Does the “Sea of Faith” in Matthew Arnold’s poem ‘Dover Beach’ have biblical significance?

Here is the third stanza of the poem, where the phrase appears:

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.

The phrase seems purely metaphorical (not alluding to anything in particular), simply saying that (religious) faith was as vast and old as the sea. But is there a possible biblical reference I’m missing here? Would the words “Sea of Faith” call up the Sea of Galilee in the minds of Christians? Galilee occurred to me because of its association with the power of faith, although it’s only a lake and not nearly large enough to be imagined as a girdle around the earth.

It might be of significance that in another poem, called ‘The Future’, Arnold refers to “the river of Time”.

Also, Arnold is said to have been agnostic and wrote several essays on religion.

1 Answer 1


The ebb and flow of the sea has long been used as a metaphor for a fluctuating condition. Arnold indicated that his use of this metaphor in ‘Dover Beach’ was inspired by the Greek playwright Sophocles, and so it is doubtful that a biblical reference was intended:

Sophocles long ago
Heard it† on the Ægean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery

† The sound of waves breaking on the shore.

Several passages in Sophocles have been suggested as the inspiration for these lines; see C. B. Tinker and H. F. Lowry (1940), The Poetry of Matthew Arnold: A Commentary, pp. 176–178. First, from Antigone, where the chorus describe the evils that befell the royal family of Thebes, and which had spread to the whole of Greece in the form of the war of the Seven against Thebes:

Chorus Blest are those whose days have not tasted of evil. For when a house has once been shaken by the gods, no form of ruin is lacking, but it spreads over the bulk of the race, just as, when the surge is driven over the darkness of the deep by the fierce breath of Thracian sea-winds, it rolls up the black sand from the depths, and the wind-beaten headlands that front the blows of the storm give out a mournful roar.

Sophocles (c. 441 BCE). Antigone lines 583–592. Translated by Richard Jebb (1891). Perseus Digital Library.

Second, from The Women of Trachis, where the chorus describe the tempestuous life of Heracles:

Chorus For just as one may see billow after billow advancing and passing over the wide deep before the tireless south-wind, or the north, so the great toil of his life, stormy as the Cretan sea, now whirls back the heir of Cadmus,† now exalts him. But some god always keeps him unerring from the house of Hades.

Sophocles (c. 450–425 BCE). The Women of Trachis, lines 112–121. Translated by Richard Jebb (1892). Perseus Digital Library.

† Heracles, though it is not entirely clear to me how he descends from Cadmus, founder of Thebes. Perhaps the idea was that although his parents were Zeus and Alcmene, his descent from Alcmene’s husband Amphitryon (who was descended from Cadmus via Agave, Pentheus, Menoeceus and Hipponome) still counts.

Third, from Oedipus at Colonus, where the chorus lament the sufferings of Oedipus:

Chorus Like some cape that fronts the north which is lashed on every side by the waves of winter, so he also is fiercely lashed evermore by the dread disasters that break on him like the surf, some from the region of the setting sun, some from that of its rising, some in the realm of its noon-time rays, some from the gloom-wrapped hills of the North.

Sophocles (c. 406 BCE). Oedipus at Colonus, lines 1240–1248. Translated by Richard Jebb (1889). Perseus Digital Library.

Fourth, from Philoctetes, where the chorus praise the stoicism of the hero:

Chorus I truly marvel how—how in the world—as he listened in solitude to the breakers rushing around him, he kept his hold upon a life so full of grief.

Sophocles (409 BCE). Philoctetes, lines 687–690. Translated by Richard Jebb (1898). Perseus Digital Library.

None of these quite resemble Arnold’s “sea of faith”—the rise and fall of Christianity is not the same kind of thing as the ruin of the house of Thebes, the stormy life of Heracles, the disasters that befall Oedipus, or the waves breaking on the island of Philoctetes’ exile. But maybe the idea in ‘Dover Beach’ is that each poet can listen to “the eternal note of sadness” of the waves on the shore and find a different expression of that note in poetry.


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