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.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://nomorehornets.blogspot.com The Exterminator

    Perhaps you don’t know “The Dover Bitch,” a very nice parody of Arnold’s poem. It was written by Anthony Hecht.

    So there stood Matthew Arnold and this girl
    With the cliffs of England crumbling away behind them,
    And he said to her, ‘Try to be true to me,
    And I’ll do the same for you, for things are bad
    All over, etc., etc.’
    Well now, I knew this girl. It’s true she had read
    Sophocles in a fairly good translation
    And caught that bitter allusion to the sea,
    But all the time he was talking she had in mind
    The notion of what his whiskers would feel like
    On the back of her neck. She told me later on
    That after a while she got to looking out
    At the lights across the channel, and really felt sad,
    Thinking of all the wine and enormous beds
    And blandishments in French and the perfumes.
    And then she got really angry. To have been brought
    All the way down from London, and then be addressed
    As a sort of mournful cosmic last resort
    Is really tough on a girl, and she was pretty.
    Anyway, she watched him pace the room
    And finger his watch-chain and seem to sweat a bit,
    And then she said one or two unprintable things.
    But you mustn’t judge her by that. What I mean to say is,
    She’s really all right. I still see her once in a while
    And she always treats me right. We have a drink
    And I give her a good time, and perhaps it’s a year
    Before I see her again, but there she is,
    Running to fat, but dependable as they come.
    And sometimes I bring her a bottle of Nuit d’Amour.

  • Christopher

    Ebonmuse,

    “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.”

    Or, alternatively, perhaps he might have simply learned not to mind the darkness – or perhaps even view it as a potential source of strength. Contrary to the “darkness to light” analogy (probably a holdover from mysticism), I don’t see the darkness as something to fear but rather a power to embrace and make one’s own.

    It’s not just what one sees in his reality, but how one sees that reality – one man may see that reality as a living hell, yet another perceive heaven on earth.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    Exterminator, I love that parody. Thanks for sharing.

    Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
    Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

    The world has joy, and love, and light — heck, Arnold even offers love as an inadequate solution to the problem that he sees. But the world does not have certitude, and in peace and help for pain it undoubtedly falls short.

    There is poetry in this, for the problem is real. I do not think I would feel alive if I couldn’t hear the wind whistling softly in the abyss beneath my feet.

  • http://kaltrosomos.livejournal.com Kaltrosomos

    I think the idea that atheism must always breed despair is a great example of the human mind playing tricks on itself.

    Think about it. Believers have constructed this elaborate fantasy which they believe in. They think their actions have cosmic proportions. They suppose that angels and demons follow them and try to curry favor. They say the creator of the universe died for them and wants a personal relationship with them. After they die, they say, a wonderful place beyond imagining is waiting for them if they have been good. What’s more, they can be assured that every foul deed can be accounted for and that the damned will suffer in hell forever.

    That’s one heady expectation. Of course they start feeling a bit of despair. The world, stripped of their fantasy, suddenly looks drab and commonplace. They probably feel like they’ve lost something irreplaceable.

    It has a few similarities to substance addiction, when I think about it. Faith is the drug, creating artificial conditions. When the drug gets removed, they crash, have withdrawals. Like any drug though, they develop a tolerance, and have to sooner or later start finding more potent ways to drug themselves.

    One example of this, I suppose, is when Catholic blogger Mark Shea posted an article about how he only believed in one conspiracy theory: the theory that there is, just out of sight, a cosmic battle going on between good and evil thanks to the “powers and principalities”. Of all the conspiracy theories, he chooses to believe the wildest and most outlandish one that encompasses the entire cosmos and all time.

    What better way to enliven a fantasy than imagining that you’re taking part in a war that not only encompasses all space and all time, but which will influence some state beyond space and time?

  • http://stereoroid.com/ brian t

    The “confused alarms of struggle and flight” line may sound a little familiar to fans of the band Rush: it’s used in the song Armor and Sword, from their recent album Snakes and Arrows. The song is a pretty harsh denunciation of religiously-motivated war:

    Confused alarms of struggle and flight
    Blood is drained of colour
    By the flashes of artillery light
    No-one gets to their heaven without a fight

  • Steve bowen

    he could have told us of a glorious sunrise on Dover Beach:

    I live 20 miles from Dover and there’s been precious few glorius sunrises there this summer:) However the poem could be seen as mourning the death of belief in belief rather than a personal descent into darkness. I think there are still many who see faith as an intrinsically good thing even if they don’t profess it themselves.

