Dover Beach: by Matthew Arnold - Summary and Analysis

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      Dover Beach first appeared in the 1867 volume, New Poems. It must have been written some time after Arnold and his wife (Frances Lucy Wightman) visited Dover. However, we do not find any romanticizing the situation as usually honeymooners do. Instead an elegiac mood rises through it. When Arnold rearranged the order of his poems Dover Beach came after Calais Sands, and that order has been followed by many editors. Dover and Calais being on opposite sides of the channel, one expects some relationship between the two, in the thought content. However the juxtaposition appears to be only accidental.

      The last stanza of the poem represents the essence of Arnold's poems. There the world is pictured as a place where there is 'neither joy, nor love, nor certitude, nor peace, nor help, from pain. This belief, leads to the melancholy which pervades almost all of his poems.

      The poet describes himself watching the sea from somewhere at Dover. He could see the shingled beach, in the moon-lit night. The sound of the waves gives him the sad impression of some departing (withdrawing roar). It is suggestive of the disappearance of the faith of people in Christianity. The poet is reminded of the spiritual doubts and uncertainty which is in the world. Surely he is mentioning the progress of the scientific ideas leading to a scepticism that shatters religious belief. A world without religion, to the poet, is as dreary as a barren sea coast from which water has withdrawn exposing the dirty shingles. The poet means that man's life in the absence of faith, becomes meaningless and without beauty.


      Line. 1-14: The poem starts with a pictorial description of the beach at Dover. The time is night. The sea remains calm. In the high tide water level has risen to the maximum. The full moon's reflection in the strait of Dover, looks beautiful. There was a gleam on the French coast, that has just disappeared. On the English side, the cliffs, looms large against the sea. The poet invites his beloved (His wife, Frances Lucy) to the window, for the atmosphere of the night is charming. From the shore where the sea beats against the moon-lit shore and produces a long line of spray one hears the roaring sound of the waves. They drove back the pebbles forcefully on their return. The roar grows high, then cease, and then again grows, with a trampling rhythm bringing in a permanent sadness to the mind.

      Line. 15-20: Sophocles (The Greek poet dramatist) heard the same sound along the coast of the Aegean sea long ago. It brought to his mind thoughts of confused movement of mankind and made him sad. The poet and others in England in the distant northern sea also hear the same sound, bringing in similar thoughts.

      Line. 21-28: Here the poet suggests the similarity between the sea at Dover and religious faith. Once, like the full sea under high tide, at Dover today, the sea of faith too was full. AIl around the shores of the earth the folds of faith brightly displayed. But now he notices only the sad reality of the slow disappearance of religion. It is vanishing along with the night wind, exposing the dreariness, and the naked ugliness of the world.

      Line. 29-37: The author tells his beloved to be steadfast in their love to each other. Love appears to be the only comfort in life in this world. With its wide variety life appears beautiful like a dream, But in reality, it has no joy, love, hope, certainty or peace. Neither is there any relief from the pain of life. People living in the world are like the ignorant armies on a dark plain; they fight confusedly. Some are fighting while some are fleeing. Meaningless alarms are being sounded.

      Dover Beach is one of the elegant lyrics of Arnold, with his characteristic melancholy almost drowing the lyrical qualities. It is truly a representative poem of his where lyricism, skepticism, nostalgia for his own faith of the earlier days and philosophic speculation are all got mixed up.


      The description of the beautiful seascape at Dover is only a peg to hang his thoughts on the vanishing faith. Once, just like the sea in high tide he sees before him at Dover, the sea of faith encircled the whole mankind. But it has withdrawn now exposing the ugly and the dreary in the world, just like the shingles seen when the sea water withdraws in a low tide. The comparison of human life with sea often can be found in Arnold. But here the sea is the religious faith. The poet succeeds in driving home the disappearance of religious faith very poetically through the comparison.

      Once religious faith has disappeared scepticism has stepped in. Like the shingles which are exposed during low tide, with the receding of religious faith, human life shows no beauty, love, joy and peace. The poet brings in Sophocles, whom he admires very much to prove that world always had events to make thinking people sad. Years back the Greek poet too felt the same feeling which Victorians along with Arnold has been feeling. The permanency the poet attaches to the turbid ebb and flow of human misery justifies Arnold's melancholy. He appears to be foreshadowing the Existentialist philosophers by pointing out the permanent nature of the tragedy of human life.

      As a poem where faith and faithlessness struggle against each other the poem is presumptuous in assumptions and deficient in argument. Once we give allowance for this, Dover Beach remains an admirable piece. Prof. Saintsbury has this to say.

The expression, the thing that is not the subject, the tendency outside the subject, which makes for poesy, are here, and almost the best.

      He goes on to add that one can see in the poem:

      Passionate interpretation of life, which is so different a thing from the criticism of it; that marvellous pictorial effect to which the art of line and colour itself is commonplace banal ... that almost more marvellous accompaniment of vowel and consonant music, independent of sense but reinforcing it.

      Stopford Brookes says that the poem rises into the higher regions of poetry'. Some critics like Professor Babbit and Mrs. Iris Sells. believe that Arnold received the inspiration to write this poem from Senancour and Sainte Beuve. The image at the end of the poem, where mankind is pictured to be ignorant armies, comes directly from Thucydides, according to Professors Tinker and Loury. Despite the indebtedness, there is the masterly contribution of Arnold which fuses all those into a poem which expresses his own intensely felt sad thoughts on man and life, not only in Victorian age, but during all times.

