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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 540

Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" is an expression of a particular kind of unease and religious uncertainty that arose during the mid-Victorian period, a reaction to the loss of faith that was happening in line with the rise of science. This was the time of Darwin and discussions of human evolution. Creationism was no longer the sole belief about the origin of humankind. The "Sea of Faith" which had once seemed to girdle Britain so firmly was beginning to "ebb away," and this left many, like Arnold's speaker, feeling that the world around them was now no longer one of "certitude." As people began to turn away from a near-universal Christian faith, they seem lost, "ignorant armies" who clash with each other in the dark, unguided by any clear lights. These masses appear to be arguing blindly without any basis of belief. Secularity, as it becomes widespread, is like the “grating” movement of the sea, upturning the pebbles upon the shoreline in a ceaseless cycle. It is important to note that Arnold’s speaker does not call on his audience to return to the old ways of Christianity. Instead, he merely recognizes the change in the world with some fear and a simultaneous understanding that life will change as it has before.

Arnold uses a rhyme scheme and meter which seems to reflect his preoccupations. He uses iambic pentameter, which suggests a desperation to cling to recognized forms, but the rhyme scheme itself is variable, as are the line and stanza lengths. It is as if the poet is trying to reassert old forms and structures in a place where they seem no longer to fit. He himself does not stick to the strict pattern of the form. Likewise, he makes a classical allusion, referencing the Greek dramatist Sophocles, but this serves only to indicate that the "misery" he is feeling now is one that stretches across the ages—Sophocles, too, heard the note of sadness in the sea, and struggled to turn it into "certitude," with little success. These feelings are as ancient as the sea, and as the greats of Greek literature. In this sense, the speaker’s experience is part of the larger story of human change. Society and its guiding principles must change, otherwise, everything in the world would remain stagnant. Though the speaker is clearly mourning the sunset of Christianity as overarching guidance, he seems to recognize that this is a tale as old as time.

The sea in this poem is used to great effect. It is both literal, a boundary between England and the far-off French coast, and symbolic. Once, the "Sea of Faith" seemed to protect the island nation. Now, the sea simply represents a continuous home for human sadness and misery, transmitting the same sounds of confusion and ignorance across nations and generations. Arnold's speaker can find no solace or hope of consolation other than to cling more closely to his lover, the only certain thing now in his world. This is particularly interesting because the sea itself has not changed, merely the speaker’s interpretation of it. The ebb and flow of the waves is now “grating” in his eyes, though the process of the tide likely hasn’t been altered.

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