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....

(The entire section contains 3 answers and 1,218 words.)

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