      Characteristic Arnoldian Melancholy: Dover Beach is a profoundly sad poem. It becomes a passionate lament from a paining heart. It reduces to an elegy digging the religious faith of mankind which vanished with the development of science and scepticism. The rhythmic beat of the waves against the beach rouses sad thoughts in his mind. He realizes that such sad thoughts affected the Greek poet Sophocles, too, in the ancient times. Here Arnold thinks that it is the lot of man to remain sad, for life is full of miseries. Except in the two lines where he tells his beloved:

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another

      The poem is full of gloom. It ends in a darkling note where the poet appears to be deeply pessimistic. But those two lines, indirectly gives a ray of hope. In this meaningless world full of misery and where there is no cause for joy, true love can give a little solace.

      Poetic Devices: Arnold uses figures of speech elegantly, to drive home into the minds of readers his thoughts. In the first stanza the author pictures the sea, realistically, but suggestively brings in the disappearance of something. We hear the grating roar of pebbles which the waves draw back and fling. As the faith withdraws, individuals are flung up like pebbles in the beach, is the suggested meaning. In the second stanza, the idea becomes clearer. Sophocles too heard the roar and it reminded him of human misery. At his time too some faith was withdrawing with all the associated misery. In the third stanza the metaphor becomes quite evident for the poet talks of the sea of faith'. Its lying 'like the folds of a bright girdle furl'd' is a beautiful simile, and it hangs in the mind with its pictorial quality. Now on the long withdrawing roar acquires a clear meaning in association with religion. 'Night-wind' may now mean the dark forces in the world, or ignorance and 'naked shingles' may mean the ugly things in life made bare, in the absence of faith. The sea and wave images are no longer found in the last stanza. There the confused life of man is compared to the confused fight of ignorant armies in a darkling plain.

      The style: There are many remarkable and arresting phrases and musical lines in the poem. 'Moon-blanched land', tremulous cadence slow', 'eternal note of Sadness', long-withdrawing roar' and 'vast edges drear' are some of them. The music in lines 'Begin and Cease and then again begin' exactly sounds like how the sea waves beat against the beach. Generally Arnold does not have Tennyson's ear to make the sound echo the sense. But in the above line there is Onomotopoea where the sound of reading the passage suggests the sound of the sea waves. In the last line too there is Onomotopoca. Ignorant armies clash by night' sounds like the clash of metal against metal. The second, third and fourth stanzas begin with short lines contrasting with the comparatively long previous lines. This technique helps in bringing in a new line of thought. It agrees with the flow of the poem, which itself is like the waves 'which begin, cease and then again begin'. The ending of the poem too has Onomotopoea.


Sophocles ... northern sea. Line. 15-20

      After describing the sound of the sea at Dover, "begin and cease and then again begin", bringing in sad thoughts to his mind, Arnold says that Sophocles in his time too had heard similar sounds.

      Sophocles, the Greek poet lived near the Aegean sea 25 centuries back. He too, might have had sad thoughts listening to the waves of the Aegean sea. His poetic dramas Trachiniae and Antigone display those melancholy thoughts. Both Arnold and Sophocles considered sea as having similarities with man's life.

      Arnold appears to acquire some respectability to his melancholy by portraying Sophocles as having a melancholy akin to his. Elsewhere he has paid full compliment to the Greek tragedian very generously.

The sea of faith ... world. Line. 21-28

      In this stanza we find Arnold, through a very suggestive metaphor, telling how religious faith is vanishing from the world leaving skepticism and doubt to rule the roost.

      Before the post-Darwin impact of science on Victorian society people all over the world had absolute faith in the tenets of religion. That blind faith gave people a sort of peace for there was a purpose in life in it. It was to find out the will of God and lead a life accordingly. But science has exposed the irrationality of a blind faith for according to rational thinking there is no place for God as conceived by Christianity. As this kind of scientific thinking spread among people, they became skeptical of the religious thinking as a whole. The casual was peace of mind. The morality and the humanism that kept society healthy during earlier days were God-based or religion-based. Once faith is gone, the earlier moral order is destroyed and humanism loses its former base. This change in Victorian society is very well described by Arnold's metaphor in the passage.

      With the sea of faith, the world appeared beautiful for the "shore lay like the folds of a bright girdle furld". The simile, emphasizes the beauty of the life of faith, But when the sea has withdrawn the edges of the land appear dreary and the 'naked shingles' are exposed. Land here becomes man's life and 'naked shingles' becomes skepticism and doubt that remain in society.

Ah, love ... for pain. Line. 29-34

      In this otherwise very gloomy poem we find a narrow ray of hope expressed here. Love, true love, may be able to give some consolation in life.

      Arnold wants him and his beloved to love one another sincerely. The suggestion is that true love alone can be a sort of consolation in this unhappy life. This world appears to be as beautiful as a dreamland. But the reality is different. This world does not have joy or love or wisdom (light): there is no absolute certainty in anything; neither is their any peace of mind nor any relief from the suffering. Arnold appears to be talking of man-to-woman love here. He seems to say that in this joyless world of suffering and uncertainty one can have some sort of comfort if there is happy conjugal love. There is a record that Matthew Arnold led a very happy married life. According to some it was an extended honeymoon.

And we are ... clash by night. Line. 35-37

      These four lines from the end of the poem is a suggestive metaphor that gives a gloomy picture of life of mankind as the poet saw it.

      The 'we' here, in one sense, stands for Arnold and his beloved wife. But in a wider sense 'we' stands for the whole mankind, giving a sublime meaning to the passage.

      Man's life in this world is like that of armies on a dark plain. They are ignorant and the fight amongst them goes on in a confused manner. False alarms are heard, but the struggle and fight is going on in the dark battle field. The darkling plain suggests the world where so much restlessness, suffering and pain are there. The 'struggle' is the struggle of life itself. People of the world are 'ignorant' for none knows the ultimate Truth. The 'confused alarm' may mean the false thinkers of the time who prophesied the shape of things to come according to thus whims. Arnold may be thinking of many religious sects who predicted that the end of earth was at hand.

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