I must thank you sincerely for your extremely thoughtful gift of Saturday by British novelist Ian McEwan.  I have read the book with great interest and enjoyment.  What is more, it has sent me back to “Dover Beach,” which it uses so creatively, and to Matthew Arnold in general, with a new perspective.  You can have little idea how difficult it is to elicit such a response in me.  I usually march entirely to the sound of my own drummer and take little to no advice on what to read.

On one particular question I would like to share some thoughts with you.  It might be best, though, if you’d first take a few moments to read another poem by Arnold, his “Rugby Chapel.”  This is a poem about his late father, who was a pastor in the Church of England and is now buried in this chapel.

McEwan, in his brilliantly written novel, is entirely one with his generation of intellectuals.  That is partly why he is able to “show us the way we live,” as a New York Times critic noted.  And yet the truly great writers have been those who have in some way been able to transcend their times, because they have looked to something beyond.  McEwan makes no bones about being a philosophical “materialist.”  (It is fair to assume he is at one with his character, neurosurgeon Dr. Henry Perowne, in this regard.)  Thus, although momentarily uneasy about the People’s Republic of China “giving materialism a bad name” (materialism here does not mean yearning for material objects, but rather the Marxist-based philosophical position that only matter exists; there is no such thing as spirit), he can nevertheless express his “faith” that, sooner or later, science will indeed discover the material nature of human consciousness.

So it is not surprising that, for McEw­an, Arnold’s “Dover Beach” looks like an early expression of what has become the standard view of moderns: The “Sea of Faith” has receded, leaving only the “darkling plain” of “confused alarms”—that is, strife and conflict.  The only thing we can count on is love for each other.  And thus does Henry feel as he lies beside his wife, Rosalind.

But now, consult “Rugby Chapel.”  At the beginning “Coldly, sadly descends / The autumn evening,” but by the end the poet is able to envision humanity, inspired by the examples of such men as his father and the great ones of the past of whom his father causes him to think with renewed faith, marching “On, to the city of God.”

Is Arnold contradicting himself—in “Dover Beach” depicting man as on his own, while in “Rugby Chapel” showing him as still having a transcendent goal to look toward with hope?  I think not.  McEwan’s quite remarkable use of the former poem in his novel causes us retroactively to read it as a presentation of the full modernist position—already pretty well decided—whereas the latter poem, I think, causes us to interpret “Dover Beach” as very precariously and delicately poised between tradition and modernity.  The poet hears the “long, withdrawing roar” of the “Sea of Faith”—but a sea that ebbs may flow up again.  It may be that “the world . . . [h]ath really” no “certitude,” but the possibility, dimmed of course, remains that there could be truth.  (I should note that there were of course exceptional Victorians of unquestioned Christian faith, such as the great John Henry Newman, or the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., as indeed there are believing Christians even among today’s thinkers and writers.)  From no certitude, in Arnold, we pass to certitude that there is no transcendent truth, in McEwan.

And these differences, or rather different points on the historical timeline, mirror precisely different stages in the loss of faith that afflicts our age: The Victorians were losing faith, beyond doubt, but still somehow holding on to some semblance of it.  Again, in “Rugby Chapel,” note how the poet cries out to the “Servants of God!” but immediately wonders if he shouldn’t call them “sons” of God.  In orthodox Christian theology, as Arnold would of course have fully comprehended, God has only one Son, Jesus Christ, Who actually shares the divine nature with His Father and is thus God Himself as well as man, two natures in one Person.  This is Theology 101, going back to the Council of Nicaea (a.d. 325).  But the Victorian Arnold has probably already given up the idea that Christ is God; he is reserving the dim idea of a god in the background, which is closer to the deism of the philosophes (Voltaire in particular).  We are well on our way to the virtual certitude that there is no God, period, which has long since been reached by the time we come to McEwan in 2005.


Jonathan Chaves