How is "Dover Beach" an example of Victorian writing?
"Dover Beach" neatly encapsulates one of the main contradictions at the heart of Victorian society. On the one hand, Victorian England was a deeply religious country, one in which matters of religion were regarded with a high degree of importance. Levels of church attendance were remarkably high, and just about everybody believed in God.
Yet at the same time, doubts as to the veracity of the Bible began to creep in among the educated classes. German liberal theologians (with whose work Arnold was doubtless familiar) had put forward the idea that the Bible was like any other book and should therefore be examined accordingly. Among other things, this new approach to Scriptural exegesis precluded any literal interpretation of the Bible. The higher criticism, as it was called, soon spread to England, undermining the widely-held Protestant belief in the inerrance of Scripture.
In addition, the traditional certainties of Victorian religion were under attack from developments in natural science. Lyell had demonstrated by the use of fossil records that the earth was much older than the Bible's account would suggest. And, most famously of all, Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection called the biblical account of creation even further into question by showing how different species had developed and mutated.
In the midst of all this rapid change, Arnold recognizes that life will never be the same again. He doesn't seek to change the course of the outgoing tide and the receding of the old certainties it symbolizes; he's too much of a Victorian not to believe in the inevitability of human progress. Instead, he humbly enjoins his wife and his Victorian audience to hold fast to that which they love and be true to themselves as the storm of doubt continues to rage outside.
What's Victorian in "Dover Beach" is, of course, the sense of spiritual loss and doubt. However, in addition to those, several things make this Victorian. First, the mix of continuity and failure. By that I mean, Victoria was on the throne for a long time; this creates a sense of continuity. However, many of the institutions of British society are failing or changing. Second, the re-use of classical references to new ends, such as commenting on Arnold's own society. Third, Arnold's own poetic theories. Arnold argued for higher culture as a way to replace the lost faith he comments on in the poem. The poem itself is exchanged between two people who stand apart from the place "where ignorant armies clash by night," much as the bastions of higher culture must do for the ignorant clashes of mass culture."
What is most Victorian about this piece is its sense of spiritual doubt. While the Victorian Age (1830-1901) is primarily viewed as a time of great progress and the attainment of world power for England, there were also serious spiritual doubts beginning to take hold in the culture. Much of this can be attributed to the rise of scientific theories that no longer included a "creator" such as Darwin's theory of evolution (The Origin of Species was published in 1859). In the face of his doubt, the speaker in "Dover Beach" suggests that human love may be the only substitute for this kind of spiritual loss.