Dover Beach Analysis
by Matthew Arnold

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Dover Beach Analysis

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: 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 seemingly in the dark, unguided by any clear lights.

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. 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.

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 metaphorical. 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.

The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 1,621 words.)