In Matthew Arnold's poem "Dover Beach", where does the poem begin to move from a personal experience to a meditation on timeless and universal issues?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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In Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach,” the moment at which the poem begins to change from depicting a private, personal experience (a visit to the ocean) to become a meditation on much larger, more universal matters, seems to occur in line 14, with the reference to “The eternal note of sadness.” The mere fact that the sadness is described as “eternal” implies that it is not peculiar to this particular speaker. It is not a reflection of his own, private psychology. It is instead a sadness that has been felt many times before, by many other people in various other cultures and circumstances.  The fact that a stanza break occurs after line 14 is another indication that the speaker wants to give that line special emphasis. The first fourteen lines of the poem, in fact, might be read as a kind of ironic sonnet. Many sonnets have celebrated love and joy; the fourteenth line in this poem, however, emphasizes sadness and loneliness.

After line 14 the poem is no longer focused merely on Dover Beach. Instead, the poem becomes far more universal in its concerns. Much of the rest of the poem also mentions enduring human emotions.  Thus, in lines 17-18, the speaker mentions

the turbid ebb and flow

Of human misery

The misery here is not personal or confined to any person, people, place, or time; it is human, universal misery.

In the next stanza, the speaker is meditating on the withdrawal of “The Sea of Faith” (21). Once again, then, the focus is no longer personal or private; once again the focus is much broader and much more impersonal.  The shift to this kind of emphasis begins in line 14.

Something extra: Although this poem claims that it deals with universal emotions, it is ironically a work that invites attention from the perspective of biographical criticism. Since Matthew Arnold writes so very many melancholy poems, and since not all poets of his era were so consistently melancholy (Robert Browning is a good example), a biographical and/or psychoanalytical critic might be tempted to wonder why Arnold's outlooks seems so consistently, persistently bleak. Arnold's complex relationship with his father might be territory worth exploring, as might even more private matters. In any case, the "universal" emphasis of this poem might be read, partly, as an effort by Arnold to deflect attention from his own personal moods and makeup.


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