What are the roles of both philosophy and religion in Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" and in "The Second Coming," by W. B. Yeats?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Thoughts about philosophy and religion play important roles not only in Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach” but also in “The Second Coming,” a poem by W. B. Yeats. Indeed, it is not unlikely that Arnold’s poem may have influenced the poem by Yeats.

Arnold’s poem is philosophical in several ways. In the first place, it is meditative and thoughtful. Arnold’s speaker is obviously concerned with issues of belief, truth, and suffering, as when he says that Sophocles, the Greek dramatist, long ago thought about

. . . the turbid ebb and flow

Of human misery . . . (17-18)

The speaker says that he and his companion are also, like Sophocles, inspired to think by the sound of ocean waters moving up and down a beach (19). Issues of religion enter the poem at line 21 and are emphasized especially until line 28. The speaker implies that Christianity is losing its influence:

. . .  I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating . . . (24-26)

The present seems a time of chaos and conflict, partly because of the loss of religious faith and also because of a loss of faith in practically any kind of truth (29-37).

Yeats’ “The Second Coming” is also philosophical in the sense that it is a thoughtful, meditative poem, although it also contains strong elements of prophecy. Yeats, of course, had developed his own highly complicated philosophical system to explain historical change (and much else), and that system is explicitly alluded to throughout the poem, especially in lines 1-3.  Yet Yeats, like Arnold, also senses that the Christian era may be coming to an end and that something bleak and destructive may replace it, at least at first. Thus Yeats explicitly alludes to “the Second Coming” (10-11) – a Christian concept, and an event thought to be preceded by the coming of “the Beast of the Apocalypse, or Antichrist” (1. John 2.18).  (See The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 8th ed., 2:2037)

In the final lines of his poem, Yeats seems to anticipate the coming of such a creature:

. . . what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born? (21-22)

Both poems, them, anticipate a major historical transition – a loss of faith (in Arnold’s poem) and a loss of Christian influence followed by a kind of apocalypse (in Yeats’ poem). Both poems imply that the Christian era may be ending, and both seem unsure about what (if anything) may valuably replace it. Both poems are philosophically pessimistic, and both suggest that religions almost inevitably rise and fall over time, without much regard to whether or not they are “true.”

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