On Dover Beach
Lately I’ve found myself drawn repeatedly to Matthew Arnold’s famous poem “Dover Beach“, which is one of the great poems of English literature. It is difficult for me to read this poem, because it is full of the despair of existence, and it anticipates Nietzsche’s announcement of the death of God by two decades, at least. In that sense, it expresses something quintessential about the modern mood, which is already traceable in the earlier poetry of John Donne (1572 – 1631) and William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616) – the eclipse of the soul; the looming dark night of the soul. The death of God was already anticipated by Donne much earlier, in his great poem “An Anatomy of the World“.
“Dover Beach”, it seems to me, stands somewhere between Donne’s “Anatomy of the World” and Nietzsche’s final pronouncement of the “death of God”. It expresses the world as the realisation of “Single Vision & Newtons sleep” as William Blake anticipated with dread and horror — the Kali Yuga.
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.
The ebbing of the “Sea of Faith” speaks of the eclipse of the soul and the death of God, which has, ironically despite “Enlightenment”, left us standing alone “on a darkling plain” — T.S. Eliot’s “wasteland”. Man is left alone with nothing but Nature and the “natural”, bereft finally of all transcendent spiritual qualities and values. For this natural world “hath really” — that is to say, “objectively” and certifiably — none of those spiritual qualities that it possessed during the Age of Faith, which we might also call The Age of the Soul. The “real” world of objective Nature as perceived by the logico-mathematical mind has neither joy, nor love, nor light, nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain. If it isn’t a world hostile to life, it is, at least, sensed as being indifferent. It is a merciless world of iron law. A world in which the powers which shape our misery are ultimately inescapable and finally without significance.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,Creeps in this petty pace from day to dayTo the last syllable of recorded time,And all our yesterdays have lighted foolsThe way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor playerThat struts and frets his hour upon the stageAnd then is heard no more. It is a taleTold by an idiot, full of sound and fury,Signifying nothing. — Shakespeare, Macbeth
This was the dreadful nihilism and abyss that Nietzsche sensed as the final death of God and modern man’s “dark night of the soul” — the horror vacui. Nietzsche asked the sensible question: how is it possible for life — and especially human life — to live in such a world of Time and Death without suicidally succumbing to a joyless existence of bitterness, despair, and resentment? This is the impetus for his “revaluation of values”. He tried to discover for mankind’s future a new faith and love, realising that the old faith could no longer sustain human beings in life.
That mood of existential despair is what “Dover Beach” has captured. The “darkling plain” is the modern eclipse of the soul — the contemporary “dark night of the soul” and of Blake’s “single vision”. Arnold sees only one out from that despair, and that is in loving.
It is easy enough to be drawn into “the dark side”, which Jean Gebser called “the demonic”. And one should probably understand by his “integral consciousness” the attempt to re-establish the centrality of the soul and by his “the ever-present origin” the godhead.
The “death of God” and the onset of existential despair and anguish was a long time in the making. Nietzsche is certainly not the cause of it. The grim implications of the death of God and dark night of the soul were already present in the works of earlier poets and in the world that “Urizen” built. That is the world that is implied in Matthew Arnold’s little word “really”. It is the domain of the Kali Yuga.