Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold

  • I've been reading At Home by Bill Bryson, a book about the history of the 1851 parsonage that is his private residence in Hampshire, England. Bryson is a wonderful storyteller, and a keen social historian—and, as it happens, a fellow Iowan.


    The book has me thinking a great deal about the Victorian period in English history. The Victorians were the first generation to grapple on a huge scale with the direct knowledge of a suddenly vast, cold, and empty universe; they turned the instruments of science on Nature, and it terrified them. Doubt crept in where there had been Faith, and they were haunted by it. So I thought that as an exercise we could take a representative text from the period and apply an Epicurean balm to the intellectual and emotional trauma that we find there. I'll have more to say myself when I get the time, but for now I'll just link to the text.


    For your consideration; Dover Beach by the English poet Matthew Arnold.

  • Wow that is dark and depressing, because just to make one observation, this last stanza is certainly incorrect. This would be as if to say that because void exists, there is no matter, or because pain exists, there is no pleasure:



    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.


    I would say that from attitudes like this Stoicism is born, but I doubt even the ancient Stoics would claim this.


    But you suggested that we apply the remedy. Let me think about that. However -- there are some attitudes and positions that are beyond hope, when the mind is so sickened by disease that it reaches the point of shunning reality in favor of nursing its pain. As Epicurus said, not all types of people have the capacity to become wise. As part of the discussion we might ought to consider the limits of remedies too. If this attitude stems from temporary darkness brought by circumstances then remedy is possible, but if for some reason the sickness is beyond he point of reversal, then recognizing that is a part of the prescription.

  • Quote

    If this attitude stems from temporary darkness brought by circumstances then remedy is possible, but if for some reason the sickness is beyond he point of reversal, then recognizing that is a part of the prescription.

    What interests me about this despair is how it seems to be brought on by the same materialism that in our philosophy is the very foundation of "joy, love, light, certitude, and help for pain".


    When this poem was written, Charles Lyell (Principles of Geology) had demonstrated to the general annoyance of the clergy that the Earth was older—far, far older—than six thousand years. Darwin had drafted (but not yet published) an essay to develop the theory of Natural Selection. Louis Pasteur was at the same time pioneering his research into germ theory. Humanity was suddenly, comprehensively losing its sense of fair proportions. To a bacterium, he is a cosmos; to the cosmos, he is a mote of dust. This vision of nature as vast, impersonal, and indifferent was new and wholly unnerving. A century prior, the figures of the Enlightenment could speak of nature as rational and ordered, reflecting a god that was likewise;


    Quote

    Unerring Nature, still divinely bright,

    One clear, unchang'd, and universal light,

    Life, force, and beauty, must to all impart,

    At once the source, and end, and test of art.

    -Alexander Pope

    A half century later, the Romantics were beginning to find nature a little refreshing and wild; an aesthetic escape from that rigid order.

    The differences also found expression in theology; during the Enlightenment, Deism and Unitarianism came into vogue. For the Romantics, it was Pantheism. For Victorians like Matthew Arnold, a miserable Agnosticism. Byron turned to the roaring sea and found music and rapture; Arnold heard the same roar, and it


    "brought

    Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow

    Of human misery".


    What Arnold's cosmos is missing seems to be the unifying and generative figure of Venus—that is, of pleasure. It doesn't matter that I am as nothing compared with the roaring ocean; I experience pleasure. To that extent, I hold a corner of the cosmos in usufruct. To that extent, I belong here. I have the title-deed, and next to that ocean I am home.


    "For Thee the Sea’s rough Waves put on their Smiles, and the smooth Sky shines with diffused Light." Lucretius, 1743 trans.

  • What interests me about this despair is how it seems to be brought on by the same materialism that in our philosophy is the very foundation of "joy, love, light, certitude, and help for pain".

    Yes - agreed! Does that not mean that it is not the information, but some pre-existing disposition, that leads to the different response? What is that pre-existing disposition?


    Humanity was suddenly, comprehensively losing its sense of fair proportions. To a bacterium, he is a cosmos; to the cosmos, he is a mote of dust. This vision of nature as vast, impersonal, and indifferent was new and wholly unnerving.

    Here, not "humanity," and not "new and wholly unnerving" to EVERYONE, but new and wholly unnerving to those in the circle we are currently considering: Victorian England?



    What Arnold's cosmos is missing seems to be the unifying and generative figure of Venus

    Is it "missing" something, or does it have something added to it that makes recognition of the obvious impossible?




    (In these comments I do not mean to be arguing... I am thinking along with the questioning, because I am still entertaining the notion that some people with some existing dispositions just simply cannot appreciate what we think is obvious, and will never appreciate it (perhaps ever) but certainly not until certain pre-existing attitudes are removed. In other words the issue may not be so much that of persuading a person that he or she should appreciate pleasure within their current context, but to recognize that continuation of the current context makes recognition of pleasure impossible.)

  • I guess you may both know the snarky response poem, The Dover Bitch-- it's one of my favorites!


    https://poets.org/poem/dover-bitch I think it at least grazes the edge of an Epicurean response.


    In high school, I remember thinking "Geez, man, why so gloomy?! Things can't possibly be that awful!" There was a short period in my adult life when it resonated with me, but fortunately I got over that.

  • Returning to the issue of the post:


    . The Victorians were the first generation to grapple on a huge scale with the direct knowledge of a suddenly vast, cold, and empty universe; they turned the instruments of science on Nature, and it terrified them. Doubt crept in where there had been Faith, and they were haunted by it. So I thought that as an exercise we could take a representative text from the period and apply an Epicurean balm to the intellectual and emotional trauma that we find there.

    I wanted to look again at the topic and yes I think this is a big issue: can we apply a "balm" (in the sense of a bandage) without attacking the underlying cause of the problem, which is not the new knowledge, but the pre-existing attitude?

  • What I meant to say above is that rather than a balm, a little humor as in the Dover Bitch response might be in order, and it can be used educationally too.

  • No I had never heard of that "Dover Bitch" poem but it is really appropriate for this thread! i am not sure I appreciate the attitude of this second poem either, but to the extent that it is a "dismissal" of Matthew Arnold's attitude I completely agree with it! ;-)


    Edit: On the other hand we aren't going to make a lot of progress if we "dismiss" it as much as if we "diagnose" it

  • Another thing I would say-- it's true for me that relationships, friendships, are what keep the universe from feeling "cold" and mechanical. Rationality as a primary approach does have a cold feel, and feeling has warmth. So subtract out the melodrama and negativity, and there's a chunk of gold in there. Life is nothing worth having without feeling-- without pleasure-- and indeed, let us be friends to one another!

  • I love Dover Bitch as well, Elayne. Delicious with irony!


    Certainly disposition is a factor, Cassius. Witness Cicero;

    Quote

    If I err in belief that the souls of men are immortal, I gladly err, nor do I wish this error which gives me pleasure to be wrested from me while I live.

    And probably there are degrees of disposition. Some would cease to miss the crutch after they had walked without it for a time.

  • I hope I do not seem like I am not advancing the ball. I am thinking in terms of how even to begin the approach. Is "medicine" a possible approach, or is "surgery" necessary first or primarily?