In the musical version of Les Miserables, Eponine sings “On My Own,” a poignant expression of her disappointment that Marius does not requite her love. Imagining that he is with her, she describes the enchantment of her surroundings:
In the rain the pavement shines like silver
All the lights are misty in the river
In the darkness, the trees are full of starlight
But then, she reflects, he is not actually with her, and the enchantment is gone. “The river’s just a river.” The trees are not full of starlight, they’re just bare.
This loss of the sense of enchantment is what A Darkling Plain is really about. Transcendent values like beauty, truth, and dignity are being stripped from us by the new spirit of the age. Even that greatest of transcendent values, love, is becoming tattered and worn, in the barren spiritual landscape in which we live.
Our physical surroundings seem to lose their enchantment. Shorn from our experience of the material world is a sense of meaning, purpose, design, or intentionality, in the light of the prevalent zeitgeist which insists that the material world is all there is. The ecstatic delight of the child gives way to the scowling countenance of the cynic. The river is just a river.