© 2021, by M. Keith Booker

Matthew Arnold (1822–1888) was important as both a poet and a cultural critic. Indeed, the two roles often merged as he sought, in his poetry, to make pronouncements about the state of his contemporary Victorian culture. He also worked as an inspector of schools for thirty-five years, a position that led him to travel about England probably more extensively than any poet had ever done. In 1857, he was elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford University, subsequently becoming the first holder of that position to deliver lectures in English, rather than Latin. In 1869, he published Culture and Anarchy, his most important work of social criticism (compiling essays first published separately in 1867–1868), and one that is still read today. Here, he expresses most clearly his view that culture is the key to solving problems that might appear to be purely social and political. The preface to the volume contains some very famous declarations of the importance of literary culture as a compilation of “the best which has been thought and said in the world,” while also suggesting that culture can give us fresh perspectives by “turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits, which we now follow staunchly but mechanically.” You can find the on-line text of Culture and Anarchy here:

In poetry, the poem that best expresses Arnold’s views on the state of Victorian England is “Dover Beach,” which already, in 1867, shows the sense of crisis that would ultimately come to dominate late-Victorian literature and thought. (Though the speaker in a poem should not necessarily be equated with the poet, it seems clear that the speaker here and Arnold himself are very much in accord.) The poem starts with a seemingly conventional ode to the beauties of the sea as observed from Dover Beach, perhaps England’s most famous beach, part of the coastline that includes the famous White Cliffs of Dover. But then, the speaker surprisingly introduces the rather unpoetic suggestion that waves throwing pebbles onto the shore make a “grating sound” that introduces an inevitable note of sadness:


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.

In the next two stanzas, invoking Sophocles, the speaker continues the suggestion that there is something sad about the repetitive beating of the waves on the shore. The sea at the beach then reminds him of the “Sea of Faith” (a metaphor for religion), leading him to ponder the collapse of religion as a discourse of authority in a modern secular world in which many of the dictates of religion have been discredited by advances in science and the former power of religion has been supplanted by that of capitalism. For the speaker, this movement toward the modern is inevitable, though frightening and destabilizing:

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.

The speaker then ends with a call to his loved one (some believe that he wrote the poem on his honeymoon, though he was married sixteen years before the publication of the poem, so this seems questionable), suggesting that love is now more important than ever as a source of solace in a world torn by solace and strife and unprotected by religious faith. Of course, the “love” he speaks to here might also be taken to be poetry (or culture in general), anticipating the belief expounded in Culture and Anarchy that culture offers the best way out of social and political difficulties.

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.