  • Polly

    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.

    I was inexplicably happy from day 1. I felt like a load had been lifted.

    I’m happy to remain dead for eternity rather than enjoy the castrated paradise, and suffer the knowledge of eternal perdition for masses of humanity, that xianity offered.

    All that I had considered gain I now count as loss, and what was loss, I now call gain.

    Any unbeliever who cherishes delusion is, himself, suffering the effects of a sort of second-hand delusion.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    I’m reminded a bit of something a friend once said about the more depressed and depressing existentialists. He said, “Yes, they thought there was no external meaning to life, that the only meaning was whatever we created and that we were solely responsible for it. But for some reason, they thought this was a bad thing.”

    And I remember thinking that, to some extent, existential despair and angst might be a generational thing. After all, my friend and I were both born and raised in a world where existentialism already existed and was something of a given. We didn’t have to invent it. So it just didn’t seem like that big a deal, and we had a whole lifetime to get used to it.

    And I wonder if, to some extent, that might be true for atheism as well. Obviously not all the time — some people, like Polly, leave their religion with no second thoughts and no looks backward to turn their joy into a pillar of salt. But I wonder if part of Arnold’s problem might have been that he lived in a world where joy, and love, and light, and certitude, and peace, and help for pain, were all pretty much synonymous with religion.

    I wonder if atheism is generally easier for people who are raised with it. And I wonder if it’ll be easier for people who are raised in a world where it’s a widely known- about option, even if it’s not how they’re personally raised. (If so, then all the more reason for us to keep raising a ruckus.)

  • Samuel Skinner

    The darkness meerly hides the light and makes it that much more precious.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Heh. Good poem, Exterminator. That reminded me of Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” and, some time later, A.D. Hope’s response.

  • exrelayman

    Sorry you disqualified such a truly magnificent poem. ‘The sea of faith’ is retreating in melancholy. Reading melancholy into Arnold is another thing. Even so, if we share reason, evidence, logic, and disbelief in the supernatural, is it necessary that we share cheerfulness to be atheists in good standing? Just a few ideas to contemplate. Besides the poem as a whole seems to me not a bad line for an amorous young man to use – we should be true to one another – perhaps an embrace or who knows what else (wink, wink) will follow such an eloquent disquisition.

  • Juliana Marie

    It has a few similarities to substance addiction, when I think about it. Faith is the drug, creating artificial conditions. When the drug gets removed, they crash, have withdrawals. Like any drug though, they develop a tolerance, and have to sooner or later start finding more potent ways to drug themselves.

    I appreciate this observation, especially as a recovering addict in the, uh, usual sense of the term. Some time ago, I “recovered” from the religion of my birth, Catholicism. Withdrawing from it, while still romantically addicted to mystical rituals and symbols, I dabbled in other forms of spiritual self-medication. Such foolishness – you could say I rue my life in the woo! I did not go cold turkey on god(s) but did weaned myself. Only instead of a methadone program or a nicotine patch, I had regular doses of Prometheus Books’ atheist titles, Internet Infidels & other online forums. And, just as in treating other addictions, turns out abstinence is the best medicine of all. Abstinence from irrational beliefs and from unquestioning acceptance of religious authority cleared my head. AND my atheism has brought great relief, peace of mind, and even greater joy in and with my life.

    ”Contrary to the “darkness to light” analogy (probably a holdover from mysticism), I don’t see the darkness as something to fear but rather a power to embrace and make one’s own.”

    Greta Christina recently had a post about atheist dreams. It made me realize all the dark, scary, devil dreams I used to have stopped when I gave up the god! This may seem like a no-brainer to some, but it was a revelation to me. I still have bad dreams of course, but I never dream of devils! It’s so cool be a grown up – not afraid of the dark of night (how else to see the stars?), not afraid of bogeymen, or of some invisible being in the sky.

    Thanks for providing this space that helps me exercise my rational mind and reminds me there are other freethinkers out there (and some of you are pretty darn smart, and good writers, too).

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    Darn, you beat me to it Exterminator!

