, that connects the past with the present, is now brought about by wars and savagery that has not only made the world empty but has also plunged people into unmitigated darkness.
Love as the Soul’s Solace-
According to the poet, in a world that has lost its true meaning, a world composed of sadness, dullness, and grief, the only alternative to spiritual and religious faith can be true love. The poet laments the fact that loss of faith has left people hopeless and purposeless. At the end of the last paragraph, the poet turns to his beloved for comfort from the pain of the thought of human misery and fate. According to him, only sincere and genuine love can offer some relief to people living in a treacherous world.
Arnold feels that without the love of his beloved, the life is futile. In this world where “ignorant armies” are always ready to clash, only love can restore life’s meaning. Arnold, thus, depicts the ultimate power of love in soothing the soul. The only solace that the poet seeks from this dark, dead world is love. In a world that offers nothing but illusions, in a world that lies and deceives, where there is no place for joy, love, hope, light, peace, and certainty, the comforting arms of the beloved comes to the rescue.
The world has become a battlefield where everybody is intrigued by false alarms and made to spread anger, violence, and misery. A kind of darkness pervades the air, preventing people from seeing the beauty in the world. Arnold believes that only true love and compassion can make people restore their faith. Love is like the magic potion that erases all sorrows from our empty, insignificant lives and offers a release from the discordant world of anguish, rivalry and jealousy. Arnold pleads that the lovers cling to each other to seek comfort in a Godless world.
The ‘darkling plain’ is symbolic of the darkness in the cynical and selfish contemporary civilization. Only love can emerge as the guiding light to take people forward in the path of hope and light. Man’s endless misery and suffering can be brought to an end by redeeming mankind. And only love is capable of giving a ray of hope to the grief-stricken, vulnerable and weak beings on earth.