Matthew Arnold 1867
Published in New Poems in 1867, “Dover Beach” is one of Matthew Arnold’s most famous poems. Many critics believe that Arnold wrote his best poetry in the 1840s and 1850s and that “Dover Beach” was actually composed during this earlier period. Employing one of Arnold’s favored metaphors between life and the sea, the poem contrasts the beauty of the moonlit seashore to the angst and uncertainty of life. A sentimental longing for the past and an anxiety about the rapidly changing world characterized much of Victorian literature and thought. Arnold’s ability to evoke feelings of isolation, loneliness, and fear of the future accounts for the power of the poem and the reason why scholars believe that it is one of the best works from the Victorian Era.
The poem opens as the speaker, commonly assumed to be a man, stands at a window describing the beauty of the seashore to his companion. However, the seascape begins to remind him of his uncertain place in the universe. He mourns the loss of faith in God, which provided security and meaning to people in the past, and compares the passing of faith to the ebb of the tide. The conclusion of the poem provides a solution for the speaker’s maladies. He beseeches his “love” to be true to him; only in their devotion to each other will they find comfort and certainty in the “confused alarms of struggle and flight” of life.
Arnold was born in 1822, the eldest son of Mary Penrose Arnold and Dr. Thomas Arnold. His father was an influential educator who, in 1828, became headmaster of Rugby School, where Arnold received his early education. When Arnold was a child, his family would take summer holidays in the Lake District, where they became friends with the noted Romantic poets Robert Southey and William Wordsworth. Although Arnold was a mediocre student, his first work, the long poem “Alaric at Rome” was published in 1840 while he was still in school. Arnold went on to graduate from Oxford University in 1844. Subsequently he won a fellowship to continue his studies at Oxford, accepted a teaching position at Rugby, and served as a private secretary. During this time he continued to write and publish poetry. His first collection, The Strayed Reveller, and Other Poems, appeared in 1849, and most of his verse was published in the eight years that followed. In 1857 Arnold was elected to the first of two five-year terms as the poetry chair at Oxford, an honorary appointment that required him to give several lectures a year. From this point on in his career Arnold wrote little poetry, focusing rather on prose works on educational and literary matters. At the same time, he worked as an inspector of schools from 1851, a position he held until shortly before his death in 1888.
The sea is calm tonight.
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-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, 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.
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.
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.
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.
Arnold begins the poem with a conventional description of the seashore in the moonlight. The speaker is standing at a window overlooking a stretch of beach in the south of England, near Dover. From there he can see across the English Channel to the French coast just 20 miles away. The moon is full and illuminates the English cliffs standing at the edge of the sea. Arnold writes, “the tide is full,” which seems to imply that the tide is high. The speaker describes this scene to someone else in the room and in Line 6 calls to his companion to join him at the window. In these first six lines Arnold presents a beautiful and tranquil scene. He uses words like “calm,” “fair,” “stand,” and “sweet” to establish this mood.
Lines 7 and 8 mark a transition in the stanza. The phrase “long line of spray,” which describes what results when the sea meets the land, introduces action and perhaps even contention in the poem.
In direct contrast to his peaceful and pleasing description of the seashore, the speaker begins to contemplate the movement of the waves. Arnold uses words like “grating roar” and “fling” to achieve a feeling of tension and energy. He moves from the visual images of the first lines to sound descriptions as he details a darker side of the scene. He describes the way the waves pick up pebbles as they move across the shoreline and deposit them again as the tide turns. The endless motion of the waves described in Lines 12-14 evokes sadness in the speaker. “Eternal note of sadness” is echoed again later in the phrase “human misery” in Line 18 and seems to describe the malaise of mankind throughout history rather than the specific problems of the speaker.
In the opening lines of the second stanza, the speaker considers the Greek tragedy writer Sophocles and wonders if long ago, in ancient Greece, this writer may have sat beside the Aegean Sea and also been reminded of the endless suffering of man. Again, Arnold likens sadness to the constant motion of the sea: “the turbid ebb and flow / of human misery.”
Lines 19-20 provide a transition from the speaker’s speculation about Sophocles to the main point of the stanza. Though observing a different sea, the speaker, like Sophocles observing the Aegean, finds a larger message in the motion of the sea. Again, Arnold speaks of the sound of the sea, rather than the visual images of the water.
