What happens in Dover Beach?

In "Dover Beach," poet Matthew Arnold writes about the effect science has had on religion. Not long before the poem's publication, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, in which he documented his studies on evolution. Arnold's poem is read as a record of the clash between science and religion.

  • The poem opens on a naturalistic scene. The speaker stands on the cliffs of Dover Beach, gazing out at the majesty of nature.

  • Sadness creeps in, and the speaker is reminded of how recent scientific discoveries (like that of evolution) have forever changed how we think about nature and, thus, our place in it. This brings science and faith into conflict.

  • The poem ends on a dark note, stating that there is no joy or love or light and that all the theology and scientific theory in the world can't make life meaningful if there is no love.

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Summary

“Dover Beach” is a poem by the English poet Matthew Arnold, written in 1851 and expressing the Victorian uncertainty that came from changing attitudes towards science and God. The speaker stands on the titular beach and describes the “calm” sea and the pebbled shore. The night air is “sweet,” but he is conscious of a note of sadness being brought in by the tide. He implores his love,

Listen! You hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling . . .

This sound—that of the waves’ movement up and down the beach, a movement they “Begin, and cease, and then again begin”—serves to connect the physical environment to some “eternal note of sadness.”

The speaker connects this sound to a similar one heard by the playwright Sophocles, whose tragedies are some of the few to survive from ancient Greece to the present day. In this, Arnold suggests that the thoughts the sound inspires—of “the turbid ebb and flow / Of human misery”—are something common to all peoples in all times. This sound is particularly keen now because the “Sea of Faith” which once wrapped around the earth “like the folds of a bright girdle” is now beginning to ebb away. This sea represents a trust in religion and its institutions that has been eroded by a host of changes in the nineteenth century, from the long reverberations of secular Enlightenment thought to the impacts of global imperialism and the Industrial Revolution. Because of the ebb of this “Sea of Faith,” the speaker notes, the “eternal note of sadness” has become impossible to ignore:

. . . now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating . . . down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

In the poem’s final stanza, the speaker suggests to his love that, because faith has begun to recede in this way and has revealed the irrevocable note of sadness religion used to cover up, they have only love to provide meaning:

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world . . .
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain . . .

The world, which once seemed full of “dreams” and possibility, has actually revealed itself to lack all the beautiful things it seemed to hold; there is nothing in it to prevent our sorrow. Instead, we find ourselves on “a darkling plain,” “ignorant armies” clashing with each other in a metaphorical darkness born of uncertainty and our fear of what life really means—or doesn’t mean.

Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” is a poem set near Dover, along the southeast coast of England, where Arnold and his new wife spent their honeymoon in 1851. It is believed that the poet wrote the early draft of “Dover Beach” while here, overlooking the English Channel toward the coast of France, about twenty-six miles away. Arnold and his wife are often considered the models for the speaker and listener in the poem, although any young man and woman could represent the two figures in the tale, caught in a moment of their early lives.

“Dover Beach” is most often classified as a dramatic monologue , a...

(The entire section is 1,848 words.)