Structure of the Text
Lyric Poetry in Victorian England: A lyric poem is a short poem that expresses the personal thoughts and emotions of a single speaker. Lyric poetry originated with the Greek lyric, a form of sung poetry that was typically accompanied by a lyre—the form’s namesake—and practiced by such poets as Sappho (610–570 BCE) and Bacchylides (516–451 BCE). The lyric poem appeared in medieval Europe through other forms such as Christian hymns and ballads. During the Renaissance, poets, including William Shakespeare (1564–1616) and John Milton (1608–1674), mastered a popular lyric form known as the sonnet. Elegies, odes, and dramatic monologues are also influential lyric forms.
Many types of lyric poetry follow a consistent structure or pattern. For example, the Shakespearean sonnet contains fourteen lines—three quatrains and a couplet—of iambic pentameter with an ABABCDCDEFEFGG rhyme scheme. The Keatsian ode consists of ten-line stanzas that follow an ABABCDECDE rhyme scheme. Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” by contrast, is more consistent in tone and theme than it is in structure. The text consists of four stanzas of fourteen, six, eight, and nine lines, respectively. It does not follow a consistent metrical pattern. Its feet are generally iambic, and its lines range from dimeter to pentameter.
Sophocles: In keeping with the classical proclivities of Victorian literature, “Dover Beach” features a major allusion to a literary and philosophical figure from the Greco-Roman era. The speaker of the poem imagines Sophocles (the famous tragedian of the 5th century BCE, whose works include Antigone and Oedipus Rex) standing beside the Aegean sea and hearing in it “the turbid ebb and flow / Of human misery.” Arnold’s allusion to Sophocles underscores the timeless dimension of human suffering, which Arnold refers to as “the eternal note of sadness.” Despite the cultural changes that give rise to the poem’s concerns, Arnold makes it clear that suffering and sorrow transcend the vicissitudes of history.