In these lines the speaker expresses the idea that watching the sea has elicited. The “Sea of Faith” is a metaphor for the faith in God that comforted humankind in earlier periods. Like the ocean at high tide, which surrounds the land, faith, the poem implies, used to permeate people’s lives. The context of the poem suggests that faith provided meaning and comfort in past ages. However, the “Sea of Faith” has receded like the ebb of the waves. Here Arnold employs such words as “melancholy,” “withdrawing roar,” “retreating,” “drear,” and “naked” to convey a sense of loss and despair, and he uses images of the sea, which he did not employ in the description of the shoreline that opens the poem. The sea is no longer calm, the night air sweet, and the shoreline glimmering in the moonlight. Now the waves roar and the wind blows down the dark and naked shoreline.
In the opening lines of the third stanza, the speaker addresses his companion directly. He beseeches her that they must comfort each other, be faithful to one another. Only the loyalty and comfort of personal relationships can fill the void produced by the disappearing faith in God.
Nature and Its Meaning
Prior to the Victorian Era, Wordsworth and his fellow Romantic poets perceived in nature proof of a benign supernatural order, a cosmic design—whether Christian or pagan—that not only included man but was also sympathetic to him. To these poets, man’s spiritual unease was the result of his increasing tendency to turn his eye from nature—to alienate himself, in other words, from the very core of his own mystery and thus from the cure to his discontent. By Arnold’s time, however, nature had assumed colder intimations. Many of the era’s intellectual advances—evolutionary theory, sociology, archaeology, and textual criticism of the Bible to name a few—had challenged religion’s explanations for the way the cosmos had originated, functioned, and would proceed in future times. Under the weight of seemingly irrefutable evidence, people gradually were forced to accept that it was science, not religion, that best described nature. Yet science provided even less spiritual comfort than uncertainty had done. In the scientific view, nature was an unyielding mechanical operation, random except for a few basic physical laws. The world was an arena that spared no “special place” for man as the Bible had promised. In fact, man himself was simply the product of evolution, an opportunistic
Topics for Further Study
- Compare the ideas expressed here with those in William Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,” also included in Poetry For Students. What conclusions does each speaker draw as a result of his observation of nature? How do these conclusions reflect differing beliefs about nature and about man’s place in it?
- Some literary historians say Arnold wrote “Dover Beach” during his honeymoon in 1851. In what ways does it seem antithetical to a love poem? Based on the last stanza, how would you describe Arnold’s opinion of the role of romantic love in the modern world?
- Arnold’s time witnessed an increase in scientific knowledge at the expense of religious faith. His poem is pessimistic about man’s state in a post-religious age. If you were to write a similar poem about our own time, what changes would concern you most? What symbols of these changes would you use to express your concern?
and successful animal, and his presence on earth was secured only because he had survived the battle for the “survival of the fittest.” But science also suggested that nature had long preceded and would long endure man’s victory in that battle. Thus, the cosmos was not only oblivious to his presence; it had sewn into its fabric the certitude that man was only an accidental blip doomed to eternal extinction in the vast silence of time.
Given the implications of such concepts, Victorians such as Arnold found the need to redress the entire meaning of nature in poetry. In some ways, of course, the natural world remained unchanged. Its beauty and complexity still retained the power to move the human observer and to conjure, as it always had, shades of man’s internal life. Yet as science changed man’s view of nature and his place in it, so did it alter his conception of the internal life itself—the soul. Thus, the pessimistic speaker in “Dover Beach” might genuinely note the “sweetness and light” (Arnold’s famous phrase from elsewhere) inherent in the tranquil night scene along England’s shore—the moon “fair / Upon the straights,” the cliffs “glimmering and vast”—yet at the same time acknowledge that nature’s beauty barely conceals its darkness. This gloom—the world in the end not characterized by light but as a “darkling plain”—finds metaphorical expression also in sound, in the “turbid ebb and flow” of the sea that brings “the eternal note of sadness in.” Such noise, including the mechanical processes of the tides, which proceed apace like all of nature and are unaware of any individual’s personal stake, remind the speaker that man is essentially on his own—left to struggle fruitlessly against the machinelike forces of decay and competition that science has established as nature’s guiding principles.
