Dover Beach Questions and Answers
by Matthew Arnold

Dover Beach book cover
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How is "Dover Beach" a lament for humanity in the face of modernity and progress ?

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"Dover Beach" pairs vivid romantic descriptions of the beach with intense declarations of sadness and loss of faith. The poem is centered on thresholds: the straits between England and France, the beach as the threshold between land and sea, the window as the threshold of a building, and so on. All of these prime the imagery of the poem to evoke change, which is fitting, as Arnold is reflecting on industrialization and the the way in which the British Empire has developed.

The tide, a central image of the poem, also evokes change. While the first stanza begins with grand romantic imagery and an invitation to a lover to come watch the sea together, it takes a turn, starting to describe the sea as a symbol of despair.

In the second stanza, Arnold begins shifting the temporal focus of the poem, noting the way in which the sea was a tragic symbol to the ancient Greek playwright Sophocles. Arnold notes that there is a common, eternal kind of shared misery in the sea, but suggests that what it means in his time is different than what it meant to Sophocles, setting up the third stanza:

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Here, Arnold lays out that what he sees in the sea is loss of faith. This can easily be read both as a loss of religious faith and a more general loss of faith in the world, his country, and so on. As England witnessed the brutality of industrialization destroying the environment and crushing the poor and workers in the name of advancement, as religious faith began to fade in the face of modernity, and as the harm caused by British imperialism became more and more obvious, it's easy to understand this loss of faith. Lacking this kind of faith, the sea goes from a beautiful, mystical place to something terrible. Positioning the faith/the sea as a girdle (i.e., a belt), removing it leaves the world naked. Having lost its magic, it suggests evil and terror.

In the last stanza, Arnold gives us a note of hope, suggesting that despite the lack of truth or anything we can rely on in the world, we have the ability to be true to each other.

Ultimately, "Dover Beach" reads as a poem of disillusionment and of abandoning naive ideas of a basically good world or of England as a righteous place and recognizing that Arnold lives in a world "where ignorant armies clash by night." People have room to love and find beauty in places, but they are keenly aware of the world as a place full of evil, terror, and false promises.

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