Introduction

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Whether it’s your first or hundredth time, “Dover Beach” has been a mainstay of English classrooms for generations. While the poem has its challenges—unfamiliar language, a deeply mournful view of human life—teaching this text to your class will be rewarding for both you and your students. Studying “Dover Beach” will give them unique insight into the form of the lyric poem; the styles and concerns of Matthew Arnold; and important themes surrounding religion, human suffering, and the social and intellectual changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution. This guide highlights some of the most salient aspects of the text before you begin teaching.

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Facts at a Glance

  • Publication Date: 1867
  • Recommended Grade Levels: 9th and up
  • Approximate Word Count: 260
  • Author: Matthew Arnold
  • Country of Origin: England
  • Genre: Lyric Poetry
  • Literary Period: Victorian
  • Conflict: Person vs. Society
  • Narration: First-Person
  • Setting: Dover, Kent, Southeast England
  • Dominant Literary Devices: Irregular Blank Verse, Imagery
  • Tone: Uneasy, Mournful, Pensive

Texts That Go Well With “Dover Beach”

“Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1751), by Thomas Gray, is a meditative lyric poem that was likely inspired by the death of poet Richard West in 1742. Like “Dover Beach,” “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” employs mournful, pensive language to ponder the human condition which, for Gray, requires a confrontation with death. 

Fahrenheit 451 (1953), by Ray Bradbury, is a dystopian novel about a future American society wherein books are forbidden and destroyed. Like “Dover Beach,” Fahrenheit 451 touches on themes such as the discomfort of uncertainty and the inherent suffering of humankind. The similarities between the two texts are further emphasized by protagonist Guy Montag’s dramatic reading of “Dover Beach” to his wife and her friends. 

“The Lady of Shalott” (1833-42), by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, is a lyrical ballad inspired by both Arthurian legend and Edmund Spenser’s epic ballad The Faerie Queen. The poem portrays a young woman locked in a tower. She is cursed and unable to look directly outside; she must instead see the world through a mirror that reflects images of Camelot, which she weaves into a tapestry. Like “Dover Beach,” “The Lady of Shalott” harnesses idyllic natural imagery to explore contemporary social problems. While “Dover Beach” tackles society’s shift away from religion, “The Lady of Shalott” concerns the relationship of artist to environment and the problem of isolation. 

“The Nineteenth Century and After” (1929), by William Butler Yeats, directly responds to Arnold’s lament in “Dover Beach.” Rather than indulging in mournful pessimism about the future, Yeats’s four-line poem insists that, while “the great song return no more,” humankind must find “keen delight in what we have.” While “The Nineteenth Century and After” is much shorter and simpler than “Dover Beach,” it incorporates some of Arnold’s auditory and visual imagery. 

“The World is Too Much With Us” (1807), by William Wordsworth, is a sonnet that mourns humankind’s move away from nature. “Dover Beach” contains many similarities to Wordsworth’s verse in general, especially in its natural imagery and its dismay about the effects of modernization. However, though “Dover Beach” is concerned about a cultural shift away from religious faith, “The World is Too Much With Us” emphasizes the hazards of detaching from the natural world.

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History of the Text