Culture, Anarchy, and Light on the Coast of France

                In “Dover Beach,” Arnold seems very focused on illuminating the overwhelming sense of despair pervading his society at the time. This is somewhat understandable. Based on other readings about the early Victorian Period and the immense amounts of cultural changes occurring during this time, it is easy to see how individuals felt like their entire world—everything they had known and been familiar with—was being taken away from them. This realization is brought to light in the poem when Arnold discusses how this world, “so various, so beautiful, so new, // Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, // Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help from pain.” Certitude may be the most important characteristic that this new world is lacking, as it shows that there is no sense of security in such great change.

                In my opinion, one of the most interesting lines in the poem occurs when Arnold describes that “on the French coast the light // Gleams and is gone.” The inclusion of light in this moment draws a parallel to Culture and Anarchy in which Arnold explains that “he who works for…light, works to make reason and the will of God prevail.” If that same idea is applied to the light discussed in “Dover Beach,” then this could very well be a commentary on the early efforts of the French Revolution in which the society (if not only temporarily) seemed poise to reach one of those “happy moments of humanity…when there is a national glow of life and thought, when the whole of society is in the fullest permeated by thought, sensible to beauty, intelligent and alive.” Perhaps Arnold relates the glimpse of this light on the French coast as a time when the “sweetness and light” of culture almost occurred so near to England, but so devastatingly fell apart. This failure of the attempt to pursue perfection as a society could very well be a reason that Arnold illuminates “human misery.” In other words, the ideal society had already been attempted, and yet proved to be impossible and unattainable.

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3 thoughts on “Culture, Anarchy, and Light on the Coast of France

  1. I definitely picked up on the sense of disparity, and disappointed that you bring up, but I almost feel that, especially in Culture and Anarchy, Arnold puts the blame on the selfishness of his fellow man. That we are all too focused on perfecting our own lives, rather than the world around us. I didn’t pick up that the “ideal society” is impossible, but more so that it isn’t one generation obligation to perfect a society, but only to attempt to better it. Maybe, he feels as if with all the change to the world at the time, society has given up on improving, and has settled in just going through the motions?

  2. I think the connection between the French revolution and the hopeful light is really interesting. It makes a lot of sense as well, because Arnold is clearly interested in having a better society, he just doesn’t see that as being possible as long as people are working solely for their own freedom and happiness, instead of for the good of society as a whole. It makes a lot of sense that he would have, at least for a while, felt hopeful about the French Revolution, because it started out with such potential to change society for the better, but never really reached this potential, because people considered themselves before they considered society as a whole.

  3. It didn’t even occur to me to relate either of the texts to the French Revolution but it makes a lot of sense. While the people of the French Revolution were working towards sweetness and light, which Arnold seems to think is a good thing, they were doing it through violent, rebellious means which flies in the face of what Arnold is trying to say. I feel as if the French Revolution would be considered, in Arnold’s view, a moment where anarchy prevailed and thus halted the progress of society, which seems to be what he is arguing against.

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