God and Religion
What comfort, then, was left to man if indeed science had supplanted religion? According to the Victorian essayist Thomas Carlyle, the answer was none. “The loss of [man’s] religious belief,” he wrote in Sartor Resartus four years before Queen Victoria’s coronation, “was the loss of everything.” Devoid of faith, the universe “was one huge, dead, immeasurable Steam-engine, rolling on, in its dead indifference, to grind me limb from limb.” Arnold’s assessment in “Dover Beach” is only slightly less troubling. From the sound of the sea, which reminds the speaker of the “ebb and flow of human misery,” the speaker conjures a metaphorical contrast between the days of belief and the present, skeptical age. While formerly the “Sea of Faith” was “at the full,” providing man with certainty and hope, now that sea is “retreating, to the breath / Of the night wind,” exposing a dreary and naked world. In such a world, its one great hope removed, none of the smaller, pleasant hopes of past times can survive. While in brief moments of beauty the world “seems / To lie before us like a land of dreams,” such fancy requires the type of belief that is no longer possible given the greater doubt at hand. Gone with faith, in fact, are the joy, love, light, certitude, and peace that are themselves articles of the faithful heart.
In light of this, it may seem paradoxical that the speaker’s one bit of consolation is that lovers might remain “true to one another.” It was natural, however, for the Victorians to conclude that a cosmic order lacking any hands-on divinity required humans to look after one another. Evolution described a world in which not only species but also men struggled against one another in their competition for resources: a world in which “ignorant armies clash by night.”
Matthew Arnold is one of the first poets to experiment with free verse and “Dover Beach” is written in this form. Free verse is a form of poetry in which meter is not used to structure the verse. Instead cadence, syntax, and images play an important role. There are no set number of syllables per line nor a regular rhythmic pattern. A poem written in free verse may have an irregular rhyming structure, as “Dover Beach” does, or may not rhyme at all. Line breaks and stanza formation may appear to be arbitrary, but poets such as Arnold use the irregular structure to emphasize words and meaning and to set a tone. The first two stanzas of “Dover Beach” read more slowly because of the phrasing and sound of the words as Arnold builds the tempo of the poem. His third stanza reads more quickly and thus makes his conclusion more powerful.
In his preface to Poems, published in 1853, Arnold described his age as one of “bewildering confusion” and “spiritual discomfort.” To those living in England in the mid-nineteenth century, the religious skepticism addressed in “Dover Beach” was more than a personal matter to be hashed out in the privacy of one’s own soul; it was greater, indeed, than a philosophical controversy between believers and nonbelievers. At stake for Victorians during the era’s great religious crisis were the very tenets that defined man’s identity: his place in the universe, the moral and ethical principles that guided his behavior toward others, and, by extension, the principles that governed society. To the average Victorian in 1850, Christian precepts provided not only the promise of an afterlife but also a moral code, a standard for judging earthly actions, and even a cosmology—in short, an entire worldview. By offering convincing alternatives to Christian doctrine, then, skepticism called into question the way Victorians had previously viewed nearly every aspect of their lives. And while it is true that a large number of Christians remained steadfast throughout the age, the challenges put forth by scientists, biblical scholars, and social theorists—combined with the existing church’s unpreparedness to meet such challenges—left many Victorians as bewildered as Arnold surmised.
Even before Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1837, the Church of England had embroiled itself in a number of controversies that left it with weakened authority. Itself a dissident movement centuries earlier against what it perceived as extreme papal authority, the Anglican Church itself had grown top-heavy in many ways, its upper echelon generally privileged and therefore removed from the needs of common people. As a result, a number of new “unofficial” churches had splintered away from the official one: the Baptists, the Presbyterians, and the Methodists, to name a few. Members of these churches espoused a variety of beliefs, but in general the Dissenters, as they were called, practiced a more personal and emotional brand of Christianity than did their Anglican counterparts. Because it stressed one’s individual relationship with God, the Dissent movement also challenged the political and moral authority of Anglican clerics who had long enjoyed a great deal of power. In the mid-nineteenth century, a new dispute cast the Church of England into further disarray. The Oxford Movement, named after the university town whose intellectuals spearheaded it, asserted that the official church no longer met the needs of its people because it had strayed too far from its origins—namely, its first five centuries, before any of Christianity’s many schisms. The Oxford scholars advocated a return to a more spiritualized worship, replete with Roman Catholic dogma and trappings that bothered many Anglicans. At last, the leading figure of the Oxford Movement and one of the most respected Anglican churchmen, John Henry Newman, shocked England by converting to Roman Catholicism. Though his departure effectively ended the Oxford Movement, the debate he sparked caused many Anglicans to become concerned with esoteric issues within the church just when several major threats to Christianity were gathering force in the secular world.
