Dover Beach: question answer : The crisis of faith during the Victorian Era


Dover Beach  : By Matthew Arnold

Question : Describe the crisis of faith during the Victorian Era with reference to Matthew Arnold’s poem”Dover Beach “.

Answer : The Victorian Era is regarded as the era of change and growth. With the onset of industrial Revolution, the pillar of faith supporting society was perceived as crumbling under the weight of scientific theories such as Darwinism and Lamarckism etc.

        With the growth of science and technology, the idea of realism also entered into the society. People thought that science and technology had made them superior over nature and they began to doubt the existence of God.

Loss of Faith

           Before the time of machineries, people had faith in God. This faith gave people hope and modesty under the mighty existence of God. But all the hope and modesty disappeared with the Industrial Revolution. Matthew Arnold, laments in the poem “Dover Beach ” for the lack of spirituality and loss of faith.

        Arnold has used the metaphor of “sea” to demonstrate the loss of faith among people during Victorian Age. The poem begins with the description of the natural beauty of Dover Beach, where the sea is calm, suggesting a world that is peaceful, harmonious and filled with joy.  There is no thoughts, emotions or doubts but only images that are quiet. But a discordant note  is seen from the fourth line “On the French coast the light gleams and is gone”.

Suggesting the flickering of faith in God by flickering of light.

     The crisis of faith is furthered in the poem when Arnold  talks about the 

” melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,/ retreating …….”

These lines give a feeling of lost hope, abandoned faith and a longing to return to the olden days.

Sorrow Caused by loss of Faith

       Matthew Arnold was deeply troubled by the loss of faith. He referred the ancient Greek playwright, Sophocles, who long ago heard the eternal note of sadness on the Aegeon Sea, which brought to his mind human misery.

  “…..brought/ Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow /                                                            Of human misery”

Here a comparison has been drawn between human  misery and the sea ebbing and flowing.

     Arnold not only compares the human misery with the sea, but also he used the metaphor of “Sea”for the faith in God. He says – 

” The Sea of Faith 

   Was once, too, at the full and round earth’s shore….”

The human faith in God was once so strong and protective “like the folds of a bright girdle”. It was suggestive that the sea of faith in God was strong and protective for the people from all the doubt and despair just like a girdle of sea wraps itself around the continents and islands of the world.

      The poet is  troubled by the fact that the ” Sea of Faith ” has receded. It was once at its “flow ” but now is at its “ebb”. He further says that he could only hear the ” melancholy, long withdrawing roar “, which suggested that the sad sound of retreating waves on the shore, sounded like the death throes of  Christian era.

        Poet further says that the faith in God and religion had provided a relief from the sufferings and doubts about the existence, has now been removed by the development of science. This led man to question about the faith and ultimately decline it. This decline has caused the human mind to remain uncovered and unprotected like ” naked shingles “, remained after retreating of waves from the shore. It brings to mind a dreary feeling of helplessness as though the mind is left stripped and bare on the vast and dreary edges of unknown land.

      The most bitter expression of the poet’s view about loss of faith is presented in the last stanza. He says  that the world which appears to have variety, beauty and freshness is in reality a place which has 

” …neither joy, nor love, nor light/

  Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.”

    The world without the faith in God and religion, is like a darkling plain,  unreal and deceptive. It is like a battlefield at night where soldiers run after shadows and fire at them , unable to tell friend from foe. 

   This suggests that due to decline in faith, humanity stands on the brink of chaos, surrounded in encroaching darkness by destructive forces and therefore unable to distinguish between the friend and foe. However the only solace that the poet finds in this crisis is love.

      Thus, the poem “Dover Beach” is suggestive of the crisis of faith during the Victorian Era and waning power of religion to give unity and meaning to human life.

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