Dover Beach Questions and Answers
by Matthew Arnold

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What literary techniques are utilized in "Dover Beach," and how are they used?

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Arnold's "Dover Beach" is one of the land mark poems of English Literature, written by a man who was more well-known as a critic of literature than a poet. The poem was written in 1851, and published 16 years later.

The Techniques used in DB are both poetic and thematic. The thematic, first.

You will see that what seems to have triggered off Arnold to write it, is a very moving scenery in Dover, on the south coast of England, some twenty miles from France. Arnold was there with his wife, but the proximity to Frace and the immediate prospect of going there probably reminded her of a lloong love affair he had with a French girl, Marguerite, whom Arnold was never to see again.

So, on this night, by the window in a house on Dover Beach, Arnold starts the poem by describing the sea "The  English Channel," bashing on to the beach, taking the sand and pebbles with it, churning and spinning them, and receding again to the darkness. "This tremulous cadence, slow..." makes him feel rather sad. Could he be thinking of his French lover? He asks his wife to join him by the window, and watch the eternal tide of the sea at night.

"Sophocles heard it long ago..." the beginning of the second stanza says. Why the reference to Sophocles, the classical Greek dramatist, who had perhaps witnessed a similar sight by the Aegean Sea? The next stanza would reveal.

To the English of the 1850s, England was the Great Empire, inheritor of Greek, and later Roman, supremacy. Arnold is perhaps bemoaning the thought that civilizations, once great, get so caught up in power and empire building that they forget ordinary humanity. Like the dark sea in the first stanza, empires suck in everything, then spits them out. It may make a lovely scene of natural beauty, but a devastating one when brute strength, enormous wealth and military power are involved: "ignorant armies clash by night."

So what should we do in the face of such gloomy future of the world, the world which has seen the fall of the Greeks and the Romans (and will no doubt see the fall of the English Empire)? What shall we do?

"Ah love, Let us be true to one another!" says Arnold to his wife. In this world where ordinary people have little control over nature and the affairs of state, let us in our own private way tary to make world, a better place.

Notice, though, that despite the positive value of love, Arnold cannot maintain the positive tone. The poem ends with a sequence of very depressing visions. The earth is still beautiful; but there is "no joy, no light, nor love/Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain."

(Incidentally, this feeling of pain comes out brilliantly in Leonard Bernstein's conducting of Be(http://www.classicalarchives.comethoven's 9th Symphony. If you get a chance, do listen to it! )

The poetic technique Arnold's uses is what I call an "eclectic rhyme scheme," i.e., rhyming only when he feels the rhyme is needed for a shift in poetic effect, otherwise not.

Random as such a rhyme scheme is, it is not easy to do, because the poet is constantly off-setting meaning with rhyme. The first and the third lines rhyme, like in many poems, but then the next rhymed line is four lines away! "The tide is full, the moon lies fair (2)...Come to the window, sweet is the night's air. (6)."

The invitation to his wife to join him to partake of the beautiful scenery is rhymed perhaps because there is a new rhythm in a man's invitation to a woman, from the metronomic rhythm of the sea. The mood changes.


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Arnold's elegiac poem, Dover Beach begins with a naturalistic description of the Dover nightscape, and the description is vivid because of the meticulousness of the visual and auditory images: the 'calm' sea; the moon 'lying fair' on the straits; the light gleaming on the French coast and then disappearing; the 'long line of spray' all along the 'moon-blanched' beach; the harsh frictional music--'grating roar'--of pebbles in the waves moving to and fro.

This descriptive technique producing visuals along with a sound-track gives place to a technique of historicist dynamic of remembering the ancient Greek playwright, Sophocles, listening to the 'eternal note of sadness', then from the Classical past moving forward to medieval Europe when 'the Sea of Faith/Was..too, at the full, and round earth's shore/Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled', and then returning to the contemporary Industrial England suffering from faithlessness due to the retreating motion of the 'Sea of Faith' from the shores of human habitation.

Arnold's use of symbolism is manifest in the image of the retreating 'Sea of Faith', and the evocation of an atmosphere of foul, cold, inclement nocturnal darkness.

In the final verse of the poem, Arnold's allusion to a passage in Thucydides's account of the Peloponnesian War is yet another interesting use of the historicist technique. The closing simile of a 'darkling plain' where 'ignorant armies clash by night' is reminiscent of Thucydides's description of a similar battle on a beach during the invasion of Sicily by the Athenians.

This is how Arnold builds the descriptive-contemplative discourse with the help of Imagery, Sybolism, Allusion, and a curious Historicist dynamic.