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Mathew Arnold Religion

The Victorian Age was often called the age of compromise. It is preceded by the Romantic Age and the French Revolution. Laxity of morals and a possible balance of passion versus reason which marked the dawn of the romantic period was followed by a strict confirmation of authority. The French Revolution had shaken the basic foundation of the rules of conduct and religious belief. To conform to the religious faith without any sense of doubt had become the norm in the Victorian age.

This accepted order was also marked by a sense of optimism. Religion and science have always enjoyed contradictory positions in our system. The discoveries in science during this stage not only advanced the standard of living of people but was also gradually changing their entire outlook. Scientific experiments rest on the close observation of facts and nothing is considered on the basis of blind faith. Science controlled the different aspects of Nature but but its influence on spirituality and religion was unsettling.

The old story of the creation of man by God had received a terrible jolt from Darwin’s theory of evolution and the survival of the fittest. The cry over the decay of faith rings in the works of the poets of the period.

Faith and Religion in his writings

Death is the end of the joys of life and a poignant element of pessimism is found in Arnold’s poetry. The Virgilian remorse about the inevitability of moral destiny is most pronounced in the poems by Arnold. The tone is elegiac and the list of the most remarkable poems are ‘The Scholar Gypsy’, ‘Thyrsis’, ‘Dover Beach, and ‘Rugby Chapel’.

The sea of faith has receded leaving shingles on the coast. This is the idea of the agnostic who is ‘regretful of the vanished faith, regretful of its beauty and regretful of the lost promise’. They lament the disappearance of faith and are regretful of the lost promise.

This decay of faith also comes with a failure to produce any alternative-‘Wandering’ in a famous couplet “between two worlds, one is dead/The other powerless to be born.” Arnold bears a cautionary example of counter-secularization, a humanist whose interpretations of culture and religion tend to be absolute. It does not come as a surprise that religion has lost its hold over the life of the intellectuals and there was a search for its substitute.

This theme of loss of faith is best portrayed in the poem “Dover Beach.” The poem shows the poet’s faith in God is gradually declining and he expresses his regret and dissatisfaction at the degradation of society and culture. The strong religious faith that had shrouded people’s mind for centuries was gradually waning with the advent of machines and new scientific technology.

When we move from a sociological standpoint to a personal standpoint, we find that he has a very interesting relationship with religion, especially considering that he lived in the Victorian period. Arnold was born and raised in a very liberal Anglican household, yet was heavily influenced by John Henry Newman. Newman was a conservative catholic and a very influential person belonging to the Church. Though Arnold started as a staunch believer in Christianity he later became agnostic.

Arnold had his own religious doubts but he captured the essence of Christianity in his different essays. In the search for a substitute for religion,  classical, and aesthetic morals of the mainstream were also representative of the ideas of Victorianism. The Oxford Evangelicals worked to re-establish the morals of Christianity as a part of everyday life. Arnold supported the belief in Christianity and yet he himself suffered from doubt and self-denial and this found expression in his works ‘Last Essays on Church and Religion.’

In the mid-nineteenth century, faith as a system that holds people together was vanishing from the western world. People felt overwhelmed by the new discoveries of Charles Darwin, the famous naturalist, English physician Erasmus, and French naturalist Lamarck. The existence of God came to be questioned by common men and this is symbolized by the constant flickering of light on the coast of Dover Beach.

Arnold’s poem is an embodiment of the Victorian religious crisis. This crisis of faith that affected people is found not only in his poems but also in the poems of his contemporaries like Tennyson and Browning. Once again the poem Dover Beach stresses that love is the only solace that can heal the human heart and as individuals, we can only keep the faith unhindered.

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