116th Annual Conference - Bellingham, Washington
Friday, November 9 - Sunday, November 11, 2018

"The Moon-Blanched Land": On the Relationship between Religious Faith and the Aesthetic in Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" 

Abby Rogers, Northwest University

As the speaker of Matthew Arnold’s dramatic monologue “Dover Beach” rejects both the religious faith and the sensual beauty that gild reality’s violence, the poem commentates on the relationship between ontology and the aesthetic; read in light of Arnoldian poetic theory, the poem’s aesthetic landscape suggests that a loss of traditional religious faith compromises the poetic imagination.



Despite the poem’s canonical status, much remains to be said of the aesthetic landscape of Matthew Arnold’s dramatic monologue “Dover Beach.” Gesturing towards its movement from the concrete to the abstract, Herbet Coursen Jr. peripherally notes that “Dover Beach” registers a tension between the eye and the mind. Likewise, James Hill engages how the speaker’s vision of a seascape yields to a vision of his subjective interiority, and Margaret Freeman tracks the aesthetic shift created by the speaker’s transition from sensual immediacy to conceptualization. Yet the significance of the poem’s aesthetic pattern in light of Arnoldian thought also demands commentary.

What “Dover Beach” accomplishes on the sentence level enacts theoretical moves for which Arnold is well-known. Both Ruth apRoberts and J. Hillis Miller examine how Arnoldian thought sets up a binary between abstraction and poetry, explaining that, according to Arnold, poetry should capture sensual immediacy rather than abstract meditation. Placing “Dover Beach” in conversation with the scholarship of apRoberts and Miller, I explore how the poem’s aesthetic landscape engages Arnold’s poetry-abstraction binary, reading the poem as enacting the dissolution of a poetic sensibility (according to Arnold’s definition of poetry), a dissolution that, within the poem, coincides with a loss of religious faith. Yet to the poem’s speaker, moreover, these dual losses—that of religious faith and sensual beauty—remove what only gilds a fundamentally violent reality.

I argue, therefore, that the poem pitches an ontological vision incompatible with a poetic sensibility. To do so, I trace the poem’s gradual shift from concrete imagery to abstraction—a move that Arnoldian theory deems an aesthetic failure—noting that what motivates the speaker’s movement away from concrete imagery is an ontology that privileges violence: envisioning a reality void of transcendent structure, the speaker strips away the falsifying beauty of sensual imagery in order to reveal the violence that underlies fundamental reality. Yet as his disenchanted metaphysic detaches him from the concrete, the speaker, in his lapse away from imagery, forfeits the poem’s very status as poetry by Arnold’s definition. Its aesthetic coherence unraveling in tandem with faith's withdrawal, “Dover Beach” interrogates the relationship between ontology and the aesthetic, suggesting that its speaker’s loss of traditional religious faith compromises his poetic imagination.

Tentative Bibliography

apRoberts, Ruth. Arnold and God. University of California Press, 1983.

Armstrong, Isobel. Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics, and Politics. Routledge, 1993.

Arnold, Matthew. “Dover Beach.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Victorian Age, edited by Stephen Greenblatt et al., 9th  ed., vol. E., W.W. Norton & Company, 2012, p. 1387.

Coursen, Jr., Herbert R. "’The Moon Lies Fair’: The Poetry of Matthew Arnold.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, vol. 4, no. 4, 1964, pp. 569-581.

Freeman, Margaret H. “The Aesthetics of Human Experience: Minding, Metaphor, and Icon in Poetic Expression.” Poetics Today, vol. 32, no. 4, 2011, pp. 717-752.

Hill, James L. “The Frame for the Mind: Landscape in ‘Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,’ ‘Dover Beach," and ‘Sunday Morning.’” The Centennial Review, vol. 18, no. 1, 1974, pp. 29–48.

Kokernot, Walter H. “’Where Ignorant Armies Clash by Night’ and the Sikh Rebellion: A Contemporary Source for Matthew Arnold’s Night-Battle Imagery.” Victorian Poetry, vol. 43, no. 1, 2005, pp. 99-108.

Miller, J. Hillis. The Disappearance of God. University of Illinois Press, 2000.