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The Literary Year: 24 December

In turbulent times, we often turn to Art to help us understand - or express - our confusion and vulnerabilities, as many of our certainties are undermined or completely swept away. Matthew Arnold's most famous poem, 'Dover Beach' (c.1851), beautifully encapsulates this - let's explore it a little on this, what would have been his 198th birthday.


As a teacher - and lifelong student - of Literature, I've long been convinced of the need to consider texts as a product of the personal, social and historical context in which they've been created - what the GCSE and A Level students amongst you will know as AO3. The mid-late 19th Century was one of those 'turbulent' times I mentioned earlier ...

Many of the old certainties were under attack during this period, but perhaps none more so than religious faith in the face of Darwinism and the advance of technology. John William Draper's 'The History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science' (1874) is a brilliant read on this topic. It feels like religion was being assailed from all sides:

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. -Karl Marx

and if we extend Marx's metaphor, large sections of Victorian society began to suffer the pangs of withdrawal ...

Elsewhere, in 1882 the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously declared:

‘God is dead. And we have killed him.’

Arnold's poem is a beautiful, soulful meditation on these themes. In its early section, like many similar works, it uses the sea and the tides as a motif for the erosion of belief which left so many people in a state of doubt and pessimism. I think my extracted quotation harks back to the Bible: the persona and his love seem to stand at the exit to the Garden of Eden, a 'brave new world' for sure, but a cruel one too - daunting and lonely. Like a new Adam and Eve, there seems to be no higher power they can appeal to for consolation. And does the poem anticipate the blame Nietzsche would assign to humanity for the rift with God, as the Book of Genesis does? Arnold's persona needs something to believe in, something to rely on, perhaps something to provide meaning for his existence. Where others such as Tennyson looked to patriotism and devotion to country, Arnold's poem suggests consolation in love, cooperation and trust between individuals ...


By other authors:

Alfred, Lord Tennyson: Tennyson lived a long life by Victorian standards, and had a complex relationship with religion. Much of his poetry is infused by the melancholy of change, and loss, and trying to find your way in a new world. Try 'Ulysses' (my all time favourite), 'Tithonus' or 'The Lady of Shalott'. If you prefer long, profound works go for, 'In Memorium' and 'Maud'.

Christina Rossetti: Andrew Sanders (2003) tells us that in Rossetti's work 'human love is treated with a take-it-or-leave-it quality.' Her eyes are firmly fixed on God, no matter what the secular world throws at her. Try 'Goblin Market' (obviously) but also 'Shut Out' - which I think also uses the Garden of Eden allusion - and 'No, Thank You, John'.

Fancy a downloadable PDF of today's calendar entry? Here you go ... Merry Christmas!

Calendar 1224 M_Arnold
Download PDF • 57KB

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