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.
Matthew Arnold, Dover Beach (1867)
How accurate the first of the verses quoted above has proved to be – at least for those of us in the Western world. How I wish we had more of the energy of a young missionary from Nigeria who was in our parish this morning. His love of the Lord burnt like a bright candle amidst ‘th’encricling gloom’; indeed he was more like a sunburst of candles. In material terms he was the poorest person in church this morning; in spiritual terms he seemed by far the richest.
Sometimes it seems to me that there is a self-indulgence in Arnold’s poem, much as I love it; he is almost in thrall to the idea of despair. So much so that he retreats to the citadel of love. ‘Let us be true to one another’, he declaims to his lady. He sees, as did SS. James and John that the world is passing away, and with it the lusts thereof, and yet in the final resort, he seeks refuge in human love itself – the ‘sea of faith’ having ebbed away for him.
But in that love is there not the image of the love of the Trinity? It is a Trinity of love, love which overflows into love for the created, and which through its abundance is freely available to us. In so far as we are true each to the other, in exactly that far do we live up to that image of the God in whose image we are made.
In that respect Arnold’s waning faith caught what even the bleaker spirit of Philip Larkin caught in the last lines of An Arundel Tomb: ‘all that survives of us is love’.