Explore how the poets’ words create striking pictures of the world at night in "Amends" (by Adrienne Rich) and "Dover Beach" (by Matthew Arnold).
Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” and Adrienne Rich’s “Amends” both present striking pictures of night, although the ultimate moods, tones, and purposes of the two works seem significantly different.
Both poems describe a night-time sea coast. In both the moods at first seem “calm” (Arnold 1), but ultimately the tone of “Dover Beach” becomes quite agitated, whereas Rich’s poem remains consistently comforting. "Amends" is a meditation on the beauty of the night; "Dover Beach" ultimately uses night to symbolize far more disturbing kinds of darkness. In Arnold’s poem, an unidentified speaker addresses an unidentified partner; their love can provide some solace in a largely meaningless world. In Rich’s poem, an anonymous speaker addresses no one in particular. Rich’s work is more a tranquil celebration of approaching moonlight than it is an anguished meditation on gathering gloom.The moon appears briefly in Arnold’s poem but then vanishes, whereas in Rich’s poem moonlight becomes a growing, glowing presence.
Arnold begins by mentioning not only the evening “calm” (1), but also the moon's fairness (2), the vanishing light of a distant coast (3-4), the “Glimmering and vast” cliffs of Dover, England (4-5), and the loveliness of “the tranquil bay” (5). The night air seems “sweet” (6), and in the distance the “sea meets the moon-blanch’d land” (8). Up until this point, the two poems are strikingly similar, since both stress the beauty of the night.
Beginning in line 9, however, Arnold slowly begins to strip away all the peacefulness he has earlier associated with a night at the seashore. Now he begins to refer to the sea’s “grating roar” (9), the way it “fling[s]” pebbles (10), its movement with “tremulous cadence slow” (emphasis added; 13), and, most significantly, the presence of a metaphorical “eternal note of sadness” (14). Later the sea is associated, in an even darker way, with
. . . the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery . . . (17-18).
Finally, in the poem's famous concluding lines, the speaker associates the evening with
. . . a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night. (35-37)
In contrast, Rich’s presentation of nighttime is far more consistently optimistic and consoling. The speaker imagines looking up into a “cold apple-bough” and seeing
A white star, then another
Exploding out of the bark . . . (2-3)
Presumably this phrasing refers to literal stars appearing, one by one, among the bare branches of a tree that has long since shed its leaves. These opening lines signal the major pattern of movement in Rich’s whole poem – a pattern involving an ever-growing sense of appealing light and welcome illumination. The moon that briefly appeared and then disappeared in Arnold’s poem is the main and growing presence in Rich’s text as it slowly works its way up from the water, across the beach, and into a landscape dominated by evidence of human life. The moon seems active but unthreatening: the speaker emphasizes verbs to chart the movement of the growing light, but the mood is also of growing peace, growing harmony between humanity and nature. It is as if the moon is making “amends” for anything unpleasant that happened during the day. It is almost as if Rich set out to write a poem that would deliberately contrast with Arnold’s in many ways, including, most obviously, in the way it depicted night.