The sea of faith

“The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
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 last two stanzas of the famous poem Dover Beach by Mathew Arnold)

The sea of faith is receding, which once was full .All the poet hears now on the Dover beach is its melancholy, withdrawing roar. The sea is retreating to the breath of the night wind, down the vast edges drear and naked shingles of the world. I love the expression used for the receding sea which leaves behind water-worn pebbles (naked shingles) and “vast edges drear” (perhaps the foam marks left by the receding sea).The water-worn pebbles will remain naked on a beach when they will no longer be touched by the incoming tide .

The poet’s pessimistic vision goes beyond the sea to encompass a world which has no love nor help for pain .The world which seems a land of dreams hath really neither joy nor love nor certitude.

We are here on a darkling plain/swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight/where ignorant armies clash by night.

A beautiful image of a battlefield which is filled with darkness where ignorant armies fight one another without knowing friend or foe. In a world which has no love or joy or help for pain we are perpetually confused about our possible responses (fight or flight) to the challenges of the environment and are condemned to clash with undetermined enemies in the confusion of darkness.

It is believed that the reference is to the Pelopponesian war in which soldiers killed each other in utter disorientation in the darkness of the night. In the Hindu epic Mahabharata there is code of conduct agreed to between the warring armies prohibiting the continuance of the war after dusk.