One such threat was the growing acceptance of a purely materialistic school of thought known as Utilitarianism. Utilitarians, also called Benthamites, espoused the ideas of the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who proposed that all social, political, and economic realities were based on people’s self-interest. According to Bentham, a person chose a given action based not on its potential moral or ethical outcome, but rather on its likelihood to bring pleasure instead of pain. By extension, society as a whole functioned according to the collective self-interest of its members. Thus, the
Compare & Contrast
- 1850: Oxford University grants its first degrees in science, affirming the growing acceptance of scientific over religious and humanistic viewpoints
- 1856: Ancient remains of Neanderthal man are discovered in caves along a tributary of the Rhine River, challenging religious beliefs that Adam, the first human, existed only 4,000 years ago.
Today: Organic molecules are discovered on a meteorite that fell from Mars, raising the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe.
- 1859: Charles Darwin publishes The Origin of Species, which puts forth the theory that all species have come about as a result of evolution rather than creation. The theory fuels the longstanding Victorian debate between religious believers and advocates of a scientific worldview.
Today: Despite the objections of religious groups that uphold the theory of creation, the vast majority of schools teach evolution as the only viable explanation for the way man has come to exist.
Utilitarians’ motto, “the greatest happiness for the greatest number,” stood in direct contrast with religious doctrine, which held that virtue, not happiness, was the ideal motivating force behind human behavior. Another set of ideas that threatened church doctrine were those associated with Thomas Malthus, himself a cleric as well as an economic theorist. Malthus, whose views formed the basis for what Victorians called “political economy,” speculated that scarcity of resources combined with overpopulation among the poorer classes would eventually create mass poverty. In the mid-nineteenth century, his prediction seemed to be coming true. Industrial growth had created teeming factory towns across northern England, and despite the wealth these factories generated, the living conditions of workers seemed to be growing worse. Malthusians held that the workers’ poverty was a product of their tendency to have too many children. Further, they believed that social reform and welfare would only encourage more procreation by decreasing the mortality rate among the poor. This belief also ran counter to church tenets, which advocated charity toward the poor and the notion that all people possessed equal value in God’s eyes.
But if Benthamism and political economy, two critical approaches to worldly matters, both represented the increasingly scientific outlook Victorians advocated, neither challenged the premises of religious belief directly. These premises, of course, were contained in the Bible, which for a long time was accepted as not only a collection of moral assertions, but also as an accurate history of the way the universe—and man—had originated. Yet a new science called into question the validity of the Bible itself. The “higher criticism,” as it was known, asserted that the Bible was a human rather than a divine document. Using the kind of textual analysis developed by Renaissance thinkers, first German and then English scholars determined that much of the matter contained in the Old and New Testaments failed the test of scientific scrutiny—that it could not be “true” in the literal sense. Though religious authorities dismissed the scholars’ claims, archaeological discoveries seemed to prove the higher criticism was correct. According to the genealogical histories in the Old Testament, for instance, the time between Adam and modern man spanned about 4,000 years, yet the discoveries of primitive tools and cave paintings of prehistoric animals seemed to suggest a much more ancient story. And in 1856, archaeologists shocked the world and cast into doubt the historical accuracy of the Bible. With the announcement that they had discovered the remains of the Neanderthal Man, a cavedwelling ancestor of modern humans dating back tens of thousands of years, scientists had unearthed a fossil history many times older than the Biblical creation.
All of this set the stage for Charles Darwin, whose The Origin of Species established evolution—rather than creation—as the means by which all living creatures had assumed their present form. Darwin’s treatise, published in 1859, was not entirely original. Evolution theories had been put forth by other writers, most notably by Robert Chambers (Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, 1844). Yet The Origin of Species was especially convincing because it provided both sound methodology and an abundance of data gleaned from Darwin’s own observations of exotic species. Further, Darwin offered the first explanation for how evolution worked. According to his theory, all species came about as a result of “natural selection”—the idea that certain individuals of a species possessed traits favorable to their survival and thus were more likely to pass those traits to subsequent generations, while individuals with unfavorable traits were more likely to die before procreating. This idea of the “survival of the fittest” included man as well. Rather than a divine creation, endowed by God with special privileges, man himself was only a temporary victor in a great natural competition. By extension, evolution also suggested that man himself would one day evolve into a different creature, a more successful version of himself.
