Sunrise at Dover Beach

The sea is calm tonight,
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night air!

I was originally going to post the poem “Dover Beach“, by the Victorian poet Matthew Arnold, as the next installment of my Poetry Sunday series. Arnold was Professor of Poetry at Oxford and was said to be one of the three great Victorian poets, along with Alfred Tennyson and Robert Browning. Though fascinated by church ritual, he does not seem to have been a believer himself. He called God a “literary term”, compared the Christian god to the mythological deities of the Greeks, and defined religion as “morality touched with emotion”.

For all these reasons, Arnold seemed ideal. But upon rereading “Dover Beach”, I realized it had a very different message. Despite the tranquil beginning, its final verses take a much darker turn. The poet compares the tide going out to the ebbing of religious faith. But far from a good thing, he sees this as a source for despair, as all the old certainties retreat and leave the world in chaos and darkness.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

This despair is not atypical of those who are leaving the small, comforting certainties of religious faith behind, although usually it fades in due time. Arnold made it as far as the “darkness” stage of deconversion that I described in my essay “Into the Clear Air“, but he doesn’t seem to have taken those last few steps.

Religious apologists, of course, are apt to claim that atheism leads inevitably to nihilism. It’s possible that Arnold, though a nonbeliever himself, unintentionally absorbed that gloomy vision and persisted in the belief that despair was the consequence of atheism, even as he himself left religion behind.

It’s a shame that a poet of such evident talent didn’t see the fallacy in this. Religious faith is not the only source of joy, love, peace or help for pain. We can receive those things from our fellow human beings, regardless of their beliefs, and we can give out that solace to others in turn.

If only Matthew Arnold had gone just a little farther, he might have written something very different. It’s true that the deconversion process often involves a period of despair, while the believer’s old certainties retreat but before they’ve found anything to replace them. To complete the analogy, it’s true that after the last waves of the Sea of Faith retreat, for a time the world is murky and black, like a dream of absolute darkness.

But this spell of darkness rarely lasts for long. If Arnold had explored further rather than giving in to despair, he could have ended his poem in a very different way. Rather than leaving readers with the image of armies battling on a dark and sweltering plain, he could have told us of a glorious sunrise on Dover Beach: the dawn that comes after the night passes, when the new-made rays of the sun spear out of the east and envelop the world in light. Had he gone further, he would have found, as many other freethinkers have found, that love, joy and the other qualities that make life worth living do not vanish when their supernatural underpinnings are knocked out. In the end, those supports prove to be unnecessary, and they return as strong as ever.

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