Explore how Matthew Arnold uses language to give us insights into the life of modern man in ‘Dover Beach’.
The life of modern mankind is presented very negatively and ignorantly by Matthew Arnold in the poem Dover Beach by the fact that religious faith evanesce with the Industrial Revolution. Arnold creates the image of the dark future for the people without unwavering faith or religion.
Modern men are bastardised with the thought that new the Industrial Revolution will give them advantage over nature. This thought of gaining superiority made humans arrogant by which this appearance is broken by the reality of nature’s dominance. People also seem ignorant with the wishful thought. These pebbles which ‘the waves draw back, and fling’ are completely powerless and are thrown around by the waves that move these “pebbles” at ease. Arnold uses pebbles as a metaphor for humans to show the inferiority in comparison to nature. The ignorance of humans is emphasised by the historical allusion to Peloponnesian War. In the dark, soldiers could not differentiate between their own army and the opponents; and so they killed their own soldiers. This is used by the poet to show the stupidity of modern man throwing away the religion which was everything to people before the Industrial Revolution; something to believe and rely on when people prayed. However, this old belief is thrown away and Arnold sees it as a very naïve decision.
The Industrial Revolution gave the source of arrogance and confidence which took place among the Western countries. This revolution was revolutionary itself; humans could mass produce, with improved quality, and at ease. These machineries became the limbs of human society. What came with the industrial revolution was the idea of realism. People could nearly produce goods to near-original standards, all thanks to improved technologies and science, and hence began to doubt the existence of God and supernatural beings. Realism contrasts the theology which is all about belief without questioning that God exists; and people believed it before the times of the machineries. It gave people hope and modesty under the mighty existence of God. However both hope and modesty disappeared with the Industrial Revolution which Arnold laments for. Bitterness is suggested when Arnold exclaims ‘Ah, love’ to show that in this changing world, one can only rely on the partner, and be trustful and true. Sarcasm is used to describe the modern world as a ‘land of dreams’ as there is no more hope for the world, as there is no more faith.
As the poem proceeds, the transition of mood is noticeable as the grief of the loss of faith extends to a sense of resignation towards the end and having a sarcastic, sour approach to the issue. The ‘tremulous cadence slow’ helps to convey the gradual process of the wane of doctrine which adds to the idea that the change of people’s lives is almost unnoticeable. This gradual process hurts Arnold because people are caught unaware of the changes taking place and so do not think it is particularly wrong and sinful. Arnold presents his sorrow with the historical allusion to Sophocles who, was a Greek playwright, had heard the sound of waves crashing as the ‘eternal note of sadness’. The ‘sadness’ of the mankind turning away from religious beliefs is a parallel to the ‘melancholy… withdrawing roar…retreating’ of the waves. Before the development of science and technology, people had truly believed in the religion and thought that they were in total control of god. The metaphor ‘Sea of Faith’ which presents the religious faith people have, used to be ‘full and round Earth’s shore’ but now is ‘retreating… down the vast edges’ which shows the decreasing religious beliefs. Arnold points out that, without faith, humans are ‘naked’ and have no protection and defence which reflects the vulnerability of man and their lives.
With carefully chosen words, Arnold presents the uncertainty of the future of humans. The new industrialised world seems “so various, so beautiful, so new” but it is again a mere appearance. The reality is that this mechanic, stiff world will have “neither joy, nor love, nor light” because this mechanics cannot feel love, hence no joy, and no vision as humans need love and the warm characteristics of humanity. It is thus deducible that the future will have no “certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain” which are the essentialities of humans. Humans can only survive the harsh world when everybody believes and trusts each other, and this will be broken with the introduction of industrialisation. This change of the world will bring “confused alarms on struggle and flight” which creates an imagery of a “darkling plain”; a dark vision for humans. Furthermore, the “turbid” ebb and flow shows the cloudy, uncertain future of ‘ebb and flow’ which is the repetitive cycles of nature. Can humans only survive when they make harmony with the nature, and to go against the natural cycles can only mean extinction of humans. The ‘cliffs’ of England ‘gleams’ and ‘glimmers’; gleams and glimmers have a sense of shakiness, precariousness and unknown which echoes the uncertain modern man. Also the alliteration of ‘g’ and ‘m’ creates a stuttering tone which adds to the idea of uncertainty. This imagery portrays the withering away of cliffs as a decline of religious beliefs and what’s more, deterioration of the Earth itself as humans exploit resources out of the Earth which the modern development enabled men to do.
The flaws of modernism and realism are expressed in this poem. The flow of the poem is cut off by uses of caesura which is a parallel to the imperfect modern world. Arnold gives a hint that modernization of the world will have some flaws which will inevitably bring loss of faith and result in loss of equilibrium. In science, there is no hope; everything is measured out and exact. Hence in the modern world reality there can be no hope as it looks vain. Again, Arnold sympathises with the loss of hope in reality. In a different sense, the calm, naturalistic description of a beach at night in the first stanza is the appearance which contrasts to the reality that is sad, unhopeful, ‘retreating’ and ‘tremulous’.
Human beings are inferior over nature and the spiritual beliefs as to an extent that people cannot control anything. The abandonment of the doctrine of religion with the help of the Industrial Revolution is only a vain act against the power-overwhelming nature. Religion and faith should remain in humanity and ignoring it should result in the uncertainty and vulnerability of modern man.