Dover Beach By Matthew Arnold: Summary, Critical Analysis, Questions and Theme

Summary and Analysis of “Dover Beach” (1867)

Introduction to the Poem: The poem “Dover Beach” was published in 1867. The poet has expressed pessimism in this poem. The world is full of misery. Even the Greek poet Sophocles sang it. But in olden times men had faith and love for each other, but that they have now lost and instead fight with each other. The poet is reminded of it by ebb and flow of the sea at the Dover beach.

Summary of Dover Beach

One night, the speaker of “a Beach” sits with a woman inside a house, looking out over the English Channel near the town of Dover. On the coast of France, they see the lights just twenty miles away, and the ocean is calm and peaceful.

When the light over in France suddenly extinguishes, the speaker focuses on the English side, which remains tranquil. He trades visual imagery for aural imagery, describing the “grating roar” of the pebbles being pulled out by the waves. He finishes the first stanza by calling the music of the world an “eternal note of sadness.”

The next stanza flashes back to ancient Greece, where Sophocles heard this same sound on the Aegean Sea and was inspired by it to write his plays about human misery.

Stanza three presents the primary metaphor of the poem, with “The Sea of Faith / Was once too, at the full, and round earth’s shore.” The phrase indicates that faith fads from society just as the tide is from the shore. Through melancholy diction, the speaker laments this decrease of belief.

In the final stanza, the speaker directly addresses his beloved who sits next to him, asking that they always be true to one another and to the world that is laid out before them. He warns, however, that the world’s beauty is only an illusion, since it is, in fact, a battlefield full of people fighting in absolute darkness.

Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold

Summary in Points

  • In the first stanza, the poet sees the calm sea in full tide at the Dover beach.
  • In the second stanza, the roar of the ebbing sea strikes a note of sadness in his mind.
  • In the third stanza, he says that Sophocles was reminded of human misery as he heard the roar of the sea-waves at the Greek coast.
  • In the fourth stanza, the poet talks, that once the sea of faith girdled this earth, but it is now retreating.

This strategy may have been particularly attractive to Arnold, for the views of his speaker are diametrically opposed to his own education and upbringing. Matthew was six years old when he was moved into the Rugby School after his clergyman father Thomas Arnold became its headmaster or principal. As headmaster, Thomas Arnold gained a reputation for educational reform, based on his commitment to the high seriousness of making students aware of the moral as well as the social issues that would make them responsible citizens.

“Dover Beach” has often been read as a kind of seismological record of the shock waves in traditional religion brought about by the New Science in the mid-nineteenth century. The geology of Charles Lyell and others was forcing Europeans and Americans to rethink how life began on the planet. Lyell’s discoveries of fossils dating back more than one million years were making it increasingly difficult to accept the traditional notion in the book of Genesis that the world is the work of a creator a mere six or seven thousand years ago. By 1851, when “Dover Beach” was probably written, Charles Darwin, Alfred Russell Wallace, and other scientists had already theorized the essentials of evolution, but it would take Darwin another eight years to publish his findings. Even then, Darwin published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859) only at the urging of his friends, who warned him that others would publish first if he did not set aside his concerns for the devastating moral and spiritual consequences of challenging the traditional story of how life began. It is probably no coincidence that Arnold himself postponed the publication of “Dover Beach” until 1867.
The poem begins with a naturalistic scene, clearly within the Romantic tradition established by William Wordsworth. Like Wordsworth, Arnold understands the elegance and power of simple language: “The sea is calm tonight./ The tide is full, the moon lies fair/ Upon the straits.” As often noted, the first stanza contains fourteen lines and the second and third stanzas have six and eight lines, respectively, suggesting the sonnet form, but without its more complicated meter and rhyme systems. From its initial visual images, the first stanza and the subsequent two stanzas move toward the dominance of auditory images. The shift is justified by the obviously limited opportunity to see, even with moonlight, but also by the strong impact of the waves breaking on the beach. By the first stanza’s end, the persona, or speaker, has established the poem’s central metaphor of the waves’ “tremulous cadence slow” to represent an “eternal note of sadness.” Additionally, a mere five lines into the poem, the voice has introduced a listener in the scene—telling the reader to “Come to the window”—setting up a tension: Who is the listener? What will be the effect of the melancholy poetic statement on that listener?