Darwin suggested that this was in fact a hopeful view. But as it crushed many comforting religious beliefs, it also caused Darwin himself to lament the loss of mystery in favor of science. Late in his life, he wrote in a letter to a friend: “I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. I have also lost my taste for pictures and music. I am glad you were at the ‘Messiah,’ but I dare say I should find my soul too dried up to appreciate it; and then I should feel very flat, for it is a horrid bore to feel as I constantly do, that I am a withered leaf for every subject except science. The loss of these tastes is the loss of happiness.”
“Dover Beach” is often referred to as the first modern poem. In his Babel to Byzantium: Poets and Poetry Now, James Dickey argues that the poem deserves this distinction not because of its unusual free verse style but rather on the basis of its subject matter. Dickey states that the “psychological orientation” of the poem, the malaise of modern society as science replaces religion, foreshadows a fundamental change in thought. Ultimately, what most critics come back to is Arnold’s unique ability to capture the mood of the Victorian period. In The Victorian Experience: The Poets, Miriam Allot claims that “Dover Beach” displays at its best Arnold’s gift for expressing the feelings of the transitional times—the indecision, the confusion, the regret.” Furthermore, Dorothy Mermin argues in The Audience in the Poem: Five Victorian Poets that the poem is a representative statement of the age. And in The Major Victorian Poets: Reconsiderations, Philip Drew writes that Arnold reveals the Victorians’ belief that personal relationships provide a balm for the blows of a rapidly changing world.
Many critics agree, however, that Arnold was also successful in customizing the structure and elements of his poem to achieve its somber mood. Mermin notes that Arnold creates natural and convincing dialogue and that the voice of the speaker does not sound contrived. Writing in The Fortnightly Review, Algernon Charles Swinburne comments that the cadence of Arnold’s lines imitates the sounds of waves, “regular in resonance, not fitful or gusty, but antiphonal and reverberate.” By portraying the motion of the waves, Dickey contends, Arnold elicits the element of sadness within “Dover Beach.” Dickey praises Arnold’s word choice, particularly the poet’s creation of sound-imagery and states that Arnold’s line breaks create “subtlety, force, and conviction.”
Some scholars have found fault with Arnold’s third stanza. Dickey comments that the metaphor of the sea, which stands for faith, is not entirely successful. If the Sea of Faith retreats, in the nature of waves, it must also return, and Arnold gives the reader no indication that he believes the loss of faith is only temporary.
Derek Furr is a freelance writer and has taught composition and literature courses at the University of Virginia and at Virginia Commonwealth University. In the following essay, Furr discusses
What Do I Read Next?
- The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection by Charles Darwin: This reprint of the 1872 edition is an important source in any cultural study of the Victorian Age.
- The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin: Darwin’s letters contain many reflections about the impact of his work both on himself and on the culture.
the reasons for the melancholy tone of “Dover Beach.”
It was not as a poet, but as a critic and rhetorician, that Matthew Arnold most impressed his contemporaries, and his prose essays are still considered today to be models of analytical, expository writing. But in the “note[s] of sadness” struck by “Dover Beach,” we hear the originary tones, the poetical or sentimental origins, of those later essays in which Arnold accuses England of intellectual stagnation, moral ambivalence, and a “Philistine” materialism. “Dover Beach” is a masterpiece of mood, and it is through the poem’s deeply affecting melancholy, rather than through measured argumentation, that Arnold expresses his concerns about the state of his English culture. “Dover Beach” is the poetical record of a crisis of “Faith”—that is, Arnold’s and his culture’s faith in religion, in nature, and in civic institutions. The poem records the moods of one who desperately wants to hold on to faith, but knows he cannot.
