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 September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 548
The poem represents a particular sense of dissatisfaction and confusion which arose during the Victorian period, a time when 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. Arnold’s speaker views this as a descent into metaphorical darkness. With Christianity serving as a guiding, all-encompassing light for so long, the Enlightenment is a major shift in a different direction for the speaker.
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 very same constantness of the sea can be interpreted as a grating, unending cycle of melancholy. It is dependent upon the interpretation. In the same vein, humanity will always carry on. Though it may be unrecognizable to the speaker to live in a world where Christianity does not dictate all societal progress, the human race will withstand these upheavals. Even though the speaker worries about the impending darkness, he seems to expect adaptation (however difficult).
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. This love is enduring and grounding, and it is enough to withstand a world that is rapidly shifting around the speaker.