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What is the poem "Dover Beach" about?

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pavanvellanki | Student, Undergraduate | eNotes Newbie

Posted August 31, 2009 at 12:27 AM via web

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What is the poem "Dover Beach" about?

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Noelle Thompson | High School Teacher | eNotes Employee

Posted August 31, 2009 at 3:21 AM (Answer #1)

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Using vivid images of the sea to do so, Matthew Arnold writes his poem about a world bereft of all beauty, truth, and optimism.  In fact, there is only one positive stanza in this poem:  the first one.  This first discusses the positive images of the ocean where the “sea is calm” and the “moon lies fair” and the “tide is full.”  This is where the happy images end, however, because the second stanza refers to all of the negative sea images with its “moon-blanched land” and its “grating roar” and its “tremulous cadence.”  The negativity continues with the third stanza where the negative aspect of the sea even pervades the past, specifically during Sophocles time where it continued to affect the “turbid ebb and flow / Of human misery.” 

Of course, the importance of the poem stands in the two metaphorical stanzas at the end.  Stanza four, that focuses on the "Sea of Faith" is very intent on its pessimism.  Where there was faith in the speaker's mind, now there is nothing.

Now I only hear / Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, / Retreating, to the breath / Of the night wind, down the vast edges dream / And naked shingles of the world.

Finally, as the speaker begs for lovers to remain true, sadness stands paramount yet again in one of the bleakest statements in the poem.  The world that once seemed beautiful and new is now bereft of beauty and happiness.

[The world] 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.

"Dover Beach" is obviously not a poem to cultivate happiness within the reader.  What is interesting, however, is Arnold’s ability to allow the sea images to pervade his poem whether it is in the midst of happiness (of the first stanza) or of misery (of the rest of the poem).  Arnold is certainly a master of imagery!

Noelle Thompson

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smithysmit4 | Student | eNoter

Posted September 13, 2010 at 6:14 PM (Answer #2)

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Dover Beach is a poem that Matthew Arnold supposedly wrote on his honeymoon, with his wife.

His main message is 'challenges to the validity (correctness) of long standing theological and moral concepts have shaken the faith of people in god and religion.' What this means is because of the recent questioning of religion, people have lost faith in god. According to Arnorld this is because of the recent(when arnold was alive) Darwanism(charles darwins theory on man) and the industrial revolution.

Matthew Arnold believes that because of this loss in faith, humanity will begin to turn on themselves. The last few lines in the poem ("darkling plain... ignorant armies clash by night) shows how people are turning on one another out of confusion. It refers to a battle long ago at night time, where the armies became so disorientated that they started attacking their own men. Arnorld links this to humanity and says the 'dark' is really beacuse of the lack of faith.

Arnold uses a metaphor throughout the poem: "the sea of faith" which represents the faith in humanity. Arnold says that the sea "was once at the full and round earth's shore" (ie. there was a lot of it around the world) and that "it lay like folds of girdle furled" (ie. it was inseperable from us). However he says that now he hears it's, "withdrawing roar" and that it is "retreating."

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