The poem may also have a more superficial relevance the Iraq War, which is an omnipresent issue in ‘Saturday’. The last lines of the poem (“Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/Where ignorant armies clash by night”) is an allusion to a passage in Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War, where the attacking army, fighting on a similar beach, became disorientated by the darkness and ignorantly killed many of their own. This clearly evokes numerous incidents of friendly fire in Iraq. Here McEwan introduces a debate: Perowne, through logical process and experience with the Iraqi professor he treated, has decided that the invasion is correct on balance; however, with this hint at friendly fire through the poem, McEwan introduces some of the consequences of the Iraq War with the benefit of hindsight, which Perowne, of course, did not have. This reinforces the sense of uncertainty which the novel and poem project.
This uncertainty is key to the novel, and central to the poem. Both preach the same message: there is no clear answer, no absolutes, merely a confused mess of a world, and humans must accept that they cannot answer the larger issues. McEwan feels that God was a stop-gap, a convenient answer for confused humans, and now that God is defunct (shown by the poem), humans must focus on smaller issues, a philosophy which Perowne’s son Theo lives by (“the bigger you think, the crappier it looks”). Again, there is a debate introduced by McEwan: Arnold portrays uncertainty and randomness in the modern world, the darkling plain, in an equivocally negative light; conversely, Perowne finds this chaos truly miraculous and life-affirming, infinitely preferable to the “scheming of a gloomy god”. McEwan presents an argument where one side is explicitly supported by Perowne’s narration and the other is supported indirectly, in this case by the poem. However, Perowne also acknowledges the fear of uncertainty throughout the novel, meaning fundamental conflict in his character: this inconsistency in itself is fitting, and is echoed by ‘Dover Beach’. McEwan, both through his narrative and incorporation of ‘Dover Beach’, raises questions which his cold, controlling muse cannot answer: perhaps this is the point, that there are certain questions which are beyond humans, questions which humans tried to resolve through celestial fantasies. ‘Saturday’, then, suggests that humans should be satisfied with the provable, the tangible and the logical rather than blind and archaic faith, a message shared by ‘Dover Beach’.
‘Dover Beach’ serves two purposes: to reinforce and to resist. It strengthens the note of vulnerability which runs through ‘Saturday’, the sense that modern life constantly lays the cusp of collapse, that the irrelevance of religion has meant the loss of certitude. It also introduces uncertainties to Perowne’s usually solid opinions, which perversely strengthens the destination of the novel.