Is "Dover Beach" by Matthew Arnold pessimistic or optimistic?  Give reasons for your answer.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" begins with an optimistic tone, but the poem contains a volta, or turn, in which the imagery and tone become dark and pessimistic.

The poem is set in Dover, which is situated on the high cliffs overlooking the English channel. Most of the imagery in the first stanza is calm and optimistic. The speaker calls his lover to the window to witness the beauty of the "glimmering" cliffs. The night air is "sweet," he says, and "the moon lies fair."

Beneath this beautiful facade, however, the speaker notices "a grating roar." The speaker suddenly begins to hear "the eternal note of sadness" and "ebb and flow of human misery." This change is the result of people losing their faith, according to the speaker. Just as the vibrant and beautiful landscape in the first stanza gives way to the "grating roar," he experiences this lack of faith as a "melancholy, long, withdrawing roar."

In the third stanza, the speaker briefly tries to return to the more optimistic outlook of the first stanza. He calls for a commitment to fidelity and honesty in his relationship with his lover as a buffer against the stark realities of the world. The poem immediately becomes pessimistic again, however, and ends with the claim that the world "Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, / Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain."

While the poem appears at first to present an optimistic world view, a more negative or pessimistic view of the world continually seeps through.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

If you look closely at the directions that Arnold takes each image and thought in this poem, it shows itself to be pretty pessimistic.  It starts off with such a beautiful description of the night, a calm, serene oceanside view of the moon and sea, that the mood right off is one of beauty and tranquility:

"The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand;
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!"

This description is calm and beautiful, so one might think that Arnold is writing a pretty, placid reflection of his evening.  However, note closely how he takes this beautiful scene and tinges it with pessimism.  Right after the above lines, he brings in a contradicting conjunction.  He states, "Only," which indicates that he is admitting the beauty of the scene, but saying it would be more beautiful "if only" and then he describes the waves as a "grating roar" on the pebbles, and that the entire ocean itself brings "the eternal note of sadness in".  So, what to one person might seem a gorgeous, calm and uplifting ocean scene, Arnold sees as eternally sad and melancholy--definitely a pessimistic view.

From this point on, the entire poem is pretty pessimistic.  He believes that everyone who has ever seen this ocean tied it to misery.  Sophocles tied it to the "turbid ebb and flow of human misery".  Then, he states that he feels that faith, goodness and joy are leaving the world that he is in, that it is "retreating."

In the next stanza he attempts an optimistic thought as he pleas to his love that they need to "be true to one another," which is a nice thought, but he says that they need to because there is no "joy...love...light...certitude...peace...nor help" left in the world at all.  He even puts the image of him and his love being "true" to one another on a "darkling plain"; so, as they strive to bring goodness into the world, they are surrounded by darkness that keeps getting darker.  Overall, a pretty pessimistic poem, I would say.

I hope that those thoughts help a bit; good luck!

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team