What is the meaning of the poem "Dover Beach" by Matthew Arnold?

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perfectsilence's profile pic

perfectsilence | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Assistant Educator

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Like most poetry, a multitude of meanings can be pulled from the lines of Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach."  However, one of the most intriguing perspectives has to do with the meanings that can be connected to the geographical locale that Arnold uses for his extended metaphor.  

In the poem, the narrator looks out from a window of a house on the cliffs of Dover, toward the European continent.  The narrator mentions that "Upon the straits; on the French coast the light/ Gleams and is gone" (3-4).  Here Arnold references some sort of light, which can easily be taken as a metaphor for the light of knowledge or truth.  In this way the narrator is referencing the idea that there are no new ideas coming from Europe; the light has "gone out," leaving

[...] 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. (9-14)

Ideas have run out; there is only sadness at the loss of possibility and lack of ingenuity.  The middle two stanzas develop this lament, first referencing the same feelings felt by Sophocles, and then moving to a focus on the connection between the loss of light and the loss of Faith.  Words like "melancholy" and "retreating" show up in the third stanza, as it appears that Faith, too, is absent from this newly barren world.

Finally, Matthew Arnold allows for the return of hope in the final stanza, via an impassioned plea for a new light, a new truth, a new faith.  Shifting from a lament for the loss of the light once drawn from other places, the narrator issues a call for action:

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. (29-37)
In a world that has gone dark, Matthew Arnold suggests that light can still be found through a true connection to those we love.  We simply need to focus on love, and one another, and work together to continue to light our way through a darkening world.

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epollock | (Level 3) Valedictorian

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“Dover Beach” is Arnold’s best-known poem, for many reasons, not the least of which is the powerful conclusion. Arnold may have perceived a loss of absolute religious faith in his time, and hence he stressed the need for an intensive search to recover absolutes. “Dover Beach” reflects the loss of faith, while at the same time it stresses the need for integrity. Arnold’s speaker is unnamed. He most likely is an educated, thoughtful person, fully attuned to the intellectual (and particularly the religious) currents of the time. The speech begins as a kind of soliloquy, but by the middle of the first stanza the speaker is addressing another person, someone dear enough to be called “love” in the last stanza.

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