Dover Beach Themes
The main themes in “Dover Beach” are religious uncertainty, human continuity, and the consolations of love.
- Religious uncertainty: In the Victorian period, religious belief waned as a result of scientific discovery and the progress of modernity. “Dover Beach” laments this loss and wonders where people can find meaning.
- Human continuity: The poem emphasizes the durability of human emotions, particularly suffering and the wish for certainty.
- The consolations of love: Though “Dover Beach” is, on the whole, a dark poem, its speaker seems to feel some small consolation in the presence of another person—the “love” he addresses in the last stanza.
Last Updated on April 29, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 414
The poem 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 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.
Arnold emphasizes the continuity of the human condition 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.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 545
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 between two people can somehow supply meaning in a world that is still filled with confusion and struggle.
In “Dover Beach,” Arnold is doing two things: chronicling and lamenting the loss of faith and seeking a substitute, here the possibility of human love for another individual. (In other poems, Arnold suggested other substitutes.) Arnold firmly believed that Christianity was dead. His reason and his knowledge and investigation of such mid-Victorian intellectual trends as the Higher Criticism of the Bible and quasi-historical concerns about the historical Jesus had convinced him that a reasonable man could no longer believe in Christianity. Yet Arnold’s heart and instincts told him, not that Christianity ought to survive, but that humankind desires and indeed must have something in which to believe in order to truly live, to be truly human. Humankind wants something which can give force and meaning to life, which the modern world with its science and commercialism cannot supply. Arnold’s best-known expression of this problem is in “Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse,” where he finds himself “Wandering between two worlds, one dead,/ The other powerless to be born.” The dead world is Christianity, the world powerless to be born is the modern world with its deceptive attractions.
Though on one level one may call “Dover Beach” a love poem, the possibility that human love and communication can somehow make the loss of faith and certitude bearable (because it will not make the world go away) is really given short shrift. The images of sadness, melancholy, and desolation dominate the poem, while the possibility of love gets no more than two short lines. Even those two lines are overwhelmed by the emotional impact and vividness of the final image. The effect of the poem would seem to emphasize that the possibility of love is tentative at best, while the poet cannot seem to purge from his consciousness his horrifying vision of human life.
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