Dover Beach Summary

"Dover Beach" is a poem by Matthew Arnold about 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 have forever changed how humans relate to nature. This brings science and faith into conflict.
  • The poem states that all the theology and scientific theory in the world can't make life meaningful if there is no love.

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Last Updated November 3, 2023.

Introduction

“Dover Beach” is a poem by the English poet Matthew Arnold, written in 1851. The poem expresses the Victorian uncertainty that came from changing attitudes towards science and God (though this is not explicitly mentioned). The speaker stands on the titular beach and describes the sea and the pebbled shore, highlighting the notes of sadness there. 

Summary

The speaker begins by describing the sea. It is calm on this particular evening. The tide appears to be high and full, and the moon sits reflected in the straits. From the beach, the speaker can see the French coast. Dover Beach is situated where one can see the English Channel and the North Sea meet: the Strait of Dover. England’s famous cliffs stand in the light, and the speaker notes their vastness in the bay which is, in contrast, smooth and tranquil. In the sweetness of the night air, the narrator implores his lover to bear witness to the sound of the shore. He describes the “grating roar” of the pebbles being upheaved by the waves. The water repeats this process over and over again, upturning the pebbles and never ceasing. Here, the speaker brings in another element beyond the natural world around him. He notes that this ebb and flow of the tide evokes an “eternal note of sadness” that is constantly being recycled. 

Further on, the speaker reflects on Sophocles—an ancient Greek playwright—and his thoughts on human misery. According to Arnold’s speaker, Sophocles experienced the same cyclical sadness when he looked at the Aegean Sea. Though the two are in different locations at different times, they both experienced the melancholy of life when observing the waves crashing upon the shoreline.

The speaker recalls that the sea of faith was once full and expansive, touching all the shores of Earth like a girdle. It seems this is no longer the case: the speaker can only witness the sadness and retreat of this expansiveness. This a reference to religion and the ever-growing role of science in society. The wind of the night roars across the “naked shingles” of the world. No longer is the Earth clothed in the fullness of the sea; now it is bare and exposed to the wind. 

In the final stanza, the speaker addresses his love again. He tells his love that they should be true to one another. The world around them is dreamlike—exciting, yes, but also unpredictable. It is a confusing world; the speaker seems quite uncertain of what the future will be like. He worries there is no guarantee of love, joy, healing pain, or even peace. So, he and his love will commit to one another in authenticity so that they might brave this new terrain together. The poem ends on a rather ominous note: the speaker and his love (and perhaps others) are standing upon a “darkling” plain. He depicts alarming imagery, such as armies clashing as well as the presence of ignorance and confusion. The new world seems to be stress-inducing, though the poem ends before Arnold’s speaker may clarify why precisely that is. This metaphorical, incoming darkness is born of uncertainty and our fear of what life really means—or doesn’t mean—in changing times.

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