Download Dover Beach Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Dover Beach Themes

Religious Uncertainty

This represents a particular sense of dissatisfaction and confusion which arose during the Victorian period, as science and the Enlightenment began to diminish the Christian faith which had previously been almost universal in the nation. The speaker in the poem laments the loss of the “Sea of Faith” which once wrapped around the nation and protected it, metaphorically, from the “clash” which now seems to be the result of human uncertainty and ignorance. The “ignorant armies” at the end of the poem represent people who no longer have the “certitude” they once had: they are arguing with each other, but have no real guidance. They are simply fighting with each other with no real aims in the metaphorical dark.

Human Continuity

Arnold emphasizes this by referring to the Greek dramatist Sophocles hearing the same note of “misery” on the Aegean, many thousands of years ago. Arnold is indicating that people have always been, at heart, the same: people long for certainty and, without it, suffer terribly and will always try to pinpoint some kind of certainty and hope of joy in their lives. The sea is used metaphorically to represent this continuity. It indicates—through its endlessness, repetitive movement, and sameness—a bridge between the speaker and the ancients. The sea can either be protective, as when full of faith, or can represent a boundary between groups of people, cutting them off from one another.

The Consolations of Love

Despite the isolation Arnold describes on a larger scale—that of groups of people, “ignorant armies” rather than individuals—his speaker seems to find and profess comfort in the existence of love. Part of the poem may even have been written during or just after Arnold’s own honeymoon in 1851, though its dates of composition are contested. Regardless, the poem’s sense of another person, which is clear from the imperative “Listen!” and individual address to “you” in its first stanza, gives Arnold’s speaker a witness, someone to hold his descriptions of what he feels and sees. This love serves as an individual consolation even in the wastes of contemporaneous Britain’s failures of faith. In another direct address, the speaker cries out at the beginning of the poem’s last stanza:

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another!

—and he affirms that “we are here” in the world, despite the desolation of the “darkling plain” on which they stand, the plural pronoun offering some small solace even in that darkness.

Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The prose work of Matthew Arnold, addressed to a more general audience, attempts to suggest to those of his day some relatively public, institutional substitute for the loss of the unifying faith that men once shared, most notably what Arnold called “Culture.” Arnold’s poetry, however, is more personal and ultimately less assured. Virtually all of Arnold’s poetry is the record of his personal search for calm, for objectivity, for somewhere firm to stand.

As a broad generalization, the poem presents the common opposition between appearance and reality; the appearance is the opening six lines, which turn out to be a dream, while the reality of life, which the poet accepts, is the desolate beach and the confused battlefield. The poem also presents the eternal conflict between the wisdom of the heart and the wisdom of the head. The heart is attracted by the pleasant appearance of the view from the window, but the head is forced to take heed of the eternal sound of the surf, which says something entirely different. It is notable in the poem that the poet does not make a clear choice between the two; in fact, he accepts that the world is the way his reason tells him. The problem is how to reconcile these apparently irreconcilable forces. The answer given, tentatively, is that perhaps true love...

(The entire section is 956 words.)