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Churches, from "Dover Beach," a poem by Matthew Arnold

Subthemes: Familiar and Reliable Support, Ancient, Mystical

As he gazes at the English Channel and responds to the waves tremulous cadence slow, Matthew Arnold slips into melancholic brooding. He mourns that the high tide of religious faith, the all-encompassing oceanic belief in God represented by the Sea of Faith and sustained by churches, is weakening and receding, with a deep loss of beauty and pleasure in a secularizing world buffeted by chaotic, senseless conflict.

“Dover Beach,” by Matthew Arnold

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!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

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.

Familiar and Reliable Support: Once as regular as the Begin, and cease, and then again begin, of the waves, Arnold fears that the bright girdle of theological faith is coming undone, losing its power to guide and succor the faithful.

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.

The long-accustomed, reassuring faith was once at the full but has diminished and is in retreat.

Like the traditional faith that Hardy bemoans has yielded its vitality, all church services offer congregations a steady, familiar, and comforting ritual of service. The cadence, content, the measured steps and memorized words, smells of incense and the old favorite hymns, candles and flowers and icons all looking the same year after year manifest the message: God (or whatever is worshipped) is eternal and unchangeable and on your side. You can rely on your steadfast religion, made tangible in the physical continuity of the church building. You likewise depend on your rabbi, iman, shinshoku, or preacher who holds forth within.

Ancient: Churches, as places to worship and share beliefs that determine the fate of humans, have played a vital role in all societies for thousands of years, at least for as long as artifacts suggest that role. Where we have not uncovered evidence of burial rites, carvings of deities, sacrificial sites, or other indicators of religion (Stonehenge, for example, or even older, Newgrange in Ireland), the ubiquity of religions convinces us that it arose as humans evolved consciousness and an ability to speak. Worship is as old as

the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery.

Moreover, where religions arose, so did holy sites and buildings.

Mystical: Arnold’s poem merges reality with metaphorical imagery, such as the Sea of Faith, the constancy of waves, and ignorant armies. Mysterious as religious faith may be, when forced to convert, many continued to observe their faith’s commandments, even at risk of death. Martyrs by the tens of thousands have died for what they believe about their religion. Yet, the basis of unshakable convictions of believers cannot be conveyed convincingly to nonbelievers. To them, churches purvey superstitious nonsense. Religion is an article of faith, of belief on a different plane than what words can convey or arguments prove, a felt presence that eludes articulation, the ineffable surrender to a higher power, and the moral precepts laid out by that religion. Consider the Book of Mormon, for example, or the Quran, the central religious text of Islam, believed by Muslims to be a revelation from God.

 

Arnold senses that the cossetting deep faith of days past has given way to modern, securlar sensibilities, which he decries. What used to be a mainstay of most people, an unwavering faith in God, is slipping away, and without that venerable and mysterious support, the world is doomed to disaster.

If you are interested in views of the concept “Religion,” consider other subthemes that don’t fit as directly to the poem, painting, rock song, and movie written about in this series. For an overview, this article explains Themes from Art or click on the navigation bar, “About.”

We invite you to read about other poems discussed on this blog, and their themes. Here they are:

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