Dover Beach by Mathew Arnold

About the Poem

“Dover Beach” is a lyric poem written by English poet Matthew Arnold. It was initially published in 1867 in the anthology New Poems, but surviving notes indicate that it was written as early as 1849. The most likely year is 1851.

This is a poem about a sea and a beach that is incredibly gorgeous but contains far more meaning than meets the sight. Although some of the words rhyme, the poem is written in free verse with no particular metre or rhyme system. Arnold is the speaker, and he is speaking to someone he cares about. As the poem progresses, the reader learns why Arnold poses the above-mentioned question, and why life appears to be the way it is. Arnold says in the first section of the poem, “The Sea is calm tonight,” and in line 7, “Only, from the long line of spray.” Arnold is setting the mood or environment in this way so that the reader can understand the argument he is attempting to make. Lines 1-6 describe a very serene night on the ever-so-calm sea, with the moonlight shining brightly on the shore. The moonlight “gleams and is gone,” he says because the “cliffs of England” are towering at their highest peaks, concealing the moonlight. The waves then roar into the scene, “drawing back and flinging the pebbles” onto the strand and back out to sea. Arnold also cites the shore bringing “the eternal note of sadness in,” which could signify the cycles of life and repetition. Arnold then goes on to explain the origins of Sophocles’ concept of the “Aegean’s turbid ebb and flow.”

The first stanza of Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” is a relaxing description of what is said to be Arnold staring out the window of his honeymoon cottage over a moonlit pebble beach in the Dover district of Southeastern England. Except for the last line, this is poetic romanticism at its best, depicting the “moon-blanch’d land” (8) as it is rhythmically bathed by the sea and the sound of rasping pebbles echoing across the shoreline. The first stanza of “Dover Beach” is intended to lull the reader into a state of calm, visualising the place with all of the celestial magnificence that Arnold was writing with. However, in the final line, Matthew Arnold ominously refers to this scenery as the channel that brings “the eternal note of sadness in” (14); the emotional melody, which transports spiritual manna, bears the stinging bitter-sweet reality that none of it is genuinely real.

Sophocles (495–406), the Greek tragedy playwright, was inspired to compose tragedies such as Antigone, King Oedipus, and Electra after hearing a similar sound in the Mediterranean, according to Matthew Arnold. It “brought into his mind the turbid ebb and flow of human misery,” according to Arnold (16). In their pitiless disasters, the analogy to Sophocles’ Theban plays foreshadows the atmosphere of the following stanzas. The lovely enchantment of the first fervent stanza of “Dover Beach” has now been engulfed by the world’s brutal and secular realities. The “sea of faith” (20), the supernatural protection of religious devotion, is described by Matthew Arnold as an all-encompassing “bright girdle furl’d” (22) that is now retreating before human reason, “the breath of the nightwind” (25).

“Ah, love, let us be true / To one another!” Matthew Arnold writes in the closing stanza of “Dover Beach.” for the world that appears to us to be a realm of dreams, / So varied, so beautiful, so new, / Has truly neither joy, nor love, nor light, / Nor certainty, nor calm, nor help for grief;” (28-33). Arnold begs them to cling to each other in these emotionally charged lines, despite the fact that the land is attractive only as an exterior to an unfeeling, Godless world. The beautiful world, the Romantic world, is a myth; there is only the harsh Modern reality, empty of answered dreams or prayers. “We are here as on a darkling plain,” Matthew Arnold writes, echoing William Wordsworth, to illustrate how we stand in the gloom of our present existence and must now suffer with our realisation of secular teaching and the destruction of God.

Matthew Arnold’s modern sensibility bursts through like a poetic funeral, a sad lament for humanity’s destiny in a society devoid of spirituality. The beauty of Dover Beach, as described by Matthew Arnold, provides only a fleeting euphoria before descending into an impending melancholia of realising that none of the emotion he finds in the landscape is true.

Summary of Dover Beach

Mathew Arnold, the poet, is standing on the shoreline, watching the calm waves splash against the sandy sands of the Straits of Malacca. There is a faint breeze that blows gently and the sea looks quiet for the night. The tide is powerful but under control, and the moon shines brightly as it casts its light on the calm sea. The light shines sweetly and softly from the French coast over the English Channel to the towering sea cliffs of England and then weakens towards the quiet bay of England.