  • Christopher

    Juliana Marie,

    “Greta Christina recently had a post about atheist dreams. It made me realize all the dark, scary, devil dreams I used to have stopped when I gave up the god! This may seem like a no-brainer to some, but it was a revelation to me. I still have bad dreams of course, but I never dream of devils! It’s so cool be a grown up – not afraid of the dark of night (how else to see the stars?), not afraid of bogeymen, or of some invisible being in the sky.”

    I read Greta’s post as well – but unlike her, I don’t necissarily have “Atheist dreams” so much as I have philosophical and poetic inspirations at seemingly random moments (sometimes they have vaguely religious overtones, sometimes they don’t – so I wouldn’t necissarily call them “Atheist inspirations”). For example, last night I was driving down a stretch of desert while listening to some death metal and a poem more or less composed itself in my head. Since this is a poetry thread I felt it appropriate to post this litte ammature piece – enjoy folks!

    Swim through the blackened sea
    see now the eternal constant…

    Chaos…

    Ride above the void upon the wings of Apolyon
    to watch the Heavens demise…

    Chaos…

    Behold the end of every order
    the abyss swallows all – Loki’s handiwork
    even those fancied as “god” die within…

    Chaos…

    Propelled by the power of the Leviathan
    I seek the malestrom’s edge
    postpone annihilation just one more day…

    Chaos…

    There’s nothing like a drive in the open desert at 2 a.m. listening to “9 Bullets in the Face of Christ” to get the creative juices flowing, huh?

  • Juliana Marie

    There’s nothing like a drive in the open desert at 2 a.m. listening to “9 Bullets in the Face of Christ” to get the creative juices flowing, huh?

    Sounds like a fun early morning, and after reading your poem, I must find a sample of that tune (what a title!!).

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Welcome, Juliana! Glad to have you here. I’m glad to offer a space for rational minds – it sounds to me as though you’ll fit right in.

    Your comment brings to mind G.K. Chesterton’s condescending quote that “When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing — they believe in anything.” And this may well be true, though not in the way he probably intended it. Most religions discourage skepticism and critical thinking, so it’s no surprise that those who become disenchanted with their church often drift into other kinds of superstition. But those myths, I find, don’t satisfy any more than the more popular and mainstream ones do. Abstinence and rational thought is the best solution, as you said. By clearing one’s mind of all the insufficient, anthropocentric imaginings, it leaves us open to appreciate the genuine wonder of existence and the world as it truly is.

  • Christopher

    Juliana Marie,

    “Sounds like a fun early morning, and after reading your poem, I must find a sample of that tune (what a title!!).”

    Well, it was a business-related drive and death metal helps keep me awake – but yes, it’s enjoyable to alone with one’s thoughts and favorite music.

    As for “9 Bullets in the Face of Christ” – it’s not a tune, it’s an album produced by Daemonlord/Satanizer. Not many stores carry it, so you may want to get it off Amazon. If you like hardcore death and black metal, this album’s for you.

    Enjoy!

  • Alex Weaver

    The black metal reference is ironic in light of Ebon’s most recent post, since black metal artists often follow a similar pattern, vociferously rejecting Christianity while embracing quasi-pagan beliefs which are a questionable improvement.

  • Christopher

    Alex Weaver,

    “The black metal reference is ironic in light of Ebon’s most recent post, since black metal artists often follow a similar pattern, vociferously rejecting Christianity while embracing quasi-pagan beliefs which are a questionable improvement.”

    Well, the majority of death and black metal artists are either Pagans or Atheists and they live in a culture that has been deeply marred by the Christian faith – so it only makes sense that they vent their frustrations on it. And I do see the philosophy embraced by their music as a drastic improvment over the Judeo-Christian value system: as it’s a value system that rejects any authority that attempts to set itself above the individual.

    Naturally, mainstream society hates the ideologies affiliated with this movement (some governmnets even attempted to ban death and black metal concerts from their nation for fear of them “corrupting the youth”) – as they despise anything that promotes an ideology that runs counter to their conservative views. They see what can happen once individuals embrace the power of their darker natures and they are afraid of it!

    I say that non-believers here in the U.S. could learn a few lessons from our European counterparts – particularly the ability to regard all things as temporal, which is something I notice most people here have trouble doing as we’re so conditioned by our culture to believe in absolutes…