From the ‘Right Brain’

More notes from our discussion – January 22

Carol McPhee, herself a poet, is bringing a different type of ‘input’ to our discussions of science and religion – readings from poetry and literature.  To introduce these readings Carol writes,

“Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold is one of the classics we study in high school or college literature classics, yet I’ve never been able to reconcile myself with its imagery. The full tide, the “tranquil bay,” disappear as soon as the poet calls his beloved to the window, with just the word “only” as a transition to the ebbing tide and the rattling noise of the surf against pebbles.  Then in the final stanza, he shifts from the sea to another metaphor, the “darkling plain.” Still, when I read it to the group yesterday, I found myself caught in its oceanic rhythms, hearing the grating on the shore, and I felt in the sound of the poem its hope for humanity and its terrible sadness.  I suggest that anyone reading this poem on line read it aloud–I promise, it will captivate you.

Dover Beach

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 Ægean, 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.

Reading “Dover Beach” and the last paragraph of  Darwin’s On the Origin of Species together presents a contrast worth exploring.  Darwin writes,

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us

These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows.

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

They were written within ten years of each other, “Dover Beach” in 1851 (though not published until 1867) and On the Origin of Species in 1859. Arnold’s poem reflects the turmoil of the Victorian era in England, the despair arising as industrialization, exploitation of workers, colonization, and military conquests brought about political, social and  religious uncertainties. Religious faith and a sense of divine order in life were disappearing. All we can do, Arnold says, is “be true/ To one another,” with powerful poetic emphasis coming down on the word “true.” Darwin in contrast presents another kind of faith: human beings, by examining the natural world around them can discover order in the laws of nature. “There is grandeur in this view of life . . .” he says in the last paragraph of On the Origin of Species.

As we begin this exploration of Johnson’s Ask the Beasts, studying her dialog between science and theology, I’m persuaded that in this modern era, brimming with conflicts as grievous as those of the 1850’s,  remaining true to creation and having rational respect for its grandeur are both  important.
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2 thoughts on “From the ‘Right Brain’

  1. After you read Arnold’s poem aloud, I ruminated about it on the drive home. It conveyed such a sense of loss, of disorder (no joy, love, light, peace) – even hopelessness (no help), and I wondered about the role of order in giving meaning and thus hope. It reminded me of Yeats’ “the center cannot hold” (or something like that). In my younger years (and still) – I have thought there was a sense of orderliness in science (i.e. the law of gravity). In birding we sort of systematically try to identify the bird by shape, color, beak, locale – there seems to be an order there that is comforting to me. Even now as I am at my window, looking at the sea, hearing the waves crash on the shore – there is an orderliness in that – it is calming and even hopeful (more than prayer sometimes).

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