A dramatic monologue is a poem that is dramatic because there are at least two people in its setting, as if it is a play. It is a monologue because only one person speaks, addressing another, who remains silent throughout (if the other person answered, the poem would become a dialogue).
We know this is a dramatic monologue because the speaker addresses someone else. Since the setting is the beach at Dover where Arnold spent his honeymoon in 1851, it is often understood that the listener is the speaker's bride.
Early on, the speaker beckons his beloved to stand by him at the window and view the sea with him, addressing her by saying:
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Later, the speaker says to his companion:
Listen! you hear the grating roar ...
Finally, the speaker concretizes that he is speaking to his beloved by addressing her as "love":
Ah, love, let us be trueTo one another!
In addressing his beloved, the speaker sets the scene, describing the sea lit by moonlight. The setting is tranquil and yet sad as the surf pounds the pebbles over and over again.
In the following two stanzas, the speaker mentions that Sophocles, in ancient Greece, also found a sadness or melancholy in the sound of the sea. Now, however, that sadness is amplified because the "Sea of Faith" that upheld past ages seems to the speaker to be receding.
In the final stanza, the speaker asks his beloved to stay "true" to him. He says they must cling together because the modern world is such an uncertain place.
This is a famous poem because it expresses Victorian anxiety about progress, depicting a world that is being shaken by new theories, such as Darwinism.
A dramatic monologue is a poem in which the speech of a single character in a single scene makes up the entirety of the poem. The speaker may be addressing someone else, but only the person delivering the monologue speaks. The focus of a dramatic monologue is to reveal something about the speaker's inner character. It may also be used to express the speaker's point of view, which the poet may or may not share.
The poem "Dover Beach" by Matthew Arnold fits the definition of a dramatic monologue in that the entire poem is expressed by one speaker. The monologue takes place in one location. It is expressed ostensibly to a companion—possibly the speaker's lover—but the companion's presence is only implied by the speaker, and the companion never speaks.
The speaker uses the occasion to express his views about the world, which fits the description of a dramatic monologue. Although the sea is calm and the moon lies upon the straits, the speaker hears "the eternal note of sadness" in the sound of the waves. He compares this to similar sounds that the Ancients heard. He declares that, once, faith gave brightness to the world, but now faith and the world's brightness are fading. He pleads with his companion that they should be true to each other, because to him the world is full of darkness, confusion, struggle, and grief.
A dramatic monologue is one that gives us an insight into the speaker's thoughts. Dover Beach is an extended meditation by Arnold on the status of religion in mid-Victorian society, but his thoughts are fragmented, diffuse, and not altogether coherent. This places Arnold's thoughts, though expressed in poetic language, on the same level as our own. When most people think, they don't do so in neat, polished sentences, and Arnold is no different.
Arnold's ruminations are also brought down to earth by their close connection to his immediate natural environment: in this case, a shingle beach at night. It's instructive that Arnold chooses to express his thoughts not through a traditional poetic structure but by using an experimental form. It's as if he's floating a potentially dangerous idea, one with truly alarming repercussions, which the usual rhythms, rhymes, and stanzaic forms of classical poetry are inadequate to contain.
Arnold's use of dramatic monologue represents a complete symbiosis of form and substance. This means that the experimental nature of the poem's construction is directly reflected in the air of uncertainty and apprehension conveyed by the lyrics. The light, both natural and artificial, has gone out, leaving us shrouded in darkness. At the start of the poem, the moon provided us with solace, but it no longer does so. Now nature is no more a source of beauty, but a metaphor for a darkening world from which the old uncertainties of the Christian faith are slowly retreating.
Arnold's gloomy prognosis hints at profound implications for poetry too. Perhaps poetry in its more traditional forms is no longer able to give voice to modern man's inner voice, a voice increasingly skeptical and uncertain. As the subject of the poem changes so too must its means of expression. After Dover Beach, dramatic monologue in English language poetry was destined never to be the same again.
Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" is a dramatic monologue because the poet is addressing a silent audience. The effect is of one person directly addressing another, while the reader listens in. For example, tradition has it that Arnold composed "Dover Beach" during his honeymoon, and that the silent audience is his bride. This differentiates the dramatic monologue from the soliloquy, in which the speaker only addresses himself. Hamlet, for instance, when brooding about suicide, does so before an audience, but really he is alone with his thoughts. Arnold writes, "Listen! you hear the grating roar," etc., and by this and other means implies that he is not alone, and is passionately unburdening himself to another party.