Secular Sabbath Online
Unbelief in Ian McEwan's Fiction 


“Dover Beach”

    Saturday doesn’t end with the last page of narrative. In an appendix, McEwan reproduces the full text of “Dover Beach.”  This oft-quoted poem by Matthew Arnold is a mainstay of college textbooks and anthologies of English literature. Written in 1851, though not published till 1867, Arnold’s poem famously compares the “the melancholy, long, withdrawing roar”of the sea at England’s Dover Beach with the ebbing of the “Sea of Faith” from western civilization. (Poem appears in full below)
    Historically, “Dover Beach” is one of the pivotal artifacts of nineteenth-century European culture. It attests to the Enlightenment skepticism that had jumped to the mainstream. An agnostic himself, Arnold ranked among mid-Victorian England’s most esteemed men of letters, and “Dover Beach” survives as one of his signature works. God is no more, Arnold informs us in the poem.  In our world there is neither “joy, nor love, nor light,/ Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.”  On this “darkling plain” we have nothing to deliver us from evil but ourselves. Which is why, the poet exclaims, he and his companion must “be true/ to one another!”
      Ian McEwan’s enthusiasm for “Dover Beach” should come as no surprise. In Saturday, he mobilizes the poem centrally. When the novel’s darkling villain, Baxter, storms the sanctuary of Henry’s home with two of his stooges, terrorizes the family and makes Henry’s daughter Daisy undress at the point of his knife, it is a recitation of “Dover Beach” that saves everyone from tragedy.
       Acting on a furtive cue from her grandfather Grammaticus, with whom she shares her literary passion, Daisy speaks the poem in its entirety as she stands naked in the eye of the confrontation.
Coming closer to magic realism than the science-bound McEwan would perhaps like to admit, Daisy’s recitation casts a spell over her assailant. Though still brandishing his knife, Baxter softens. It is then that Henry and his son Theo are able to make their move, lunging at the thug in an unguarded moment.
      In his narrative of the event, McEwan provides only impressions of the poem – fragments of language, characters’ interior responses and visualizations – so that readers unfamiliar with “Dover Beach” might benefit from knowing the full text as it appears in the appendix. Perhaps the greater benefit, from McEwan’s point of view, is that exposure to the complete poem might help readers appreciate how the scene itself is a kind of laboratory demonstration, a narrative acting-out of Arnold’s poetic thesis that we are the means of our own salvation. “Dover Beach” on Daisy’s lips becomes a catalyst for the power of art, family solidarity, and “the magnificence of human ingenuity” that saves her from evil. The human is all. God, grace, faith – for these the tide has ebbed, and they shall be neither needed nor missed.
    McEwan’s didactic use of the poem reflects its popularity among New Atheists generally, for whom Arnold’s portentous lines have become something of a cultural battle-cry, celebrated as an astute prophecy come true. Interestingly, McEwan added the full text of the poem as an appendix only when his novel went to paperback. It’s almost as if he wasn’t sure his signage had been bold enough, tacking on Arnold’s poem as a kind of crib note so that absolutely no one in the wider market ahead would miss the point of his parable about life beyond God. In the end, of course, a reader’s guide represents the logical culmination of McEwan’s mission in Saturday, a novel serving the dual functions of entertainment and catechism.


By Matthew Arnold

The sea is calm tonight,
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night air!

Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Agean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

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.

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