Dover Beach Questions and Answers
by Matthew Arnold

Dover Beach book cover
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Explain the conflict between religion and science in Matthew Arnold's poem "Dover Beach."

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In the famous poem "Dover Beach" by Matthew Arnold, a man stands by a window observing Dover Beach and the English Channel beyond it by moonlight. He urges his companion, who seems to be his lover, to come to the window, observe the landscape, breathe the night air, and hear the sound of pebbles grating upon the shore. The poet believes that the ceaseless motion of the waves is sad, and he recalls that when Sophocles heard it, he equated it with the "ebb and flow of human misery."

In the third stanza, Arnold begins to write of religion. He compares the Christian faith, which used to be strong in England, with the receding sea. He says that it once spread around the entire Earth, but now it is going away, leaving confusion and darkness.

To understand the conflict between religion and science that is indirectly referred to in this poem, it is important to know its historical context. It was first published in 1867, but it may have been written years earlier. At the time, science was taking the place of religion in terms of how people viewed the world. For instance, Charles Darwin published his revolutionary book On the Origin of Species in 1859. The poet laments the loss of religious beliefs. In the poet's opinion, along with the loss of religion, the world was losing love, light, certitude, and peace, and the new emphasis on scientific achievement was unable to replace these qualities.

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