Matthew Arnold’s poem was published in 1867, eight years after Charles Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species‘. It reflects the fears of traditional Christians at a perceived undermining of some long-held beliefs. The science of geology lengthened the Earth’s age from the Bible’s few thousand, to many millions of years. Darwin’s theory of evolution dethroned humanity from its exclusively created, self-contained supremacy over all other living things. Historical and literary scrutiny of the Bible raised doubts about the consistency, integrity and historicity of its contents. It felt as if the foundations, not only of their religion, but of society itself, were crumbling beneath their feet, and that disaster loomed.
Arnold found an apt image for this in the ebbing tide at Dover beach. The “grating roar of pebbles“, ‘drawn back’ and then ‘flung’ forward again, anticipates the later disturbing image of “confused alarms of struggle and fight” in the ominous years ahead. The retreating tide increasingly reveals “the vast edges drear and naked shingles of the world“, with its suggestion of growing desecration and desolation. The poem’s opening scene, however, like a “calm” before the storm, is very different. “The moon lies fair“, “sweet is the night-air“, and “in the tranquil bay .. the cliffs .. stand, glimmering and vast“, like the hallowed ‘rock of ages’ firmly established and eternally secure. The ‘gory’ days of approaching secularisation, “where ignorant armies clash by night“, are in stark contrast to the ‘glory’ days when the “Sea of Faith was .. at the full.”
The poem’s imagery, however, can be thought to contain seeds of a contrary view. Tides ebb, but flow again, irrespective of the ideas and ideologies of humankind, witness King Canute. Arnold recalls Sophocles, the Greek writer of Tragedies who therefore, unsurprisingly, sees in the movement of the tides, “the turbid ebb and flow of human misery“. Civilisation, however, somehow managed to survive the succeeding centuries, during many of which the Church dominated the Western world, politically, economically, religiously and socially. As the poem puts it, “the Sea of Faith .. round earth’s shore, lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.” Happy days it would seem but in fact, not necessarily so!
“Girdle” is an ‘interesting’ choice of word. The SOED defines ‘girdle’ as ‘something which confines or binds’, and in some ways the dominant Church was more like a straightjacket, than a girdle. Although it had some involvement in the provision of healthcare, education and poor relief, it was intolerant of dissent, and sought to control what people thought, said and wrote. The consequences ranged from heresy hunting to book-burning, from the Inquisition to people-burning, and from pitiless persecution of dissenters to full scale religious conflict. Whereas Arnold imagines the secular “world which lies before us“, as having “neither joy, nor love, nor light, nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain“, these words might well be thought more appropriately descriptive of his imagined past ‘golden age’. That, arguably, is his real “land of dreams“, though ‘land of nightmares’ was the experience of many who lived and died in it.
Let me make clear that this post is not anti-religious. I’m content to regard myself as ‘religious’, though not in any traditional, orthodox or institutionalised sense. A religious sensibility has been part of the human make up since our earliest days, and isn’t going to disappear any time soon. Being flawed creatures in an unpredictable world, our history has seen a constant ebb and flow of good and evil, abundance and poverty, order and disorder, happiness and grief. The coming and going of religions has made no fundamental difference to that. The growth of no particular religion heralds a golden dawn, nor does its decline herald terminal decay, despite any pretensions or protestations on its own part.
What matters for our future, it seems to me, is not the success or failure of this or that religion, but the continuance and increase of people who, whatever their religious persuasion or lack of one, are resolved to take to heart the heartfelt plea, “Ah, love, let us be true to one another.” ‘Love’ has to do with the open heart that values all fellow human beings, whatever badge is on their lapel, and ‘Truth’ has to do with the open mind that can considerately take on board a contrary belief, rather than being intolerantly, and sometimes violently, fixated on its own. Only then might “the world which seems to lie before us”, offer any possibility of being, “so various, so beautiful, so new.”
As an earlier poet, Alexander Pope put it, “Hope springs eternal in the human breast“, and hopefully ever will do.