Contrast the attitudes toward religious faith expressed in Matthew Arnold's poem "Dover Beach" and in Augustus Toplady's hymn "If, on a Quiet Sea."

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Matthew Arnold’s famous poem “Dover Beach” contrasts strongly and in many ways with Augustus Toplady’s hymn “If, on a Quiet Sea,” particularly in its attitude toward religious faith. Arnold’s poem expresses great doubts about the future of religion; Toplady’s hymn is a fervent expression of faith. The tone of Arnold’s poem is therefore melancholy, while the tone of Toplady’s hymn is optimistic and hopeful. Other contrasts between the two poems, especially as they relate to religious faith, include the following:

  • Arnold’s poem presents a speaker addressing another human being, not God. Toplady’s hymn presents a speaker directly addressing God himself and thus confident in God’s existence.
  • Arnold’s speaker speaks solely for himself, thus suggesting his sense of isolation and his attempt to overcome it. Toplady’s speaker is a spokesman for himself and others, who are joined in a common faith and a common devotion to God.
  • Arnold’s depiction of the “Sea of Faith” (21) is dark and pessimistic:

. . . I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating . . . (24-26)

Toplady, on the other hand, uses the sea as a metaphor for the course of life, and he proclaims on behalf of his fellow Christians that not only can they gratefully accept the good times and pleasures of life (“the favoring gale” [5]) but that they can also accept and deal with any “tempest” or “storm” that might drive them closer to “home” with God (7-10).

  • Arnold’s poem gives voice to profound doubt, as when his speaker says that this world, which seems

So various, so beautiful, so new

Hath really neither, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain . . . (32-34) [emphasis added]

In contrast, Toplady’s hymn expresses faith in God’s ability to grant real peace to the human heart:

Soon shall our doubts and fears all yield to Thy control;

Thy tender mercies shall illume

The midnight of the soul. (11-13)

Significantly, Toplady does not deny that “doubts and fears” can and will exist in human minds and hearts; he merely proclaims his confident faith that God is the answer to such uncertainties and worries.

  • At the end of Arnold’s poem, the speaker is still addressing another human being (thereby suggesting that he lacks sufficient faith to assume that he can address himself to God). The final imagery of Arnold’s poem is bleaker than anything described before, since the speaker presents life as resembling

. . . a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night. (35-37)

In contrast, Toplady’s hymn closes not with this kind of personal, pessimistic assessment of the state of life but with a faithful request to God:

Teach us, in every state, to make Thy will our own;
And when the joys of sense depart,
To live by faith alone . . . (16-18)