The poet invites his companion to come to his cabin’s window and experience the wonderful perfume of the night air. From this vantage point, one can only see the sea, which serves as a catalyst when it comes into contact with the moonlit mixed colour of the sands. Sometimes they hear the roar of the sea when the stones cross over to the high sandy beaches and retreat back unexpectedly with the withdrawing waves. This phenomenon occurs every evening throughout the night, beginning with a gradual trembling tone and ending with the presence of melancholy.

The poet refers to ‘Sophocles,’ a great Greek dramatist from the 5th century B.C., to a scene in his play ‘Antigone’ (line-583). On the ‘Aegean,’ an elongated embayment of the Mediterranean Sea between the Southern Balkans and Anatolia, the same eternal note of grief can be heard. The muddy movement of the tide away from the land and its flow, the tide of misfortune that dominates human agony, came to mind for the dramatist. That same identical sound can be heard in ideas from the far north sea.

With its vastness that embraces all the borders of the world throughout the globe, the huge sea was once a beholder of trust, lying folded like a dazzling girdle cord worn around the waist and curled up secured and strong. But today, the sounds of the waves in the sea are merely sorrowful notes; long-drawn; approaching and retreating at the breath of the night wind that sweeps along the broad yet dull and dismal borders of the world’s bare shingles, the beaches covered with coarse sand and huge stones.

Finally, the poet begs his beloved friend to be honest with him, because the world they live in, which appears to be beautiful and new, and which lays before them like a realm of dreams, lacks joy, love, and spiritual light. There is no guarantee of assistance in both times of hardship and peace. All mortals live in this world in a dark state of consciousness, and the struggle for survival is no different from that of stupid armies fighting all night.

Analysis of Dover Beach

“Dover Beach” is a difficult poem to examine, and some of its passages and metaphors have grown so familiar that they are impossible to see with “fresh eyes.” Arnold begins with a lifelike and precise nightscape of Dover’s beach, in which auditory imagery is prominent (“Listen! you hear the grating roar”). The beach, on the other hand, is deserted, with only a sliver of humanity visible in a light that “gleams and fades.” One critic speculates that “the speaker might be talking to his bride,” a reference to the conventional assumption that the poem was written during Arnold’s honeymoon.

The sea is calm to-night.
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-blanch’d land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves drawback, 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

Arnold examines two parts of this naturalistic scene: the soundscape (in the first and second stanzas) and the tide’s retreating motion (in the third stanza). The sound of the sea strikes him as “the eternal note of sadness.” Sophocles, a 5th century BC Greek playwright who penned plays about fate and the will of the gods, heard the same sound while standing on the Aegean Sea’s shore. The interpretation of this depiction of the Greek Classical period by critics varies greatly. One critic perceives a distinction between Sophocles in classical Greece understanding the “note of sadness” humanistically, and Arnold in the industrial nineteenth century hearing the retreat of religion and faith in this sound. A more modern critic compares the two as artists, Sophocles as a tragedian and Arnold as a lyric poet, each striving to transmute this tone of melancholy into “a higher order of experience” through their words.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, 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.

After examining the soundscape, Arnold proceeds to the activity of the tide itself, seeing in its retreat a metaphor for the contemporary age’s lack of faith, represented once more in an auditory image (“But now I only hear/Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar”). This third stanza begins with a vision of “joyous fulness,” which is similar in beauty to the image that opens the poem.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
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 final stanza begins with an appeal to love before moving on to the well-known ending metaphor. The first two lines of this stanza have been interpreted differently by critics; one sees them as a “perfunctory gesture…swallowed up by the poem’s powerfully dark picture,” while another sees them as “a stand against a world of broken faith.” One of Arnold’s biographers described being “true/To one another” as a “precarious notion” in a world that has become a “maze of confusion” as falling somewhere in the middle.

The poem concludes with a metaphor that is most likely an allusion to a passage in Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides narrates a historic fight that took place on a similar beach during the Athenians’ invasion of Sicily. The battle took place at night, and the attacking force became bewildered while battling in the darkness, killing many of their soldiers accidentally. This final image has also been regarded differently by commentators. Arnold’s “central statement” of the human predicament has been described as the final line’s “darkling plain.” According to a more current critic, the final phrase is “only metaphor” and hence vulnerable to the “uncertainty” of poetic language.