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This “eternal note” draws the persona further from the directly visualized opening scene with its simple but strong language. The allusion to the ancient Greek tragic dramatist Sophocles offers a context for the speaker’s growing “sadness.” (Arnold was among one of the last generations for whom a classical education entailed learning ancient Greek and Latin to read the classics in their original languages.) The allusion also draws the poem into the more didactic strategy of a statement—asserting rather than implying meaning—and the deployment of something like allegory—a “Sea of Faith” once at its “flow” but now at its “ebb.” This third stanza also reveals evidence of the poet’s effort at elevating the language, producing the difficult opening lines in which that sea once “round earth’s shore/ Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled,” a choice of words guaranteed to confuse the modern reader. This “girdle” is appropriate to the classical context of Sophocles, but not to the modern world, where it denotes an article of intimate apparel. However, attempts of academics to clarify that meaning have distracted attention from the figurative logic of a sea as a “girdle,” or belt, as well as from the unfortunate combination of sounds in “girdle furled.” Another issue left unaddressed is the dominance of pessimism in the persona’s inability to attend to the logic of this “Sea of Faith”: Whatever ebbs will inevitably flow in the future.

The final stanza recalls the earlier reference to the listener—“Ah, love, let us be true/ To one another!”—to focus on the melancholy consequences of the weakening of faith. To the persona, and presumably the poet, the world truly is “a land of dreams,” pipe dreams with nothing to believe in, not just God and an afterlife but “joy,” “love,” and so on. This is Romantic love at its most radical. Without love between a man and a woman, the world is as confusing—and as lethal—as a night battle, fraught with friendly fire. In a sense, Arnold is announcing the big question for the modern world, intent on forcing love to bear the enormous weight of providing human lives with meaning: If love is all humans have, what do they do when they cannot find love, or keep it? It is a question that resonates through the novels, too, of Ernest Hemingway, such as in his A Farewell to Arms (1929), or in the contexts of wedding receptions, where some have to suppress the depressing thought, will this be one of every two marriages that end in divorce?

1. Theme :

Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’ captures beautifully the poet’s deep dissatisfaction with his age and its loss of faith. He puts for the idea that the root cause of the miseries of men in the modern world is lack of faith. This is an idea prevalent in both the prose and verse of Arnold.

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2. Expression :

The idea is expressed in the form of a beautiful metaphor. Humanity is presented as a sea-shore, faith as the sea. In the past ages, the heart of man was full of faith like a beach covered with sea-water at the time of the flow of the tide. Today the human heart is dry, like a beach at ebb-tide. Only the dry and soulless religious formulas, ceremonies and practices remain in it like pebbles on sea beach.

3. Naturalness :

This metaphor is sustained throughout the later part of the poem, except in the last three lines, where modern life is presented as a dark plain where a mad battle is on. The metaphor of the sea emerges naturally out of the poem in gradual degrees. Nothing is forced.
The poem has all the suggestiveness associated with great poetry.

4. Pictorial Power:

Apart from the idea that this poem puts forth, it is remarkable for the beautiful and effective picture of Dover Beach presented in it. With a few touches, the poet succeeds in presenting a picture of great beauty vivid and clear. The sound of the waves beating against the shore is also beautifully captured.

5. A Note of Sadness:

The poem has sad music about it sad like the slow, mournful beat of the waves described in it. It has that note of sadness and dissatisfaction that is so common in Arnold’s writings. All things considered, it is one of the most beautiful poems in the language – simple and suggestive weighed with a heavy sweetness, yet restrained in expression as well as the sentiment.

D.S. Tatke makes the following comment on this poem- then heightens the meaning in the next eight lines by using the images to express the last journey which everyone must make, so does Arnold in this poem build a beautiful picture of the calm sea and the moon-blanched shore and makes us aware of the fact that though from the distance the picture is so calm and peaceful yet those who live near enough always hear the grating roar of pebbles and the eternal note of sadness and then deepens the meaning by giving it a philosophic content.

6. Transition to Philosophic Meditation:

The transition to philosophic meditation comes in the second stanza. The third uses the image of the first stanza to express the present predicament – the loss of faith and the consequent gloom which is the most prominent note of Arnold’s poems. The fourth stanza is an appeal to a beloved woman to be true to each other for that alone can sustain them in this land of dreams whose reality is very different from its appearance.

7. Need for a Positive Faith:

The poem successfully expresses the fascination and the need Arnold felt for a positive faith and the reluctance with which he must accept the painful, unavoidable reality.

Note the perfect picture of the age with all its complexity in the last three lines of the poem –

“And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight

Where ignorant armies clash by night.”

His poems are marked by a restraint and, a conscious control. Neither excessively musical nor deliberately rugged the expression diction, imagery, rhythm – is marked by a perfect clearness, competence, and precision. He is far too meditative a poet to be lyrical. His best poetry is reflective, always burdened by thoughts of the predicament of his generation. In a letter written in 1869, Arnold claimed that his poems ‘represent the main movement of the mind of the last quarter of a century’.

