The obsession with religion in early Victorian Britain is abundantly reflected in the literature of the time. Dickens, by 1850 the country’s pre-eminent novelist, tended to evoke religion when highlighting the hypocrisy of those who espoused it. The torments caused by struggles with faith were best voiced by those who actually experienced them – of whom Dickens was definitely not one.
The Oxford Movement – theologians from that University who wanted to make Anglicanism more Catholic – was the source of much of the trouble. James Anthony Froude, one of the 19th century’s leading historians, wrote about how he had lost his traditional view of religion in his mildly histrionic 1845 novel The Nemesis of Faith, which upset some of his fellow Oxonians so much that they had a copy of it burned in public. Tennyson, a Cambridge man, suffered his own doubts when his closest friend, Arthur Hallam, died of a brain haemorrhage aged 22; and he spent years composing his epic poem In Memoriam, published in 1850, a meditation on life, love, loss and faith.
Others dealt with the problem more succinctly. I have written here about Arthur Hugh Clough’s “Say not, the struggle naught availeth”, with its inspiring conclusion: “But westward, look, the land is bright.” It is a companion piece to his friend Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”, written probably two years later in about 1851.
Arnold’s concerns with faith are more explicit, and less sanguine, in this poem than Clough’s are in his. It has none of the regularity of Clough’s metre or form, and more complex diction. All it has in common, apart from its subject matter, is the metaphor of the sea that Clough eventually has “flooding in” with spirituality.
Arnold stands at a window near the beach (possibly on his honeymoon, in September 1851) and hears the waves shifting the pebbles. They “bring/ The eternal note of sadness in.” He notes that “Sophocles long ago/ Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought/ Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow/ Of human misery”.
If, as seems likely, “Dover Beach” was written after “Say not the struggle”, it could be a form of rebuke by Arnold to his friend, that the optimism of Clough’s poem was unfounded. Arnold was in many ways a more worldly figure than Clough. His concerns went beyond the doctrinal arguments that were splitting the established church, and focused instead on the retreat of faith in all its forms. Arnold saw the secular society coming, and urged the woman addressed in the poem – apparently his wife – that they must face their changing circumstances and make the best of them.
He writes that “The sea of faith/ Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore/ Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d”. However, at Dover beach he detected Clough’s sea metaphor changing its significance: “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.”
Even at the time, critics attacked Arnold for self-absorption; such disputes among rarefied intellectuals seemed increasingly irrelevant in a land transformed by the coming of the railways, industrialisation and the expansion of cities. However, the power of Arnold’s voice was also undeniable. Richard Holt Hutton, who with Walter Bagehot edited the National Review at the time, and who had his own turbulent spiritual journey, said that “when I come to ask what Mr Arnold’s poetry has done for this generation, the answer must be that no one has expressed more powerfully and poetically its spiritual weakness, its cravings for a passion it cannot feel, its admiration for a self-mastery it cannot achieve, its desire for a creed that it fails to accept, its sympathy with a faith it will not share, its aspiration for a peace it does not know.”
This is amply displayed by the last of four stanzas in “Dover Beach”. The poet tells his wife that they must “be true/ To one another! For the world, which seems/ To lie before us like a land of dreams… Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,/ Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.” Thirty years before Nietzsche announced that “God is dead”, Arnold seemed to be grasping the same fact, and in the frightening world of change it was every man for himself. He and his wife were “in a darkling plain/ Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight/ Where ignorant armies clash by night.”
Arnold would take his plea for the salvation of civilisation back into prose, in his 1867 masterpiece, Culture and Anarchy. But by then he appeared to have given up on faith solving the world’s problems, and had handed them over instead to the brute force of politics.