Arnold’s biography sheds some light on the sombre mood of “Dover Beach.” Although an exact date of composition cannot be determined, the circumstances in “Dover Beach” and some manuscript materials suggest that Arnold wrote the poem in the summer of 1851. In early June of that summer, he married Fanny Lucy Wightman, nicknamed “Flu,” and the newlyweds honeymooned for a short while at Dover. Winning Flu’s hand in marriage had not been easy; Flu was always willing, but her father was not impressed by Arnold’s resume. Arnold was ambitious and aspired to be a great writer, but after graduating from Oxford in 1844, he had never held a particularly remunerative job, and his success as a poet had been minimal. Because of Wightman’s disapproval, Arnold was forced to break up with Flu in August of 1850. Largely to regain her, he accepted the post of Inspector of Schools in April of 1851. It was a steady, respectable position (that Arnold held for the rest of his life), but surely Arnold felt that he had compromised his poetical ambitions, despite his genuine love for Flu and the joy in their marriage. He was at a turning point in his life, looking back and ahead.
Thus as “Dover Beach” opens, we find Arnold at a moment of deep uncertainty, in a period of transition between a former life with fading ambitions and a new life with new responsibilities. His situation is reminiscent of Wordsworth’s in “Tintern Abbey”: his mind and sentiments interact with the scene before him; he hears an “eternal note of sadness,” echoing perhaps the “still sad music” of Wordsworth’s lyric; and he appeals to his “love” Flu much as Wordsworth had to his “Friend” Dorothy. It is interesting to note that Wordsworth had been friend and neighbor to Arnold’s family. As a child, Arnold had emulated the venerable old poet, writing poems in imitation of his. In an 1873 selection of Wordsworth’s verse, Arnold paid tribute to his predecessor, but asserted—significantly—that Wordsworth wrote during a more innocent period of history than he. With this statement in mind, we can almost imagine that “Dover Beach” reinterprets “Tintern Abbey.” The desperate undertones of Wordsworth’s final stanza are manifest in Arnold’s lyric. Whereas Wordsworth’s anxieties find some solace in “Tintern Abbey,” Arnold’s melancholy only intensifies as the poem reaches its conclusion. He is unable to claim, as Wordsworth had, that the nature will never betray one who loves her.
Notwithstanding its biographical origins, the setting of “Dover Beach” seems especially appropriate for a poem about doubt and uncertainty. Arnold stands at a window, and he invites his “love” to observe with him a “long line of spray/ Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land.” Both the window and the shoreline are edges or boundaries—threshold spaces between two things. Arnold and Flu occupy one threshold, literally, as they stand by the window and another, figuratively, as they begin married life. The crucial sound of the poem—the “grating roar/ Of pebbles” that puts Arnold in mind of human misery—emanates from the second threshold, a place neither completely at sea nor completely on land. Consider why Arnold might have chosen these “thresholds” as the setting for his poem. When you are in doubt about something, you’ve almost lost one set of beliefs, but you haven’t yet found another to replace them. Likewise, when you’re in transit, you’re between two possible destinations, the one you’ve left and the one you’re headed for. Notice how even the form of “Dover Beach” seems to be in flux. The lines of the poem do rhyme, but sporadically; the first eight, for example, are rhymed “abacdbdc.” Arnold makes use of meter as well, but the meter is irregular and thus constantly changing. “Dover Beach” is neither free nor strictly formal verse. Its form appears, shifts, and disappears, much like the lines that the waves make on a beach and like the faith that Arnold laments.
Although troubled and uncertain, “Dover Beach” is also mysteriously quiet and slow. Listen to the first lines: “The sea is calm tonight./ The tide is full, the moon lies fair/ Upon the straits.” The lines are intentionally noiseless. Matter-of-fact and sparse, they appeal primarily to sight and are almost like a prose description. Simple, unadorned statements such as “sea is calm” and “tide is full” remind us of prose; with these statements, Arnold attempts to let the fact of the scene express its beauty. But “the moon lies fair” is decidedly poetical; moreover, with each pause—at the period, comma, and line break—the description picks up momentum and rhythm. While he keeps poetical embellishment to a minimum, Arnold is moved by the peaceful beauty of what he sees. And in the first of two direct addresses to his “love,” he joyously bids her to join him and breath the “sweet ... night-air.”
Immediately, however, he pulls back; the word “only” signifies another transition and another hesitation. The tranquility of this opening scene and Arnold’s fleeting pleasure in it are marred by a disturbing noise. Notice the contrast between the action of the moon which “lies fair” and that of the pebbles and waves in Arnold’s second address to Flu: “Listen! you hear the grating roar/ Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling/ At their return, up the high strand.” The waves violently “fling” the pebbles, which then “roar” as they roll back down the rocky shore, only to be flung again. This constant, monotonous flinging and roaring resonates in the consonance and caesura of the line “Begin, and cease, and then again begin” (note the repeated “n” and “g” and the periodic pauses). Sound shatters the illusion of tranquility that was set forth in the first lines.
