The Ever-Present Problems of Doubt


We've talked in various blogs a good deal about doubt. I thought I would present a classic example of what doubt really looks like when spilled out upon a page. In this case it is a brief, beautiful, and classic poem by Matthew Arnold--his best know poetic work.

Dover Beach
Matthew Arnold

The sea is calm to-night.
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-blanch'd 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.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ęgean, 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 furl'd.
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.

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.

The rhyme scheme is irregular, erratic, deliberately so. It becomes disoriented and chaotic like the shifting sea and the emotions and thoughts of the speaker. The whole poem is constructed to artfully represent the chaos of all of these thoughts. "The Sea of Faith," once full now withdraws from the world with a melancholy roar. There is no blanket, no shield of protection. What we are left with is the solace of other people(and we all know how fragile that is)--"Ah love let us be true. . . for the world [and by extension God] Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,/ Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain. . ." Yes, the world is a fallen place and there is nothing certain or trustworthy in it, and it is made an even more uncertain place when the soothing blanket of faith is removed and we face the prospects of this place without the loving presence of God.

Here is doubt. Beautifully portrayed, wonderfully dissected and represented, but it shows doubt clearly and without question. If one were to say to me that Matthew Arnold doubted the existence of God, I could probably find no better evidence than here (although truth to tell, there is evidence all over).

So, when we speak of doubt, we find broken meter, chaotic rhyme, and language that leaves no doubt in the mind that the speaker is uncertain of the world and his place in it. He is uncertain of the existence of God, and the world has become a place much colder and much more unfriendly.

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on August 16, 2002 7:50 AM.

Favorite Books List was the previous entry in this blog.

Favorite Spiritual Books, Part I--Story is the next entry in this blog.

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