Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold

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Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” was published in 1867. This was during the Victorian era, when the world was shifting from one with a basic belief in Christian traditions to one based on the impersonal world of Darwin and other 19th century scientists. The poem is about how there is a conflict between religion and science and how the world is losing faith in God and how the only things that can fill the void that faith once filled is loyalty, comfort, and love.

Dover Beach

BY MATTHEW ARNOLD

The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanch’d land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Agean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Analysis of Arnold’s “Dover Beach”

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Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” published in 1867, is about how the world is losing faith in God, and how love, comfort, and loyalty are the only things that can fill the void that faith once filled.

Arnold was known for finding darkness in the light. So, the poem is generally melancholic.  In the beginning, the speaker makes it clear that only a slight attention given to details will reveal something pessimistic. Even on “calm” nights, there is “misery.” He believes that there is a constant and “eternal” serious tone to life. Furthermore, the use of waves as a symbol of life’s miseries indicates that one is never free of life’s struggles, because there is always a wave of misery waiting.

The speaker possibly compares himself to Sophocles, and reiterates the thought that human misery is “eternal” by pointing out that him and his lover are not the first ones to experience these emotions, because they are universal just as human sadness is. The speaker further is reminiscent of a time in human history when there was more faith than misery. We wonder has he and his lover experienced a break in faith that has caused him to be thinking this way?

But it appears that he really is relying on the relationship to sustain him throughout his life. There is loyalty in the relationship.  However, it does appear that he is more worried about society in general. The tone of the poem is gloomily reflective. Arnold conveys that perseverance requires love to be true in the face of eternal struggles and sadness.

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