‘Dover Beach’ is one of Arnold’s most famous poems. It is one of his most characteristic poems too. It has a sad tone and it expresses Arnold’s sorrow at the loss of faith in the modern

When we analyse the epithets used in the poem, we find that Arnold does not use colour epithets anywhere in this poem. Even in the first stanza where he describes the landscape, no colour epithet is used. But this deficiency does not in any way mar the literary merit of the poem. Arnold describes the landscape in a way that the reader is easily able to visualize the landscape and its varied colour. “On the French coast, the light / Gleams, and is gone.” We can very easily visualize the colour here. Where he speaks of the “moon-blanch’d sand” he makes us see the sandy place shining white in the moon-lit night without using colour epithet.

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Another way in which he makes up the deficiency of colour epithets is by making us hear the sound of the waves striking the shore and then returning. He says:

“Listen ! you hear the granting roar

Of pebbles which the waves such 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.”

He again says: “But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating to the beath

Of the night-wind down the vast edges drear

And naked shingles of the world.

Assessment Questions

Short Questions

1. What do you appreciate in this poem?
Answer: We appreciate the clarity of expression gravity, dignity of thought, proportion, and harmony.

2. When was the poem published?
Answer: The poem was published in 1867.

3. What does the poet express in the poem?
Answer: The poet has expressed pessimism in the poem.

4. What classic reference does the poem display?
Answer: Even the Greek poet Sophocles (classic) sang it.

5. What great lectures did the people of old age have?
Answer: They had faith and love for each other.

6. What is the poet reminded of in the poem Dover Beach?
Answer: The poet recalls the old age of faith and leaves by the ebb and flow of the sea which the modern man does not have.

7. What kind of faith does Arnold refer to?
Answer: Arnold has Religious faith.

8. Is Arnold a poet of Nature?
Answer: No, he is not a worshipper of nature like Wordsworth.

9. What does ‘Nature’ mean to Arnold?
Answer: To Arnold nature is quite indifferent to man. It is man’s love for each other that helps

Let Us Sum Up

1. By now you must have understood the poem and the poet’s intention of his creative impulse

2. Written in 1867.

3. A classical poem with a pessimistic or tragic appeal.

4. Compares the olden times modern times etc.

More Questions of Dover Beach” by Matther Arnold

1. Who is the speaker of this poem? Who is he talking to? What is their relationship?

The speaker of the poem is a young man. He is speaking to his love. The poem suggests that they are having a difficult relationship (“And we are here as on a darkling plain swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight”).

2. What is the relationship between the setting in stanza one and the description in stanza two of what Sophocles heard beside another sea?

In the first stanza, the sea is described as playing an “eternal note of sadness.” Similarly, the Aegean Sea brings misery to Sophocles’ mind. The relationship is that the sea is not a symbol of hope and independence, but rather of misery and of constraint.

3. What is the relationship of the first and second stanzas to the “Sea of Faith” described in stanza three?

The Sea of Faith, like the beaches and seas described in the first two stanzas, once was alive and present around the world. The difference is that the Sea of Faith represents hope and faith, while the new water represents misery.

4. The final stanza offers love as the solution for the problems that the speaker and his lover see in the world around them. Explain the meaning of love and its importance in this poem. Do you agree with Arnold’s idea? What does this poem suggest about love and the modern world?

Love, like the waters, is ever present, but also ever changing (ebbing and flowing). The speaker suggests that love is the solution since it is natural and unsought for. Love, too, is present. He urges his love to focus on the present calm, the present love, in hopes that it will lead to a bright future.

5. The poem’s concluding image calls to mind the chaotic night-battle at Epipolae when Athenian warriors, unable to see, killed friend and enemy alike. What, to the speaker, do the waters warn of?

The waters warn of humanity’s sad destiny by reminding him of the past.

Review Questions

1. Write a critical appreciation of the poem Dover Beach.

2. Who was Sophocles? How could he have heard in ancient Greece the same note of sadness in the sea as Arnold observed in Victorian England?

3. How are the ignorant armies, according to Arnold, clashing by night?

4. Where is the battle being fought?

5. Arnold employs no epithet of colour in Dover Beach. How does he make up for his deficiency?

6. What are the main characteristics of the Victorian Age to Which Matthew Arnold belonged?

7. What does the concluding stanza portray in the poem Dover Beach?

8. What kind of mental frame did Matthew Arnold have? Why ?.

9. Can you identify some chief pessimistic poets of the Victorian Age?

10. Write down the summary of the poem Dover Beach.

11. What were the circumstances that forced Arnold to criticize the modern man?

Note: For answers refer to the above notes.

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