The prose work of Matthew Arnold, addressed to a more general audience, attempts to suggest to those of his day some relatively public, institutional substitute for the loss of the unifying faith that men once shared, most notably what Arnold called “Culture.” Arnold’s poetry, however, is more personal and ultimately less assured. Virtually all of Arnold’s poetry is the record of his personal search for calm, for objectivity, for somewhere firm to stand.
As a broad generalization, the poem presents the common opposition between appearance and reality; the appearance is the opening six lines, which turn out to be a dream, while the reality of life, which the poet accepts, is the desolate beach and the confused battlefield. The poem also presents the eternal conflict between the wisdom of the heart and the wisdom of the head. The heart is attracted by the pleasant appearance of the view from the window, but the head is forced to take heed of the eternal sound of the surf, which says something entirely different. It is notable in the poem that the poet does not make a clear choice between the two; in fact, he accepts that the world is the way his reason tells him. The problem is how to reconcile these apparently irreconcilable forces. The answer given, tentatively, is that perhaps true love between two people can somehow supply meaning in a world that is still filled with confusion and struggle.
In “Dover Beach,” Arnold is doing two things: chronicling and lamenting the loss of faith and seeking a substitute, here the possibility of human love for another individual. (In other poems, Arnold suggested other substitutes.) Arnold firmly believed that Christianity was dead. His reason and his knowledge and investigation of such mid-Victorian intellectual trends as the Higher Criticism of the Bible and quasi-historical concerns about the historical Jesus had convinced him that a reasonable man could no longer believe in Christianity. Yet Arnold’s heart and instincts told him, not that Christianity ought to survive, but that humankind desires and indeed must have something in which to believe in order to truly live, to be truly human. Humankind wants something which can give force and meaning to life, which the modern world with its science and commercialism cannot supply. Arnold’s best-known expression of this problem is in “Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse,” where he finds himself “Wandering between two worlds, one dead,/ The other powerless to be born.” The dead world is Christianity, the world powerless to be born is the modern world with its deceptive attractions.
Though on one level one may call “Dover Beach” a love poem, the possibility that human love and communication can somehow make the loss of faith and certitude bearable (because it will not make the world go away) is really given short shrift. The images of sadness, melancholy, and desolation dominate the poem, while the possibility of love gets no more than two short lines. Even those two lines are overwhelmed by the emotional impact and vividness of the final image. The effect of the poem would seem to emphasize that the possibility of love is tentative at best, while the poet cannot seem to purge from his consciousness his horrifying vision of human life.