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.

“The poem’s discourse shifts literally and symbolically from the present to Sophocles on the Aegean, back to the present, and the auditory and visual images are dramatic, mimetic, and didactic,” Honan writes. Exploring the dark horror that lies behind his bliss in love, the speaker resolves to love—and the poem’s real themes are the constraints of history and the connection between lovers. That lovers may be ‘true/To one another’ is a tenuous notion: love in the contemporary city provides temporary tranquilly, but nothing else in a post-medieval society reflects or validates lovers’ devotion. The world is a maze of uncertainty left by’retreating’ religion when it is devoid of love and light.”

Critics have questioned the poem’s unity, pointing out that the sea of the first stanza does not exist in the final stanza, and the “darkling plain” of the final line does not appear in the first. Several solutions to this problem have been proposed. One critic compared the poem’s final “darkling plain” to the “naked shingles of the world.” “Shingles” refers to flat beach cobbles seen along some wave-swept coastlines. Another person found the poem “emotionally compelling,” despite its dubious reasoning. The same critic observes that “the poem upends our expectations of metaphor,” and sees this as the poem’s core force. The poem’s historicism adds another layer of complication. Beginning in the present, it moves to the classical age of Greece, then (concerning the sea of faith) to Medieval Europe, before returning to the present. The poem’s form has sparked a lot of discussions. Critics have praised the poem’s meticulous diction in the opening description, as well as its overall, spellbinding rhythm and cadence and dramatic tone. One commentator sees the ode’s strophe-antistrophe at work in the poem, with a conclusion that contains elements of tragedy’s “cata-strophe.” Finally, one critic sees the poem’s complexity as producing “the first major ‘free-verse’ poem in the language.”

Theme and Subject

The opening stanza begins with a description of a nighttime sight at the beach. The lyrical self summons his addressee to the window to experience the scene’s aesthetic magnificence. Then he draws her attention to the aural experience, which is less lovely. The poetic self puts his own sorrowful feelings onto the sound of “the grating roar /Of pebbles, which the waves draw back and fling/On their return, up the high strand” (ll.9-11). This sound elicits the emotion “sadness” (l.14) in him.

In the second stanza, the Greek poet Sophocles introduces the concept of “the turbid ebb and flow of human misery” (ll.17-18). A contrast is made to the previous stanza’s scenery. Sophocles appears to have evolved his thoughts after hearing a similar sound at the “Aegean” sea (l. 16). Arnold then applies this concept to the present. Despite the time and space difference (“Aegean” — “northern sea” (L. 20), the general feeling prevails.

The sea is transformed into the “Sea of Faith” (l.21) in the third stanza, which is a metaphor for a time (probably the Middle Ages) when religion could still be experienced without doubt, as opposed to the modern (Victorian) age brought about by Darwinism, the Industrial Revolution, Imperialism, a religious crisis, and so on. Arnold displays this with a clothing comparison (‘Kleidervergleich’). The universe was dressed when religion was still intact (“like the folds of a bright girdle furled” (l. 23)). Now that this religion is gone, the world is naked and desolate. (“the vast drear edges of the world/ And naked shingles of the world” (ll. 27-28))

The poetic self makes a dramatic vow in the fourth and final stanza. He requests that his love be “true” (l.29), or faithful to him. (“Ah, love, let us be true to each other!”). For the gorgeous environment that appears to them (“for the world, which appears to lie before us like a land of dreams,/ So various, so beautiful, so new” )  is not what it appears to be. On the contrary, as he emphasises with a series of denials, this world lacks essential human values. These, along with light and religion, have vanished, leaving humanity in the dark. “We” (l.35) could simply allude to the poetic self and his love, but it could also be read as the lyrical self speaking to humanity. The lovely scenery transforms into a “darkling plain” (l. 35), where only the hostile, terrifying sounds of battling forces can be heard:

“And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, Where ignorant armies clash by night.” (ll.35-37).

These lines, according to Ian Hamilton, are a reference to a passage in Thukydides’ The Battle of Epipolae “In a night encounter, the two sides could not tell who was a friend and who was a foe” (144-45).


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