Dover Beach Theme

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

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accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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."

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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.