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Mid-Victorian Stability and Optimism in “Crossing the Bar” and “Dover Beach”

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  1. Considering the imagery, tone, and/or level of confidence conveyed, compare and/or contrast Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar” and Arnold’s “Dover Beach”; which poem better illustrates mid-Victorian stability and optimism? Which better illustrates late Victorian melancholy and uncertainty?

      The Victorian era was remarkable for stability and economic prosperity. The Industrial Revolution was followed by commercial expansion. But the growing material wealth was not unattended by intellectual achievements. The poetry of two Victorian poets, Alfred Tennyson and Matthew Arnold reflect the spirit of the age or zeitgeist.

In “Crossing the Bar” Tennyson begins with a sad awareness of imminent death,  ‘sadness of farewell’, but soon rises to a new religious optimism; he says:

I hope to see my Pilot face to face

When I have crost the bar.1

     The dark imagery   of ‘sunset’, ‘the twilight and evening bell’ and ‘moaning of the bar’, before  his final journey only express melancholy and uncertainties of his age. The age-old religious faith was disturbed by scientific discoveries. In the words of G.D. Klingopulos: ‘Their preoccupation with evolution and the intense pessimism – or – optimism – associated with it now seems to date and parochialize their work…’4 As Poet Laureate he faithfully represents his age.

     Another poem which expresses the pessimism of Victorian age is Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”. In the calmness of Dover Beach Arnold discovers the ‘eternal note of sadness in.’ He is not very happy with the material prosperity which is accompanied by ‘philistinism’2. There is a noticeable decline in people’s faith. It is this crisis of faith that troubles Arnold, ‘known as Wordsworthian’3 among Victorian poets. . He uses effective imagery of the ‘Sea of  Faith’  and its ‘turbid ebb and flow,/ Of human misery’ and observes with dismay the ‘melancholy, long, withdrawing roar’. But the metaphor of  high and low tide of faith suggests its evanescence. And there is a suggestion of hopefulness: like the sea, the faith too would  come back to its former glory, perhaps holding the hands of poetry, if not religion. Even human love has been invaded by this skepticism as he says, ‘Ah! love, let’s be true/ To one another!’

     So, both the Victorian poets express the doubts and uncertainties of their age; at the same time they are not inclined to give up hope entirely. Matthew Arnold expresses the conflict in the soul of the Victorian people in the concluding lines of his poem. The world, according to him:

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.

     Arnold has a broader picture in his mind when he recalls Sophocles who also shared he same feelings when stood on the  beach of Aegean sea. Therefore, the problem is contemporary as well as eternal. It is Arnold who better illustrates the typical Victorian melancholy and uncertainties.

Sources & References:

1.Williams, Oscar, F.T.Palgrave’s The Golden Treasury,(New York, Mentor Books,1961) p.373

  1. Arnold, Matthew, Arnold: Poetry & Prose, (London, O.U.P.,1971) p.139
  2. Leavis, F.R., Revaluation, (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1972) p.173
  3. Ford, Boris (Ed.), The Pelican Guide to English Literature, Vol.6, (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1970) p.60

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