While Arnold’s perspective on Dover beach is influenced in part by his personal dilemmas, the poet maintains that he hears in the sounds of the withdrawing tide a metaphor for England’s spiritual state. In stanza two, Arnold draws an analogy between the once full, but now receding tide and what he calls the “Sea of Faith.” Recall that Arnold wrote this lyric in 1851. For nearly two decades the Church of England had been torn by debates between the “Tractarians” and the “Broad Church school” about religious creed and practice. (Matthew Arnold’s father and godfather were key players in the debate.) More important, scientific discoveries, especially in the burgeoning fields of geology and evolutionary biology, had caused many to question Biblical accounts of the creation of humans. In the England of 1851, many people, Arnold among them, were witnessing the dissolution of the religious institutions and ideas that had given meaning and order to their world. As the “Sea of Faith” recedes, Arnold suggests, we are left only with the harsh, overpowering sea that he watches at Dover. Faith, like the light that “gleams and is gone” in the first stanza, is being extinguished.
The roar of the sea returns with a vengeance at the end of stanza two. And staring ahead at a world he now considers hopeless—a place with “neither joy, nor love, nor light,/Nor certitude, nor peace nor help for pain”—Arnold again addresses Flu. Their only source for these important things the world will not offer is faith in each other. It’s a desperate hope and a sentimental ending to an occasionally brutally realistic vision of life without faith. Arnold does not imply, however, that he and Flu can shut out the “eternal note of sadness.” Indeed, there is a hint of despair in the very structure of the poem’s last lines. A terrifying image of life as a battle between “ignorant armies” in the night is conveyed in rhymed couplets, the most basic form of English rhyme and the most traditional resolution to poems in English. It is an odd juxtaposition, for the order of the couplets cannot compensate for the chaos of the images within them. Arnold and his “love”—like all people—will be swept in the tides of confusion, misunderstanding, and ignorance. Their solace is that they will suffer together, faithfully.
Source: Derek Furr, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1997.
Lance St. John Butler
Butler discusses the ways this poem is typical of Victorian poetry.
“In a manner quite typical of Victorian modes of writing ‘Dover Beach’ moves from the convincingly realistic to the absolutely symbolic while hardly appearing to shift gear.”
“Dover Beach,” perhaps Matthew Arnold’s best-known poem, was composed well before its publication in his 1867 volume New Poems, possibly as early as 1851. It is the fullest expression of its author’s religious doubt and a classic text of Victorian anxiety in the face of lost faith. It is not coincidental that it was probably written soon after the publication of that epic of Victorian doubt, Tennyson’s In Memoriam of 1850, and contemporaneously with the agnostic poetry of Arnold’s friend Arthur Hugh Clough. It can usefully be set alongside Arnold’s “Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse,” also from the 1867 volume, in which the poet characterises himself and his generation as “Wandering between two worlds, / One dead, the other powerless to be born.”
In “Dover Beach” the dead world evoked is that of medieval Christendom when the sea of faith lay round “earth’s shore” like the folded garment in a medieval picture (“like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d”). That was a snug and safe world in contrast to the present, the “here” where the ignorant armies clash. In his later work on the possibility of a renewed Christianity (St. Paul and Protestantism of 1870 or Literature and Dogma of 1873 for instance) Arnold will say something about the new world and how it might be born, but in “Dover Beach” the only bulwark against lost faith is love.
The poem opens with the peace that can be shared with a loved one: “Come to the window, sweet is the night air!” All is idyllic until we reach the words that describe the sea: “grating roar,” “suck” and “fling” are not entirely peaceful in tone. The note struck is softened in the lines that follow but it is picked up again in the “sadness” of the last line of this first stanza.
