The Poem

“Dover Beach” is a dramatic monologue of thirty-seven lines, divided into four unequal sections or “paragraphs” of fourteen, six, eight, and nine lines. In the title, “Beach” is more significant than “Dover,” for it points at the controlling image of the poem.

On a pleasant evening, the poet and his love are apparently in a room with a window affording a view of the straits of Dover on the southeast coast of England, perhaps in an inn. The poet looks out toward the French coast, some twenty-six miles away, and is attracted by the calm and serenity of the scene: the quiet sea, the moon, the blinking French lighthouse, the glimmering reflections of the famous white cliffs of Dover. He calls his love to the window to enjoy the scene and the sweet night air; there is one element out of tune with the peaceful scene, however, and the speaker strongly urges his love to “Listen!” to the rasping sound from the shingle beach as the waves, flowing in and out, drag the loose pebbles back and forth. This repetitive sound underlies the otherwise peaceful scene like background music and suggests to the speaker some unspecified, unrelenting sadness. To this point (line 14), the poem has been essentially straightforward description.

In the second section, the speaker (presumably grounded in the classics as Matthew Arnold was) is reminded that the Greek tragic dramatist Sophocles had heard the same sound in the Aegean and it had suggested to him the turbid ebb and flow of human suffering, which had been the dominant subject of his plays. (The precise passage referred to in Sophocles is obscure; several have been suggested.) The poet and his companion—or perhaps the “we” of line 18 is more generalized—are also reminded by the sound of a related but somewhat different thought.

Like the sea, Faith (principally Christianity) once girded the world, like an attractive, bright-colored scarf tightly binding all together. Now, however, the sea of faith is receding; the power of religion to give unity and meaning is waning, leaving behind only the chill wind whistling over the desolate beach. The imagery of the last four lines of this section indicates that the loss of faith is not simply unfortunate but also results in a great sense of emptiness and sterility.

In the final section, the poet turns from the troubling scene to his love, almost in desperation, seeking to find some meaning and stability in a world that is otherwise a void, and cries out for them to be true to each other, because in the vision of the poet, there is nothing else possible to give meaning to life. The world, which is apparently beautiful and new (recalling the opening six lines), is in fact not so. The world can offer none of the promises it makes: joy, love, light, certitude, peace, help for pain. What the world is really like is a battlefield at night where soldiers rush about, pursuing and firing at shadows, unable to tell friend from foe; it is a dark plain “Where ignorant armies clash by night.” This famous final image of the confused battle was probably inspired by Thucydides’ description of the battle of Epipolae in Historia tou Peloponnesiacou polemou (431-404 b.c.e.; History of the Peloponnesian War, 1550).

Forms and Devices

Though a dramatic monologue, “Dover Beach,” Arnold’s most famous poem, has notable meditative and lyric elements. The poem makes no particular attempt to follow the clipped, elliptical, semi-conversational style of the more realistic monologues of Robert Browning, but rather presents a more meditative poem, dominated by three extended images that not only carry the meaning of the poem but also provide much of the emotional and imaginative impact.

The first image mixes sight and sound and occupies the entire first section of the poem. The poet begins with a broad general view from the horizon, coming closer to that which is in the forefront of his view, the sea meeting the moon-blanched land, whence comes the disturbing sound. The deceptive calm of the opening lines is undercut by the grating surf on the beach. The deliberately plain opening, a common poetic practice in Arnold, emphasizes nouns and verbs and their emotional impact. It is only in the fourteenth line, with the mention of “an eternal note of sadness,” that there is any indication that the reader will be exposed to anything more than a simple description, that in view of what follows one shall have to reorient oneself to the significance of the initial description.

The second dominant image in the poem is in lines 25 through 28, expressing the emotional impact of the loss of faith. The individual words add up—melancholy, withdrawing, retreating, vast, drear, naked—re-creating the melancholy sound of the sea withdrawing, leaving behind only a barren and rocky shore, dreary and empty. These images, emphasizing the condition after faith has left, present a void, an emptiness, almost creating a shudder in the reader; it is perhaps a more horrifying image than even the battlefield image with which the poem closes.

The last important extended image closes the poem; it is a very common practice for Arnold to supply such closing, summarizing images in an attempt to say metaphorically what he perhaps cannot express directly. (Such closings are to be clearly seen in “The Scholar-Gipsy,” “Sohrab and Rustum,” “Tristram and Iseult,” “Rugby Chapel,” and others.) The calm of the opening lines is deceptive, a dream. Underneath or behind is the reality of life—a confused struggle, no light, nothing to distinguish good from evil, friend from foe; it is the result of the thought suggested by the sound of the surf. The poem makes clear that one is not viewing this battlefield as from a distance; one is in the middle of the fight.

Arnold reinforces the impact of these images with an often subtle but evocative use of sound and syntax. The convoluted syntax of lines 7 through 14, coming as it does after the plain statements of the opening, reflects not only the actual repetitive sound of the scene but perhaps also the confusion and lack of certainty in the poet’s own mind. The first fourteen lines may well also suggest a sonnet, since this gives certain appearances that it is a love poem. While the rhyme scheme and line length do not conform to the sonnet tradition, the poem is divided into octave and sestet by the turn at the first word of the ninth line, “Listen!” As if to further emphasize this line, which begins with “Listen!” and ends with “roar,” it is the only line in the whole poem that does not rhyme.


Further Reading

Allott, Kenneth, and Miriam Allott. “Arnold the Poet: Narrative and Dramatic Poems.” In Matthew Arnold, edited by Kenneth Allott. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1976. A useful introduction to Arnold’s narrative and dramatic poems by Arnold specialists.

Buckler, William E. On the Poetry of Matthew Arnold. New York: New York University Press, 1982. Buckler presents his well-regarded reading of Arnold’s poetry.

Caldwell, Lisa. “Truncating Coleridgean Conversation and the Re-Visioning of ’Dover Beach.’” Victorian Poetry 45, no. 4 (Winter, 2007): 429-445. Caldwell examines Arnold’s “Dover Beach” in the context of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s conversation poems.

Clausson, Nils. “Arnold’s Coleridgean Conversation Poem: ’Dover Beach’ and ’The Eolian Harp.’” Papers on Language and Literature 44, no. 3 (Summer, 2008): 276-304. Clausson discusses Arnold’s artistic debt to poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Gollin, Richard M. “’Dover Beach’: The Background of Its Imagery.” English Studies 48 (1968): 493-511. Gollin examines the unity of “Dover Beach,” which, he argues, is based in rich imagery.

Roberts, Robin. “Matthew Arnold’s ’Dover Beach,’ Gender, and Science Fiction.” Extrapolation 33, no. 3 (Fall, 1992): 245-257. Explores how Arnold’s “Dover Beach” has inspired science-fiction writers, arguing, too, that the persona’s situation in Arnold’s poem is reminiscent of an extraterrestrial world.