In his poem “Dover Beach,” Matthew Arnold uses the interplay between sea and land to explore the conflict between religion and science. Published in 1867, this Victorian poem examines society’s dark mood of confusion as well as its wavering faith (some say “crisis of faith”) in the face of emerging scientific developments. The sea serves as a metaphor for religion—powerful, unknowable, and uncontrollable—while land represents science—new, unexplored territory.
In the first stanza, calmness and order are the status quo of life and society.
The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits … the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Religion is a peaceful power, with a “full” tide and “tranquil bay” that seem to dominate the “cliffs” or land. Arnold introduces a hint of unrest at the intersection of water and terra firma with
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.
Personified as “waves” that futilely try to toss back pieces of land (or pebbles), religion ineffectually resists the growing encroachment of science. Despite its “grating roar,” the ocean becomes less and less powerful. Its attempts to surmount the “high strand” weaken to a slow, quivering rhythm (“tremulous cadence”) that is pathetic; an “eternal note of sadness” creeps in.
In the second stanza, Arnold emphasizes the tragedy of religion’s decline in the face of science. He compares the ocean’s shaky cadence to the murky “ebb and flow / Of human misery” in the plays of Greek tragedian Sophocles.
In the third stanza, the poet uses the physical ocean as a metaphor for the religion when he describes the “Sea of Faith.” It
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
Rich, majestic, and weighty, religion once played a prominent role in society; faith was a significant part of people’s consciousness and lives. In a changing society, however, religion loses its hold. Arnold portrays religion’s weakening power as a
melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Faith is becoming pushed aside or banished from “earth’s shore” to its lifeless edges and loose stones along the seashore.
Instead, people turn toward what seems to be promise and novelty—scientific discovery.
the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new
Unfortunately, science does not promise the glories and salvation of religious faith; it
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.
Despite its promise of progress, science cannot give men what religion offers: joy, love, light, assurance, peace, and healing.
Humans become helpless pawns caught in the conflict between the two “armies” of religion and science. The speaker notes,
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
Instead of being drenched in fair moonlight, the world becomes a place of darkness, confusion, conflict, and lack of direction. People turn away from religion for science, but at what cost? Society loses order, and humans lose a strong sense of faith.
Arnold uses metaphor and imagery to describe the conflict he perceives between science and faith in the Victorian age. In the fourth stanza, for example, he has his speaker compare religious faith to the sea. The speaker says to his beloved companion that this “Sea of Faith” was once “full and round” but now is “withdrawing,” as sea water does when the tide goes out.
The metaphor then morphs into comparing the “Sea of Faith” to a retreating army, leaving the world vulnerable and exposed to the “drear / and naked shingles” of secularism and science.
In the final stanza, the war metaphor is extended. The speaker asserts that he and his beloved need to cling to one another, because “ignorant armies clash by night.”
The defeat of faith in the conflict between faith and science has, to the speaker’s mind, made the world a joyless place, lacking the love, light, certainty, peace, and solace that a robust faith once afforded. With a wider sense of security ripped away, individuals are thrown back on their own resources. Only relationships provide a sense of safety.
Arnold’s poem is famous because it captured the mood and anxieties of middle-class Britons at the height of the Victorian Age. The country was experiencing unprecedented prosperity and power, but one of the bases of that prosperity, industrialism, was upending traditional faith-based society, as were new scientific theories such as evolution.
When Matthew Arnold wrote “Dover Beach,” many of the old religious certainties of Victorian Britain were under attack. Although the majority of people paid lip-service to Christianity, it appeared that true devotion was becoming rarer. The educated classes, in particular, were becoming noticeably more skeptical of the veracity of Christianity, especially in light of the twin assaults of scientific advances and biblical criticism.
Developments in the field of natural science called into question traditional Christian beliefs about the age of the Earth. Far from being only 6,000 years old, as most Christians at that time believed, the planet was now shown to be much, much older; billions of years older, to be precise.
Though Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection had yet to be published by the time that Arnold wrote “Dover Beach,” it was generally accepted by educated people that the natural world was not quite as harmonious or as orderly as the picture presented by traditional Christian teaching.
In “Dover Beach,” we see Arnold embracing a scientific view of the world with all its turmoil; with its lack of peace, joy, or light. Anticipating the bleak view of life on earth presented by Darwin, Arnold contends that humankind is on “a darkling plain” from which the “Sea of Faith” has retreated.
This is an acknowledgment that often, as science becomes more advanced, there is less place in society and people's lives for religion.
This poem plays off the mind’s need to assign meaning to everything it sees.
The speaker in the poem is describing a beach in the evening and reflecting on the way the water moves between sea and land. The waves bring in an “eternal note of sadness” (line 14) with each break upon the shore. In the next stanza, the speaker tells us that Sophocles long ago knew the “turbid ebb and flow of human misery” (lines 17–18) and that we in the present can also know this misery by a “distant northern sea” (line 20). In the following stanza, the water lapping at the shore is the “sea of faith” (line 21) but now it is “melancholy ... withdrawing ... retreating” (lines 25–26) to the edges of the world. In the final stanza, the speaker tells us that the ocean that we can see
hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain (lines 33–34).
In this poem, the sound of waves is a metaphor for science or religion, and the ocean is a metaphor for the world we live in. The speaker reflects that at various points in history humans have sought comfort from science and religion as a kind of solid ground on which to base their interpretation of what is “real.” Science and faith are shown to make different observations and proclamations about the same thing: the ocean. Ultimately, though, the speaker wants us to look at the ocean itself instead of listening only to the waves. The conflict between science and religion comes, then, not from anything intrinsically different between them, but because they are trying to describe the same thing in different ways.