In a manner quite typical of Victorian modes of writing “Dover Beach” moves from the convincingly realistic to the absolutely symbolic while hardly appearing to shift gear. Thus this is the beach at Dover; we hear the sounds of the Channel and feel the summer evening; over on the French side we can see the lighthouse. Yet all this leads into quite other and larger considerations—for the noise of the waves reminds Arnold that Sophocles wrote about the sea in the early days of western civilisation and it made him think of “human misery.” So the present poet, too, thinks of the misery that is his own. Why, on a lovely night with his “love” beside him, should he be miserable? His answer is that it is “a thought” that destroys his peace of mind: “we / Find also in the sound a thought, / Hearing it by this distant northern sea.” For the problem is intellectual, too much thinking has undermined the deep security needed for the full enjoyment of a scene such as this.
We have to adopt some such reading as this of the word “thought” if the poem is not to seem strangely broken-backed between the second and third stanzas. Careful reading will show that strictly there is no point of definite connection between the two halves of the poem beyond the general notion of waves on the shore, yet we make the connection easily enough: the sea reminds Arnold of Sophocles on sadness, it also provides him with an image (one of his favourite kind concerning water) for the loss of faith, that fundamentally intellectual problem of Arnold’s time. Instead of, say, welcoming the new intellectual liberation of the times, it is the old security that he laments. The rhetoric of the poem rises to a new level in the third stanza. The rather soft, slow cadences of the first two stanzas are replaced by a prophetic, elegiac music: the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” sounds marvellously apt for the tide going out (on a rougher night than this) but is, of course, applied to the waning of the beautiful certainties of faith. Suddenly, we notice, it has become winter—the sea “roars,” the night wind blows, the beach no longer offers us “pebbles” or the “cadence slow” of little waves but becomes instead the “vast,” “drear,” and “naked” “edges” and “shingles” of the entire world.
Once the style has risen to these heights Arnold launches into an exhortation and a bitter aside which are quite at variance with the poem’s opening. No mention has been made of infidelity yet the plea is for the lover’s truth. The poem has been about the sea and yet now the poet looks landward where, as when the quiet channel conjured up a terrible roar, an apparently beautiful new land is in reality (“really”) devoid of joy, love, light, and other good things including, notably, certitude. What has been lost are hope, charity, and, above all, faith. The poem ends with the powerful, louring image of the “darkling plain” and the “ignorant armies” clashing by night. Victorian melancholy strikes no gloomier note.
Source: Lance St. John Butler, “Dover Beach,” in Reference Guide to English Literature, 2nd edition, Vol. 3, edited by D. L. Kirkpatrick, St. James Press, 1991 pp.1553–54.
In the following excerpt, Dickey offers his interpretation of “Dover Beach” and the ways in which it can be considered the “first modern poem.”
“In the sound of waves rolling pebbles, an eternal senseless motion, unignorable and meaningless, Arnold hears—as we ever afterwards must hear—human sadness, the tears of things.”
[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]
[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]
Source: James Dickey, “Arnold: ‘Dover Beach.’” in Babel to Byzantium: Poets and Poetry Now, Grosset & Dunlap, 1971, pp. 235-38.
Allott, Miriam, “Matthew Arnold: ‘All One and Continuous,’” in The Victorian Experience: The Poets, edited by Richard A. Levine, Ohio University Press, 1982, pp. 67-93.
Darwin, Charles, The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, D. Appleton and Company, 1892.
Darwin, Charles The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, edited by Francis Darwin, D. Appleton, 1896.
Dickey, James, “Arnold: ‘Dover Beach,’ “in Babel to Byzantium: Poets and Poetry Now, Grosset & Dunlap, 1971, pp. 235-38.
Drew, Philip, “Matthew Arnold and the Passage of Time: A Study of “The Scholar-Gipsy’ and ‘Thyrsis,’” in The Major Victorian Poets: Reconsiderations, edited by Isobel Armstrong, Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd., 1969, pp. 199-224.
Mermin, Dorothy, “Arnold,” in The Audience in the Poem: Five Victorian Poets, Rutgers University Press, 1983, pp. 83-108.
Swinburne, Algernon Charles, “Mr. Arnold’s New Poems,” in The Fortnightly Review, October 1, 1867, pp. 414–45.
Altick, Richard D., Victorian People and Ideas, New York: Norton, 1973.
This is an overview of Victorian culture and history, presented thematically as a companion to the literature of the age.
Neiman, Fraser, Matthew Arnold, New York: Twain, 1968.
A brief biography of Arnold with textual analysis of his work.
Trilling, Lionel, Matthew Arnold, New York: Columbia University Press, 1949.
Still the seminal study of Arnold’s life and work.