Dover Beach Questions and Answers
by Matthew Arnold

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What is the theme of "Dover Beach" by Matthew Arnold?

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One of the interesting ways to unpack the theme of Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" (1851) is to pay close attention to its last stanza, which is reminiscent of another longer, iconic poem. That would be John Milton's epic Paradise Lost (1667). Paradise Lost describes the fall of Satan and his vengeful temptation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Paradise. After Satan attempts to revolt against God, he and other rebel angels are cast away into a dreary, bleak space while God creates Paradise for man. Here is an extract of Satan's jealous speech at being cast off and alienated (emphasis mine):

while I to Hell am thrust,
Where neither joy nor love, but fierce desire,
Among our other torments not the least,
Still unfulfilled, with pain of longing pines. (emphasis added)

Compare the extract with the following lines from "Dover Beach":

for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
And we are here as on a darkling plain.
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night. (emphasis added)

Not only does Arnold exactly reproduce Satan's phrase, "neither joy nor love," he also uses the word "darkling," which was first popularized by Milton in Paradise Lost. Furthermore, the space Satan and the rebel angels fell into is described as a "dreary plain" in Paradise Lost, much like Arnold's "darkling plain." The "confused alarms of struggle and flight" and "ignorant armies" clashing by night are both an allusion to the pointless wars human beings periodically start and to Satan's bedraggled, misguided forces of chaos. The chief difference here is that in "Dover Beach," the modern world itself is turned into a hellscape, reminding one of Satan's famous lines from Paradise Lost:

The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.

Like Satan was cast away from God, the modern world has been alienated from faith. Arnold's restlessness is contextual: the poem was written in the latter half of the Victorian era. Science, rationalism, and industrialization had edged out religion as the most dominant force in popular imagination. Never before in history had people been so untethered from faith and community, as we can see in these lines:

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.

Note the contrast of wholesome words like "full," "round," and "bright" used to build the poem's faith-imagery, with the bleak terms describing faith's retreat: "melancholy," "drear," and "naked." Religion and faith, even when blind, offered a structure to define one's place in the world; in the absence of these values, the poet feels an existentialist crisis. Faith gave human life a purpose, an afterlife, and a parent-like God, and now there's nothing but the vast empty knowledge that we are alone, doomed, and orphaned.

However, there is one critical difference between the world of Paradise Lost and "Dover Beach." While Satan is irredeemable, the speaker of "Dover beach" still has the redemptive power of love, as he tells his beloved:

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another!

It is human love and human compassion that must see them through this new altered world, and in his avowal of love, Arnold paradoxically creates a poem of faith even while lamenting the loss of religion. Therefore, I would argue the poem's themes are not just uncertainty and alienation (as is often inferred) but also faith and redemption. Just like the world can be a hellscape, love can create the paradise within.

This interpretation is particularly befitting, as Arnold intended "Dover Beach" as a honeymoon poem dedicated to his new bride. The push-pull between faith and hopelessness is evident in the poem's imagery, which cycles between romantic and despondent moods. While "the sea is calm tonight, / The tide is full, the moon lies fair / Upon the straits", the tide also retreats to reveal naked shingles. For now, the promise of love offers a glimmer of hope—Arnold seems to be saying—but just about.

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The theme of "Dover Beach" is one that Matthew Arnold repeats in many of his works. Arnold's controlling idea in this poem is that of people's isolation and alienation from nature and one another, as well as the loss of religious faith.

The setting of the poem, the Straits of Dover, are strikingly beautiful, like "a land of dreams." But, the poet perceives in this setting a figurative reflection of the sad reality of life; that is, the "ebb and flow/ of human misery" is universal. Added to this "human misery," there is a loss of faith. Arnold bemoans that this "Sea of Faith" which once surrounded the country is now only a "melancholy, long withdrawing roar" that "retreats to the breath/Of the night wind." 

"Dover Beach" evinces Matthew Arnold's preoccupation with moral and social issues. He found the industrialized society of England to be increasingly materialistic and self-serving. In his dramatic monologue, "Dover Beach," which is made even more dramatic by the presence of a silent audience, Arnold employs settings of the sea and mountaintops to draw together meaning and point to enduring truths about life. For one thing, he senses the isolation of men from one another in this newly industrialized world. He urges his beloved, " . . . let us be true/to one another" so that their love may act as a bulwark against the "confused alarms of struggle and fight" that result in a world in which man isolates himself from God and nature.

Further Reading:

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Central to understanding this poem is recognising that through it Arnold is lamenting the loss of faith or culture in his society and painting a picture of a world that, as a result of this loss of faith, is full of cruelty, uncertainty and violence.

Note how the sea imagery develops this theme. Reference to the "Sea of Faith" and its gradual withdrawal from the coast indicates that Arnold considers its loss is a negative occurrence:

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...

Note how the sound the Sea of Faith makes as it withdraws is described as "melancholy" and that as it leaves it exposes the "naked shingles of the world," leaving the world exposed, vulnerable and open to wounding.

The final stanza describes Arnold's view of this new world that is marked by its absence of Faith. This world, although it may appear to be "like a land of dreams," actually is not. Instead it:

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain...

As a result, Arnold imagines that he and his beloved are on a "darkling plain" only listening to the sounds of "ignorant armies" clashing by night. In such a world, love is the only consolation that can be found, and therefore, the speaker urges his lover and himself to "be true to one another."